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Disowning Fukushima


All  policymaking about nuclear power — every cost/benefit analysis, every regulatory decision, every discussion about risk — is framed in some way by a quantitative reliability assessment. Such assessments are invested with all the authority that ‘science’ and ‘calculation’ wield over ‘mere judgement’. And given the irrefutably exorbitant costs (human, financial and environmental) of rector meltdowns, it is clear that policymakers would struggle rationalize nuclear energy without them.

So what happens when an event like Fukushima seems to undermine that authority? How do the many institutions vested in nuclear energy shore-up public faith in an assessment practice that appears to have failed? This is a question I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. Listen here for some broad thoughts, or follow here for the much more in-depth journal article (assuming you can navigate the paywall).

The Art of Hazard

In the time I have been exploring the debates around Chernobyl and Fukushima, I have often been surprised by the extent to which authoritative sources seem to frame their evidence in ways that minimize the appearance of danger. Occasionally, however, one cannot help but be a little awed by the artfulness involved.

Take, for example, the following map, which depicts the ‘Deposition of 137Cs [Caesium 137] throughout Europe as a result of the Chernobyl accident’:

 Map Image.

This map – originally created by the Russian Institute of Global Climate and Ecology (IGCE) but faithfully and prominently reproduced by the IAEA in their seminal (2005, also 2006a) 20-year report on “Chernobyl’s legacy” – is interesting and important in many ways.

The 2005 IAEA report has become the ‘go-to’ document for authoritative information about the accident’s health and environmental impacts. And although Caesium 137 was not the only radiological pollutant put out by the meltdown, it was the most significant. The map thus represents a central part of a narrative that is deeply implicated in our current energy policies and risk calculations.

Report Image

It is not the integrity of the data portrayed in this map that I will comment on here (although the data is interestingly contested,) but rather the presentation of that data: the map’s semiotics, the logic of its construction, and the relationship of both to the report that reproduced it.

Let’s begin with impressions. All images are subjective, of course, but at first glance the map might seem disturbing. Ominous red ink, with its connotations of danger, spreads deep into Western Europe. A band across the Scandinavia reflects the prevailing winds at the time of the accident, and a second ‘hotspot’ hovers over Austria. To me at least, the map suggests an ‘archipelago of hazard’ that links Ukraine and Belarus together with Austria and the Nordic states as partners in radiological hazard.

When understood in its proper context, however, the map’s connotations are far more reassuring.

To see why a map of radioactive fallout can be viewed as reassuring, it is necessary to look at the argument the IAEA report is making, and the charges to which it is responding. In 1995, with the 20-year anniversary of Chernobyl fast approaching, the accident was undoubtedly going to be in the news. This could have been a disaster for the nuclear industry. The IAEA’s official toll of ‘56 deaths’ simply wasn’t credible by then, and it was highly likely that the media would be seduced by the growing literature attesting to regional horrors and attributing mass deaths to the accident.

The IAEA report was an effort to get ahead of the story. Its (now widely circulated and highly trusted) figure of “no more than 4000 deaths due to Chernobyl” does not deny a legitimate ‘mortality crisis’ in the region but, unlike the critical literature, it resolutely refuses to attribute almost any of that crisis to the meltdown. Instead it attributes the well-documented plummet in the region’s life-expectancy to various exogenous factors. Many, the report suggests, are attributable to the socio-economic upheaval that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and affected the entire post-Soviet block. The more extreme mortality around the plant itself, meanwhile, it attributes to an irrational ‘nuclear fear’ driven by an alarmist media and an infrastructure of compensation. (It argues that when the international community designated the affected population as “victims” rather than “survivors,” people in the region were  led “…to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future” which, in turn “…led either to over cautious behavior and exaggerated health concerns, or to reckless conduct […] and unprotected promiscuous sexual activity” [IAEA 2005]).

As far the IAEA is concerned, in other words, the principal thing we have to fear from Chernobyl’s fallout is fear itself. The slightly bizarre (and subsequently ridiculed) charge of death-by-promiscuity was removed from the second edition of the report, but the rest still stands today. Chernobyl didn’t kill people directly, we are told, the Soviet Union killed them by collapsing, the media killed them with alarmist coverage, politicians killed them with compensation, and people killed themselves with their own irrationality.

The map is reassuring, at least from the nuclear industry’s perspective, because it appears to support this narrative. It suggests that Norway, Sweden, Finland and Austria were all subject to Chernobyl’s radiological fallout along with Belarus and Ukraine, yet we know that none of the Western European countries suffered a significant mortality crisis after the disaster. Their people faced some restrictions and economic hardships, to be sure. Certain ruminants such as reindeer (in Finland) and wild boar (in Germany and Austria) were kept from the food chain for many years, but there were no deaths or decreases in life-expectancy that were even remotely comparable to those in the East. In other words, the map suggests that the many deaths that some critics attribute to Chernobyl seem to align much more closely with social and political geography than they do with the geography of Chernobyl’s fallout. Its subtext, in essence, is that Chernobyl’s pollution was not so bad as to justify more than 4000 deaths.

But let’s look again; this time at the map’s key:

Scale Image

The numbers on either side represent different units of radiation: Becquerels (or kilo-becquerels per meter squared) on the left, and curies (per square kilometer) on the right. Both sides are equivalent so I will speak to the left as it is easier to follow.

Ignore the units for a moment, however, and instead look closely at the scale: the different segments, and the colors that represent them. Notice first that anything under 2 kBq/m2 is yellow, (nowhere escapes the palest hint of radioactive contamination). See next that the scale now goes from 2 to 10: a span of eight units, represented by a slightly deeper yellow. Then it goes from from 10 to 40: a span of 30 units, and a still deeper yellow. Pause here to note that there is now a change in ‘color’ rather than ‘hue,’ and we move from yellows to the more ominous shades of red. So the next segment, 40 to 185 kBq/m2 – now a span of 145 units – is light red. The penultimate segment, 185 to 1480 – a span of 1295 units (!) – is darker red. And the final segment, represented by the deepest red, begins at 1480 and has no upper boundary whatsoever.

Readers of the report can only speculate what the highest caesium concentrations might be. (Although a different IAEA report [IAEA 2006b] – one conducted concurrently with the ‘Chernobyl’s Legacy’ report but not formally considered in its conclusions – found that concentrations of 90Sr [Strontium, which is generally considered to be a less significant pollutant than caesium] “exceed 4000 kBq/m2 over large areas” around the site of the accident [IAEA 2006b: 3]).

And besides, what scale goes from 0 to 2, to 40, to 185, to 1480, to… infinity? It is not linear, clearly, but nor is it logarithmic. I have stared at this scale for a long time without discerning its scientific logic. My only conclusion is that its guiding logic is guided less by science than by an intention to deceive. Look again at the map. Notice that all the ‘red’ areas outside of Ukraine and Belarus fall into the 40-185 range: at least an entire order-of-magnitude lower than some of the levels in the areas around Chernobyl itself, even though the map’s coloring inclines us to equate them. The scale and its coloring, without necessarily lying, artfully occludes the fact that the levels of caesium pollution around Chernobyl were far higher than in other areas of Europe.

Now couple this realization (that pollution was far higher around the disaster) with the fact that other countries – including the UK, (which doesn’t even make it ‘into the red’ pollution wise, and is certainly no nuclear critic) – felt compelled to test and restrict the sale of livestock, at great expense, for decades after the accident to protect the health of its citizens. Understand also that Chernobyl sits at the heart of the Dnieper reservoir system: an agricultural floodplain – sometimes described as “the breadbasket of Russia” – where the former Soviet Union grew (grows) the vast majority of its grain (the distribution of which maps clearly onto political boundaries). And suddenly the stories of mass deaths and enormous health costs from Chernobyl become all the more plausible.

The IAEA is often viewed as an impartial voice on matters nuclear, but it is important to remember that the organization’s core mandate is the promotion of nuclear power. Some industries have paid lobbyists to defend their interests, others have entire divisions of the United Nations.

Works cited:

IAEA (2005) “The Chernobyl Forum 2003-2005: Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-economic Impacts. And Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine” Second revised version. Available online:

IAEA (2006a) “Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience: Report of the Chernobyl Forum Expert Group ‘Environment’”

IAEA (2006b) “Radiological Conditions in the Dnieper River Basin: Assessment by an international expert team and recommendations for an action plan” Radiological Assessment Report Series; International Atomic Energy Agency. Vienna.



Deterrence Ball

Deterrence Ball

US Strategic Command, the institutional owner and conductor of the American nuclear arsenal, gives out knick-knacks at its (semi)public events: pens, desk toys, lapel-pins – what Lynn Eden refers to as “tchotchke” and I prefer to think of as “swag”.

I learned this a few months ago, at “StratCom’s” annual ‘Deterrence Symposium’ in Omaha, Nebraska, where the senior suits and brass of the US nucleocracy gather to reassess and reaffirm their raison d’être.

These goodies appeal to me in a sardonic sort of way. To my mind, at least, their mundanity belies StratCom’s apocalyptic purpose, and testifies to the intellectual distance that nuclear interlocutors have created between themselves and their abysmal subject matter. I spent my breaks amassing a small arsenal of swag, most of which now adorns my apartment in Bristol.

Pride of place in the new collection is a ‘stress ball’ painted like a globe with StratCom’s logo on it: a miniature world you can hold in the palm of your hand and casually crush when you’re under pressure.

Anyone at the symposium in search of a metaphor would not have had to look far.

The ball reminds me of Weber’s misgivings about bureaucracies and their structural indifference to moral purpose. Deterrence and introspection have never been compatible. Omaha is littered with missile silos, each controlled by uniformed men and women who pack the kids off to school every morning and then report to their bunkers for duty, fully prepared to end the world should duty require. The organization to which they report hands out branded stationary.

We traditionally think of the advent of nuclear weapons as a problem for security researchers, but perhaps the most pressing questions it  raises are sociological and anthropological. They have to do with our relationships with institutions, and our institutions’ relationships with the societies they ostensively serve.

The Nuclear Cassandra (A Tragedy)


Cassandra watches the ships approach Troy. By “?sprite009.” Online:

The high-consequence / low-probability nature of atomic risks inevitably puts nuclear skeptics at a disadvantage.

Imagine, for instance, a hypothetical engineer who, in the early 1970s, studies the risk analyses of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant and correctly identifies the various shortcomings that will one day bring it down. She understands that the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis are higher than envisaged, and that the plant is ill-designed to accommodate them. This leads her to presciently imagine a natural disaster that causes a chain of meltdowns that, at their peak, legitimately threaten the future of Tokyo: home to 35 million people and a cornerstone of the global economy.

Now imagine her future. It is comforting to believe that her insight would have led to a reconsideration of the plant – a slew of changes that would have undone Fukushima’s fate and protected Japan in April 2011. But, alas, this narrative isn’t very credible. It neglects the fact that all through the development of that plant – and, indeed, all nuclear plants – there were credible critics who made such warnings and were ignored.

Engineers like to imagine that truth ‘shines by its own lights’ but this profoundly misrepresents technical discourse. Every technological finding is actually an ‘argument’ with contestable uncertainties and interpretations. And where powerful interests are at stake – as they have been throughout the history of nuclear technologies – unwelcome technical arguments are always vigorously contested. ‘Truth’ is always negotiated, because although veracity does shine to a degree, it rarely shines brightly enough to be distinguishable on its own.

So it is that our engineer’s prescient arguments are met with counterclaims and doubts. ‘The evidence is incomplete,’ she is told. ‘Your calculation is built on an uncertain variable’. ‘Our studies reach different conclusions.’ ‘The plant is safe.’

In most engineering circumstances she could look forward to her vindication, terrible though it might be. Eventually her predictions would come to pass, and her critics would be proven wrong. Many technical and scientific reputations have been built on unpopular claims that are subsequently borne-out: journeys in the wilderness endured for their eventual glories. Karl Popper saw this dynamic as exemplary of the scientific method.

The nature of nuclear risks makes vindication unrealistic, however. We know today that our engineers fears will be realized in time, but it would have been unrealistic for her to expect this or to build a career around it. Nuclear risks have timeframes of hundreds and sometimes thousands of years (millions, in the case of waste storage). These timeframes are vital, given the gravity of the hazards involved, but they fit awkwardly onto human discourse. This is to say that even if Fukushima’s actual risks were orders of magnitude higher than the industry’s calculations promised, any critic who understood the real risk and argued for it could expect to go an entire lifetime without seeing their claims validated. (Even if our engineer had seen the future, she might still have been deterred. Construction on Fukushima began in July 1967; the plant did not fail until almost 44 years later – the length of an entire career.)

With no realistic hope of empirical vindication, our engineer is forced to slug it out in an exhausting crossfire of claims and counterclaims. It is a losing battle. Every year that passes without the disaster she foresees subtly undermines her credibility. This is unfair as, statistically-speaking, even decades of safe operation prove very little about a reactor that is expected to melt down no more than once in every 100,000 years (or more). But humans are not statistical beings. Our imaginations and intuitions are honed for numbers at a human scale. Forty years without a catastrophe intuitively feels like compelling evidence of a reactor’s safety, just as fifty years without an atomic holocaust seems like compelling evidence that “deterrence works” (as I outline in a previous post).

Our engineer’s antagonists fuel and leverage this misperception of safety, and wield enormous resources through which to do so. Billions of dollars are invested in the notion that nuclear is safe, as are an array of expert careers and widespread notions of national security: a pervasive network of economic, military and professional interests. So it is that she comes to be marginalized by a vast ‘nucleocracy’ that controls the official publication channels, the professional bodies, and, through them, the public perception of ‘orthodox’ knowledge.

The inevitable result is a tragic career. For like Cassandra, the mythical Greek beauty who angered the gods, she is cursed with terrible foresights that nobody will heed. She struggles to publish. Her work is vilified by aggressive and well-funded lobbyists. She is appointed to few, if any, official committees. In short, she receives few of the accolades through which modern societies confer expert legitimacy: the ‘right to speak’ on the esoteric nuclear matters that frame our lives and livelihoods depend. She publishes in the ‘alternative’ media – mostly online – whichs offer a platform from which to speak, even as it further drains her credibility.

Such is the fate of the nuclear naysayer.


This vignette is hyperbole to some extent, of course, but there is more far more truth to it than most people realize. For a compelling glimpse into the fate of even well-established scientists who defy the ‘nucleocracy’ see Gayle Greene’s fascinating (2011) article: “Richard Doll and Alice Stewart: reputation and the shaping of scientific ‘truth’” in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 54 (4): 504–31. Or look instead to the various critical studies of Fukushima’s safety that were marginalized before the accident and rediscovered afterwards. Also, for an account of why our engineer’s ‘vindication’ is likely to be hollow even when it comes, see this working paper by yours truly.

Deterrence Works?


Vasili Arkhipov might be the most important human being who ever lived.

On October 27, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak. An American destroyer was trying to force a Soviet submarine to surface by harrying it with depth charges. The submarine’s sleep-deprived captain – cut off from radio contact and unable to know if war had broken out – ordered the launch of a nuclear weapon. The sub’s political officer, on board to provide an external check on the captain’s actions, seconded the decision.

Arkhipov, the second in command, was the last of three officers who were required to consent to a launch. He refused. He talked his comrades down from the brink and persuaded them to surface the sub, thereby narrowly averting The End Of Days.

Hardly anybody knew this until an academic conference in 2002, when the director of the National Security Archive unveiled some newly declassified documents and announced that ‘a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.’

Arkhipov is not the only person with such a claim, however.

On September 26, 1983, Soviet missile warning systems indicated that a US first strike was underway. It was at another point of extreme tension between the US and USSR, with a large US military exercise being widely perceived in the Kremlin as a cover for war preparations.

The mechanics of Deterrence meant the Soviets had to respond within fifteen minutes if they were to respond at all, and had the politburo been informed of the incoming strike they would probably have ordered a nuclear response. Institutional doctrine and bureaucratic momentum would have almost dictated it. There would have been almost no time for cool reflection.

Fortunately for humanity, nobody reported the launch to the Soviet hierarchy. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the duty officer at the early warning center that night, correctly dismissed the warning as a bizarre computer error and defied protocol by declining to report it.

Petrov – who was subsequently reassigned, took early retirement, and suffered a nervous breakdown – might also have saved the world. Yet hardly anybody knew about him either until the 1990s, when a Russian general published his memoirs.

Who knows how many other such brushes with Armageddon there have been. The secrecy around nuclear security is intense.


The logic of Deterrence – the idea that baroque infrastructures for launching thousands of nuclear weapons at our enemies on very short notice should make us safer – has been orthodoxy in security discourse for so long that its absurdity has become invisible to insiders. It is an axiom of nuclear discourse that deterrence works. Of course it works. The principle is so elegant and logical on paper, and the proof is in the metaphorical pudding: the world is still here. Academics can debate the minutiae of why it works, but only those with their heads in the sand can question the fact that it works.

Yet there is almost no evidence for this.

Consider this question: how much time must pass without a nuclear exchange before we can say there is evidence that Deterrence has kept us safe?

Reliability engineers would not conclude that a lightbulb had worked as designed until it had performed satisfactorily for several years. And they would be reluctant to conclude that a bridge was successful until it had stood for decades. We expect bridges to perform for much longer than lightbulbs, in part, because bridge failures are so much more consequential. If Deterrence fails the consequences would be biblical. Relative to that, the half century that it has been US doctrine is all but immaterial.

It is certainly arguable that there have been no great-power conflicts during the fifty-plus years of Deterrence’s tenure, but what does this prove? Throughout the Nineteenth Century the world enjoyed almost a hundred years without a clash between the world’s powers, but the Pax Britannica was not evidence that war had become obsolete. It collapsed in 1914 with the terrible carnage of the Great War: a conflict so traumatic that it was thought to have rendered all future wars ‘unimaginable.’ (Little were we to know). The Pax Romana lasted even longer – almost two hundred years. The world entered the second half of the Twentieth Century in ruins, and has been characterized since then by ever-increasing economic interdependence and the radical decoupling of territory from power and prosperity. In this context, the relatively brief ‘Pax Atomica’ – fifty years in which we declined to commit planetary suicide – hardly seems like compelling evidence of our strategic brilliance.

We spent many billions of dollars on the paraphernalia of Deterrence. We did so on the solemn advice of our nuclear shamans, who concluded – pardon me, calculated – that it was the optimal way of keeping us secure. What we accidentally wrought with our billions was a generation that owes everything – every walk in the park; every Monday morning; every chicken nugget; everything – to two middle-ranking, enemy military officers, who made difficult decisions under enormous duress and spared us all.

Eat your heart out, Doctor Frankenstein.

Time Between Failures