Recent and Early Concerns for Banning the Bomb: Günther Anders and the Actuality of his Philosophical Anthropology

On July 7, 2017, the UN adopted the treaty to ban nuclear weapons. A majority of states has voted in favor of eliminating and banning those weapons because of their devastating effects on human health and the environment. Even though the pathway towards their actual abolition may be another arduous task, this development surely marks a significant step in delegitimizing nuclear arms. It thus highlights a long awaited result of continuous and concerted efforts undertaken by disarmament proponents. In this article, I will discuss the gaining importance of the term ‘human security’, which is usually dated to the end of the Cold War and often said to be too vague a concept for addressing security issues in politics effectively. Instead, I will argue that the concern for human security has accompanied nuclear history from its beginning. Not only have the development of nuclear weapons and the atrocious bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki initiated a new kind of peace movement, but also lastingly influenced reflection and debate on science and technology and thus also the philosophy of technology. I will provide insights in the works of an early representative and co-founder of the anti-nuclear movement: Austrian philosopher Günther Anders (1902-1992), who has dedicated large parts of his life and writings to the engagement of nuclear disarmament. By relating the human condition to technology and to nuclear arms in particular, he left us thoughtful scientific views on our ‘nuclear condition’, which proved to be still relevant today.

According to Matthew Bolton, the adoption of the treaty to ban nuclear weapons indicates the “most significant shift in nuclear politics since the end of the Cold War and a policy victory to human security.” (Bolton, 2017) However, other scientists and experts have raised doubts and expressed various concerns about the treaty’s text, for example, about how safeguards problems are addressed (Carlson, 2017), or about the treaty’s relationship to other treaties. Also, suggestions have been made that the treaty’s final text should enhance its HS dimension and incorporate references to human rights and environmental law (Bolton, 2017).

After the end of the Cold War new security concepts have emerged and the field of security politics has widened its focus and gradually incorporated other topics than military ones as well as other objects of reference than the state like the economy, ecology, and humanity, juxtaposing and challenging the realist approach. On the one hand, these processes are to be understood as effect and as cause of political change and thus, history. On the other hand, a problem can only become a matter of security policy, if it is successfully established in security discourse (Daase, 2010). Hence, civil society plays a crucial role in exerting influence through repeatedly expressing concerns about the danger that nuclear weapons pose to humans (respectively living beings) and the environment. I will argue, that the beginning of the post-Cold War era allowed for a change in security discourse that gradually altered discursive formations and thus power relations ascribed to statements made. With respect to human security, this change opened a discursive space which also offers to shed new light on already existing knowledge referring to the relationship between the human condition and nuclear weapons.

An early and often cited statement of human security was given in the annual publication of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) called the Human Development Report in 1994. It argues: “The concept of security has for too long been interpreted narrowly: as security of territory from external aggression, or as protection of national interest in foreign policy […] Forgotten were the legitimate concerns of ordinary people who sought security in their daily lives” (HDR, S. 22). The report goes on to define two aspects of human security: “It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life” (S. 23). These also include freedom from unemployment, crime, social conflict, political repression and environmental hazards (S. 22). This definition is so broad that some have argued it has lost purchase by addressing virtually “any kind of unexpected or irregular discomfort” (Paris, 2001, 89). Nevertheless, it offers guiding traditional principles including of “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” (S. 3), and thus also freedom from violence, that reorient the search for human security toward development, not arms” (S. 1).

Reorienting security around development had an impact on other and older concepts like Humanitarian Arms Control or, used synonymously, humanitarian disarmament. Humanitarian arms control focusses on the mitigation of human suffering caused by different types of weapons. Its objective is to prohibit or to constrain use of weapons that do not distinguish between civilians and military personal, that create unnecessary suffering and that have lasting effects beyond the war.  The Legal Framework of humanitarian disarmament is humanitarian law which aims at preserving the maximum of humanity possible in times of war, limiting the choice of weapons, and legitimating only the weakening of the military of the enemy (Brehm, 2017). In political practice, the efforts of humanitarian arms control have met some notable successes like the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) which both reinforce the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Furthermore, especially Canada and Norway have tried to incorporate the humanitarian approach in their foreign policy initiatives that have led to the Ottawa Process, culminating in the adoption of the 1997 Anti-personnel Mine Ban Treaty and the Oslo Process, culminating in the adoption of the 2008 Convention of Cluster Munitions. It also applies to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which refers explicitly to the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons” and states that existence and any use of nuclear weapons, either inadvertently or on purpose, pose “risks [that, AR] concern the security of all humanity” (TPNW, Preamble). Subsequently, aspects are listed that were already mentioned in the Human Development Report: “human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations.” What is also referred to in the preamble is the “the unacceptable suffering of and harm caused to the victims of the use of nuclear weapons (hibakusha) as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons” (Ibd.). The adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was preceded by three conferences in Oslo (2010), Nayarit (2013) and Vienna (2014) culminating in the Austrian or Humanitarian Pledge “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” (2014) which led to opening negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Humanitarian arms control changes the security discourse of arms control away from stability and towards human security. It has been argued that this change affects the politics of multilateral arms control: it empowers smaller powers like NNWS to build new coalitions and exert leadership, it reinforces the UN General Assembly to sanction new agendas, forward new negotiation formats, but also to adopt new treaties and, particularly significant, it enhances the role of civil society and NGOs that are more active and have more access to negotiations and hence, exert more influence. (Brehm, 2017)

Again I would like to stress, that a reframing of the nuclear order was initiated by switching the reference object from the state to the individual, which in turn was made possible by the changing political situation after the Cold War. Thus, security discourse has changed and with it the rules of its discursive formations of what can be said and what is accepted as truth, as norm or else as deviation. In the history of nuclear technology, concerns about the unparalleled destructive force of nuclear weapons have been voiced from the beginning by physicists, scientists, the anti-nuclear movement and the public, but with state-centered security as dominant security concept could easily be overheard and dismissed as left-wing weirdness. With the transformation of security thinking towards humanitarian approaches, things change, and accumulated expertise can now develop new momentum.

Thus it is worth revisiting the work of philosopher Günther Stern alias Anders (1902-1992), who dedicated large parts of his own life and writings to disarmament and to the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.

In Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Outdatedness of Human Beings), published in 1956, he relates his philosophical anthropology to the conditions, human life is exposed to in the nuclear age. His thought on the human condition can thus be seen as the thematic basis and central issue for his later work, which he defines as “philosophical anthropology in the age of technocracy” (Anders, 2002, Preface). The second volume of The Outdatedness of Human Beings was published as late as in 1980 and in the preface he excuses that delay with his activities for the anti-nuclear movement. “Indeed, the late publishing of the second volume is caused by the fact, that I found it inappropriate to deal with the apocalyptic threat only academically” (Anders, 1985, VII).

The effects nuclear weapons have on human life and how they changed the relation between humans and technology kept him occupied. In 1958 he visited Japan – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and he participated in the Fourth International Congress against A- and H-Bombs and for Disarmament in Tokio in August 1958 what he perceived as very encouraging. In 1959 he published The Man on the Bridge which is a philosophical diary of this journey. In 1959 he started a correspondence with the former Major of the US Air Forces Claude Eatherly, who was a pilot in the Hiroshima squadron. This very interesting and widely known correspondence was published in Germany in 1961 titled Off limits für das Gewissen. Der Briefwechsel Claude Eatherly Günther Anders and 1962 in English as Burning Conscience. Eatherly had shown conspicuous behavioral changes after the Hiroshima bombing and committed crimes of bizarre nature. For Anders that was the evidence that Eatherly failed to handle his participation in the Hiroshima bombing and so Eatherly came to symbolize Anders’ philosophical thesis of the so called Promethean Disparity, which means that we are able to produce weapons with effects, which neither can be imagined nor handled by us any longer and also the thesis of the Promethean Shame, which means that there is a mental disorder regarding the identification of the self when related to the always superior efficiency of machines, apparatuses and objects. (Anders, 1985, 23ff.)

Following Dries’ explanations on Anders’ anthropology, the human condition is characterized by a fundamental distance between the individual and the outside world. This distance becomes manifest in indeterminacy on the one hand and dependency on the other. But exactly this gap offers a space for possible action to create ethically acceptable living conditions which may help to improve human security. Instead of positing that the human individual has at his or her disposition experiences a priori because of his or her cognitive predisposition, Anders claims that the individual is dependent upon experience that he or she can only make retrospectively by creating the relationship between him- or herself and the opposite world (Dries, 2009, 24f.).

And of Anders’ utmost concern is the kind of position the individual must have in the world to be able to make these experiences. In contrast to animals which are naturally wholly in the world, human beings are ontologically within the world, but at the same time they maintain a distance to it. This condition is called “Weltfremdheit” (unworldliness). Human beings are part of the world, but also strangers in the world. Human Identity is thus not always the same but its essential nature is its lack of determinability. However, this condition also generates “Weltoffenheit” (openmindedness) or else “Freiheit” (freedom, liberty) because it opens up various options of making experiences that help overcome the distance retrospectively. We are creating a world according to our demands. To live in the world, he writes, “we have to make a world of our own, a second world. A >superstructure<” (Anders, cited in Dries, 2009, 26).

These >modern superstructures<, influences and changes individuals are faced with, mark the basis for his views on technology. And the question he raises in this context is, if humans are at all able to keep up with the superstructures, they have built up. In negating the answer he develops the above mentioned concepts of the Promethean Disparity and the Promethean Shame. The Promethean Shame, that is the failure of the self-identification, is increasing tremendously with the atomic bomb. With the atomic bomb, we are entering a new era, the nuclear age. In a kind of negative theology he stresses the destructive omnipotence of the bomb, the capacity of a “reduction ad nihil” (total annihilation) of mankind. And incapable of annulling the knowledge of its construction, we are forever at its mercy. For Anders, the bomb is an object “suis generis”. It is a monstrosity, which resists any positive definition. It is not a “mean” because its least effect exceeds any political or military end. It poses a threat not only to a constructed enemy but also to those who possess them.

With nuclear testing the atomic bomb becomes a monstrous pseudo-mean: until testing of nuclear weapons, experiments were conducted in laboratories. Now, the difference between preparation and application is annulled in that the whole world is coextensively turned into a laboratory. It becomes an irreversible historical event: what is thought of as experiment may turn into a biological emergency for current and future generations. (Anders, 1985,  258ff.) Radioactivity does not respect national boarders, milestones or curtains. (Anders, 1981,  95)

It has been suggested by Christian Dries, to take Anders’ anthropology as starting point of an ethic for the technological civilization which includes the shaping of our relationship to the environment as habitat of plants, animals, and humans. (Dries, 2009, 100) Anders’ writings may serve as elaborate and norm setting reflections, and even though some aspects may clearly be considered documents of their time, others proved to be clairvoyant to this day. Against the backdrop of human security his anthropology could serve as an obligation to take over responsibility and participate in creating conditions which serve the common good and help improve the quality of life of everybody.


Anders, G. (2002[1980]). Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Band II. München: Beck.

Anders, G. (1985[1956]). Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Band I. München: Beck.

Anders, G. (1981). Die atomare Drohung. Radikale Überlegungen. München: Beck.

Austrian Pledge (2014). Retrieved from Visited on July 2, 2017.

Bolton, M. (2017). The Nuclear Weapons Ban and Human Security for All. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Retrieved from Visited on July 10, 2017.

Brehm, M. (2017). Humanitarian Arms Control. HSFK eLearning course EU, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Learning Unit 09. Retrieved from Visited on July 14.

Carlson, J. (2017). Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty – Serious Safeguards Problems. Retrieved from Visited on July 10, 2017.

Daase, C. (2010). Der erweiterte Sicherheitsbegriff. Working Paper 1|2010. Retrieved from Visited on July 11, 2017.

Dries, C. (2009). Günther Anders. Paderborn: Fink.

Paris, R. (2001). Human Security. Paradigm Shift or Hot Air? In International Security, Vol. 26. No. 2, pp. 87-102.

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Retrieved from Visited on July 12, 2017.

United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report (1994). Oxford: University Press.


Annette Ripper





Policy Relevance 101: Minding the gap

Politicians and their Science

Picture taken at Capitol Hill Books–a local institution with just the right amount of attitude.

Nicholas Kristof’s call in yesterday’s NYTs for scholars to contribute in ways that matter to today’s “great debates” hit a nerve. The best response so far is Cory Robin’s post in which he refutes much of what Kristof says by highlighting great contributions by established scholars, as well as young scholars in the blog-o-sphere.

Today Kristof responded to comments by upping the ante. Now it is not simply that academics are marginalized by an anti-intellectual American culture, while at the same time marginalizing themselves by failing to contribute to great debates in ways that appeal to wide audiences. It is also that academics do not serve at the pleasure of the President and no longer have the freedom to move back and forth between government and the Academy in the way the Kristof claims they did in the 1960’s.

Aside from the fact that this picture of the 1960’s academic scene is positively dripping with childhood sentimentality, it is also a rather bizarre claim that such influence today does not exist given the revolving door between the current administration and university positions (David Axelrod now heads his own institute at the University of Chicago)–not to mention the reported growth in the number of administrators with little or no teaching or professorial experience. It is also true that there were plenty of scholars in the 1960’s that felt marginalized by Washington politicians. Hans Morgenthau, for instance, complains at great length in his text on the subject, Truth and Power.

Nonetheless, there is some truth to Kristof’s notion of a “gap” between the kind of knowledge that the Academy values and what is required of individuals who wish to participate in larger political debates. Kristof is correct that the gap has something to do with the requirement to publish esoteric articles that conform to rigorous methodological standards, but not living in that world himself he knows little about the value of such work to those who produce it or what it means to negotiate that space.

There is a significant amount of government and foundation money that is dedicated to bridging that gap, much of which exists thanks to the kinds of structural changes associated with the success of RAND and the growth of think tanks. There are also professors with a desire to increase their influence in this world who study what they can do to make themselves more relevant to the debates policymakers care about.

This is the in-between world in which I have been living for the past couple years. I sought out this space in part because I wanted to ask and answer questions that contributed not only to academic debates, but also to contemporary political problems. I chose nuclear security studies because studying nuclear weapons and their exceptional relationship to political power allows me to place one foot in theory and one in practice. However, I also chose this space because I found the disciplinary politics around what counted as a legitimate methodology in Political Science too constraining–scholarly communities are called disciplines for a reason–stepping too far outside the boundaries will get you burned. My preferred methodologies are out of fashion in the United States because they are considered too “unscientific.” However, in the interdisciplinary world of nuclear security studies the presence of physicists as the ultimate arbitrators of what counts as scientific knowledge, combined with their frequent disdain for what passes as “scientific” in the realm of Political Science, opens up a space in which I have been able to operate.

I have been on a personal quest to find my own political voice and figure out how to contribute to contemporary policy-relevant debates, but it hasn’t been easy. In January I started working for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow. I figured the best way to learn to speak to policymakers was to live among them for a while. As a member of Senator Gillibrand’s legislative team I handle nuclear and cyber-related legislative activity. I wanted to live the experience of the Congressional process so that I could develop my own political intuition.

After years spent in pursuit of the “life of the mind” at the University of Chicago, I had lost all common sense. When I picked up something and read it, what I thought mattered or should be considered a realistic policy response was completely different from what the people around me in DC picked up on. I often found myself thinking things like, “what I am missing” or “how could they possibly think that’s a good idea.” The people around me were operating with assumptions that I didn’t share.

Grad school is an often brutal process of learning to question everything you thought you knew and replacing intuition with epistemologically sound methods of data analysis. These methods often include the translation of ordinary events and experiences, which may appear to be unrelated in their specificity, into abstract conceptual frameworks. Languages like mathematics or the “jargon” of critical theory allow those who master these frameworks to draw connections and reveal patterns that day-to-day descriptions obscure. Learning to reflexively question everything you think you know may be a necessary step in the transformation from being a consumer into a producer of knowledge, but it can have the side-effect of leaving one politically tone-deaf. A friend of mine put it to me recently like this: A PhD candidate in Linguistics is the last person you want proof-reading your essay because they have been so trained to deconstruct every aspect of grammar that they’ve lost their native touch.

This is how I felt when I first started thinking about what it meant to write policy-relevant–or what might more accurately be termed politically-relevant–research. I had nothing to say that was relevant. My research either led to conclusions that were considered irrelevant because the recommendations for action were not politically feasible, or I had no way of mapping a general conclusion onto a specific event without feeling that I was being intellectually irresponsible. Who was I to make such a leap of faith from what I could claim to falsify to a speculative statement about a contemporary problem? (And as Dan Drezner reported in a  blog post in 2010, there are those that feel that this kind of contribution should be accorded to the privileged few with tenure).

Within the first week of operating in a congressional office I was cured of this ailment. Not only are the left and right boundaries of action clear once you are operating on the inside of a political operation, but understanding the way that information flows through Washington has provided me with a new sense of freedom. Everything that academics live and die by is completely irrelevant in these contexts, except that your status as an expert is what gets your foot in the door. What matters is that you are able use the critical thinking abilities that you gained in grad school to navigate this environment with a weird kind of x-ray vision. You can see deeper into an issue than many of your colleagues, but at the same time that ability matters less than timely access to sensitive information. Somehow this makes me feel more entitled to write freely in ways that my inner grad student would tell me were prohibited.

Learning to translate one’s academic expertise into politically relevant knowledge is a different kind of project than the one that academics train for and the Academy values. It requires an individual to want to seek out and develop this extra set of skills. The fact that the academic job market is so much tighter than it was in the 1950’s (back then there weren’t enough people to fill the posts; now there are hundreds of applicants for every tenure-track position) likely makes the disciplinary politics around methodological debates event more brutal than before, but there are also many more people with PhDs who are just as smart or smarter than the professors in the Ivory Tower contributing to public debate.

The price of my current privilege is that my academic and intellectual agenda has to take a back seat to political necessity. Weighing in on the debate about Iran sanctions legislation or the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review is not an option, so I won’t be posting much–at least until my fellowship is over.

NORAD wants to know if you’ve been naughty or nice.


This article from The Atlantic is too good not to share.

In 1955, Sears ran a ‘call Santa on the phone’ newspaper promotion. Due to a (frankly wonderful) typo, however, it listed NORAD’s top-secret, “the-Russians-are-attacking” telephone number by mistake. (Actually NORAD’s predecessor, CONAD, but whatever.)

But wait, it gets better. After some initial confusion, the officer on duty, Colonel Stroud (a name that should be immortalized by Hollywood immediately), played along.

Bemused by the first caller — a lachrymose girl who wanted to know if he was one of Santa’s elves — the good Colonel couldn’t bring himself to deny it. The steely-eyed missile men of CONAD soon found themselves roped into quizzing children on whether they’d been naughty or nice. And so began an endearingly incongruous holiday tradition; NORAD offers a ‘Santa tracking’ service to this day.

The fifties really was a simpler time.

Policy Relevance 101: Intellectual promiscuity is bad for your reputation

The American Political Science Association runs a fellowship program that funds political scientists to work on Capitol Hill for a year as a legislative assistant in the office of an individual member or committee. As part of my quest to understand what it means to do “policy-relevant research” I’ve accepted a fellowship position for this academic year. I figure that if you want to learn to talk to policy makers the best way to do that is to become one–listen to the way they talk, what questions they ask, what matters to them and why, and then practice doing those things yourself so that you develop an intuitive sense of how to negotiate that space where policy meets politics and ideas get translated into laws.  

As part of our orientation, APSA arranges for the fellows to meet with individuals from think tanks, lobbying firms, government agencies, and the press. One of the stops on this insider’s tour of Washington was the Heritage Foundation.  The Heritage Foundation “develops and promotes conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense.” A standard account of Heritage’s origin story appeared in a recent article by Julia Iofe from the New Republic:

Edwin Feulner

Edwin Feulner

In 1971, [Edwin Feulner] and Paul Weyrich were two Republican Hill staffers who witnessed President Richard Nixon’s plan to fund a supersonic transport plane defeated in the Senate. Two days later, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), then the only conservative think tank in town, delivered a positive assessment of the plane. When Weyrich asked why the report arrived after the fight was over, the people at AEI told him that they didn’t want to be seen as influencing the vote.

This, the story goes, was why Feulner and Weyrich decided to found Heritage: to influence the vote. It was also why their model focused on short backgrounders, rather than long reports, so that congressmen could get a quick opinion on their way to the floor. Unlike AEI or Brookings across town, Heritage set up shop on the Hill, down the street from Congress. And unlike AEI and Brookings, Heritage was not so much about exploring ideas as it was about pushing a political line. 

According to Iofe, Feulner relished in telling this founding myth and, as I can attest, it is still a proud part of his legacy at the organization. We heard the story second hand from  Edward Corrigan, a group vice president for policy promotion. Corrigan is a recent hire who arrived at Heritage with former Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) in 2013 when Demint took over from Feulner as President. The choice of DeMint to replace Feulner was controversial because unlike Feulner, Demint does not have a PhD. DeMint is not a policy wonk; he is a politician. His selection coincides with the growth of Heritage Action, an advocacy arm founded in 2010, and has tipped the careful balance of power between politics and policy at Heritage Foundation firmly in favor of politics. Iofe again:

Jim DeMint

Jim DeMint

DeMint also brought in his own management lineup from his Senate days: Ed Corrigan, Wesley Denton, and Bret Bernhardt. At Heritage, the three became DeMint’s enforcers. There is now a political check on all Heritage research papers to make sure they conform to the political and tactical line before they go out the door. Corrigan killed one such paper, defending the law authorizing National Security Agency practices as constitutional, only to have the Brookings Institution, a relatively liberal think tank, publish it. Corrigan also put the kibosh on several policy papers on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, including one by Heritage scholar Edmund Haislmaier about what states should do on Medicare expansion. Because the official Heritage strategy was now to defund Obamacare, any paper acceding to a reality in which the law existed was verboten. The scandalous Heritage report on immigration, co-authored by a scholar who had once claimed that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than whites, was also the product of DeMint’s approach: Policy analysts were shut out of the discussion, and the paper, which was written to conform with DeMint’s anti-immigration stance, did not go through the standard vetting procedure.

Corrigan and three Heritage Foundation scholars met with our group. They were all white men that, with the exception of Corrigan who is quite striking with his pre-maturely silver hair (you can see a picture here), looked so much alike that I would not be able to pick them out of a line up (having failed to note their names, I actually went to the Heritage Foundation website to try and identify them from their photos and couldn’t do it).

Washington etiquette, and the terms of my fellowship, prevent me from reporting the details of our discussion, but I can certainly share my experience of the event. Personally, it was excruciating sitting through the presentations from Corrigan and his colleagues, especially since many of their positions on civil rights are in direct conflict with my own interests and experience. And, I was not the only one squirming in my chair. Many of the questions my colleagues asked were vaguely, if not openly, confrontational.

Initially I wanted to get up and walk out, but then I began to channel my anger into seeing this as an opportunity to learn how these Heritage scholars think about negotiating the boundary between politics and policy. They work at an organization that, unlike “liberal think tanks” such as Brookings whose policy analysts could, and do, make conflicting policy recommendations, is explicitly committed to conservative public policy. I wondered how self-aware they were about the epistemological implications of this position. On the one hand, what they are doing appears to violate the basic foundation of mainstream social science research in America, namely that the minimum standard of good research is not whether or not it accords with a set of values-based criteria, but rather that it must meet criteria of falsifiability. You have to be able to answer the question, “How do I know if I’m wrong?” On the other hand, there is something vaguely Marxist in their insistence that all think tanks have a political agenda. If all knowledge is value-laden, perhaps they could argue that they make their agenda explicit while others hide behind a veneer of objectivity. I decided to try and find out if they are as intellectually promiscuous as they appear.

In spite of the highly unlikely possibility of hearing a defensible “Marxist” argument come out of their mouths, I wanted to ask my question in a way that gave them them just enough rope to either save or hang themselves. Already having been told repeatedly, and only half-jokingly, not to use words like “hypothesis” and “epistemology” in Washington, I asked, “If you are committed to a conservative political agenda, yet you perform fact-based research, what do you do with the data that does not support your political position?” After I finished the room fell silent and one of my APSA colleagues simply said “Boom.” Without repeating anything that the Heritage fellows actually said, my impression was that none of them had spent much time thinking about it. Corrigan offered a canned response that did not address the question at hand, but one of the Heritage fellows did appear to grapple honestly with the possibility that reality might diverge from his idealized version of it. It was as if the idea had never really occurred to him before, in which case he is not intellectually promiscuous at all. It’s worse: He’s a true-believer, fully committed to the cause.

Fukushima’s first days: the US response


I’m going to break the format of this blog a bit, such as it is, to make a few journalistic observations about the US response to the earliest days of Fukushima.

Firstly, the US NRC seems to have been shell-shocked by the event. It should have been obvious from the first day that Unit 1 was in meltdown. The commission knew, for a fact, that there was no cooling in the core; this is well established. And it does not take a degree in nuclear physics to know what happens to nuclear cores without cooling. Yet it was three days before anyone was willing to admit the obvious, even to themselves. By all accounts the commissioners just watched the clock as over forty hours-without-cooling ticked by, and continued to assure the world that Japan had it under control. It is as if a lifetime of fervently espousing the impossibility of core-melts had made them unable to see what was right in front of their eyes.

This is cognitive dissonance on an epic scale.

Secondly, the Defence Department seems to have been much quicker to grasp the nettle. It was the Navy’s nuclear reactor division that appears to have been the real driver for belated US action. (The voluntary evacuation order, for instance, and a strongly worded message to the Prime Minister suggesting ‘heroic action’ — ie: suicide squads — when it looked like TEPCO were pulling out.)

Thirdly, the limited US evacuation recommendation (50 miles) was far too limited from a safety perspective. Within 72 hours it was clear to everyone that the citizens of Tokyo were in serious jeopardy. This is to say there was substantial evidence of a zirconium fire in the unit 4 spent-fuel pool (not least the fact that the building exploded, despite there being no fuel in the reactor core) — an event that would have released a tremendous amount of radioactive fallout, and would almost certainly have led to the loss of a much larger pool nearby. As it happened, the fuel had begun to melt but the Japanese were able to bring the pool back from the brink; but nobody at the time took this for granted.

When questioned about this, authoritative experts repeatedly stress that the NRC simulations showed no threat to Tokyo, even from a spent fuel fire. What they don’t say, however, is that the NRC simulations (which use a system called RASCAL) were only capable to modeling effects up to 50 miles out, and so they could not have shown a threat to Tokyo under any circumstances. The Germans had already advised their citizens to evacuate the capital, no doubt at some diplomatic cost. So had the French, the Russians and the Chinese — all countries with heavy nuclear investments and none of them exactly wilting violets when it comes to radiological hazards.

Tokyo was in serious trouble, and the US must have known.

This leads to my final observation: that the US decision not to order an evacuation beyond 50 miles — quickly and obediently echoed by the UK — was a political decision not an evidence-based calculation. It was a decision to put US citizens in Tokyo at risk as a favor to the Japanese government, who were desperately worried that a mass international evacuation would have led to uncontrollable panic in their capital.

It was a gamble that paid-off. Other countries looked to the US for cues and echoed their recommendations, stemming the tide of evacuation recommendations. Mass panic was averted. TEPCO — with ‘heroic efforts’ and no small amount of heroic luck — were able to save the spent-fuel pool, and with it the residents of Tokyo. (Although it remains in jeopardy).

In other words, Japan owes the US a solid, and they’re acutely aware of the fact. Sore misgivings about US bases on Japanese soil have all but disappeared since the crisis.




Meet Fukuppy, the inadvertent Fukushima mascot. As explained in this article from today’s Guardian Online.

I am sure there is something desperately insightful to be said here about the co-option of symbols as protest in an international digital age, but right now it escapes me. I post it mainly as light relief. Feel free to opine in the comments.

Plymouth on the edge


The town on Plymouth, on England’s south coast, can trace its history back to the bronze age. A natural harbor, it has a proud maritime tradition. The pilgrim fathers left from its port in 1620 to settle the New World. It is currently home to the largest operational naval base in Western Europe.

On 29 July, last year, Plymouth almost became a radioactive ghost-town – the victim of a reactor meltdown due to a technical mishap. The UK’s own Pripyat or Fukushima. Or so recent disclosures suggest.

Plymouth isn’t even home to a nuclear reactor. Not a permanent one anyway. Its naval base services many of the UK’s nuclear submarines. The near catastrophe was was caused when a series of “unidentified defects” [echoes of Normal Accidents here – ed] led to the loss of both primary and secondary power to the onsite subs’ coolant systems for more than 90 minutes.

A subsequent investigation pinned the failure on a “defect in the central nuclear switchboard.” A failure that would almost certainly have been deemed “impossible” by anyone studying the system’s blueprints in advance.

Who knows how close Plymouth came that night. The incident certainly seems serious enough, but the secrecy around such events invariably prohibits proper scrutiny for decades. I highlight the scare mainly as a rejoinder to those who dismiss revelations about near-misses in the past with the argument that technologies have changed since then, making past failures irrelevant.

Technologies change, yes, but the fact that complex systems fail for unexpected reasons that defy our risk analyses remains. It is as constant as our willingness to wager, over and over, that this time, this time, the systems are safe and the assurances are accurate.


The changing meaning of dual-use nuclear technology


Monterey aquarium has a mesmerizing jellyfish exhibit, which includes the moon jellyfish pictured here. This species also happens to be the primary offender in the latest round of nuclear reactor shut downs in Sweden–Slate has a nice video explaining the problem and showing what these lovely creatures turn into after getting sucked into the cooling system of a nuclear power plant.

I assume that the risk models used to manage reactor safety account for the jellyfish threat, which is really more of a nuisance that a calamity. Nevertheless, this kind of event highlights one of the challenges of managing reactor safety in a rapidly changing climate environment–growth in invasive jellyfish populations has been linked to climate change. It also points to new kinds of trade offs.

In case you haven’t been following the problem, jellyfish blooms also shut down beaches over the summer in Spain. Spain has seven operating nuclear power plants, some of which are located on lovely beaches. There was debate about whether or not to renew the operating license for the Vandellos 2 nuclear power station in Hospitalet del Infant (pictured below), but currently it has been extended until 2020. Nuclear power plants are usually an unwelcome site on a beach vacation, but they are apparently also great for jellyfish abatement. Vandellos 2 nuclear power station in Hospitalet del Infant