This statement was my contribution to the Public Seminar ‘Understanding and communicating risks post-Fukushima’ at the United Nations University in Tokyo on Friday 13 November 2015
Risk communication with respect to the current environmental radiation conditions in Fukushima has to take into account that there are scientific discussions going on with regard to possible concrete health effects of low doses. As long as serious scientific discussions are taking place, we have to acknowledge that there is no definite scientific conclusion on the actual manifestation and predictability of these concrete health effects in these concrete situations, which doesn’t mean that specific indications cannot be used as a factor to take into account in the evaluation of the acceptability of the risk as such. As radiological risk assessment has to take into account knowledge-related uncertainties and value judgements, one can understand that all risk perception with regard to low radiation doses is relative, not only with citizens, but also with scientists, activists and policy makers. Therefore, risk communication should be understood as a dialogue set up as a mutual learning experience and, from a social justice perspective, involving the citizens in making sense of the risks and in consequent decision making should be the prime concern in that dialogue.
In Fukushima, the uncertainties and fears among the population are not only due to ‘ineffective communication’. I will highlight two ‘factual’ issues that need to be taken serious in a fair and effective dialogue and two political issues that are today hindering that dialogue but that, in principle, can be overcome.
First, we have to take into account a specific difference in dealing with knowledge-related uncertainty between the culture of science and the culture of politics: simply the fact that, in studying low radiation dose effects, scientists are concerned with avoiding false positives (or thus the observation of a presumed effect) while decision makers, activists and citizens are concerned with avoiding false negatives (or thus the ignorance of an actual real effect).
Second, we have to take into account the influence of the historical context in two ways.
Considering that, in Japan (as in all other countries), there has never been an inclusive democratic debate on the eventual use of nuclear energy in the past, post-accident governance has to take into account an a-priori situation of distrust with members of the general public with regard to nuclear energy policy as such. If the public felt excluded by the political supporters of the nuclear industry back in time, why should they trust them now after an accident?
There is also the observation that many people in Japan relate the Fukushima accident to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombing. For them, both kinds of disasters provoke the same feelings of powerlessness and resignation towards the politics of power and conflict. While this may complicate the dialogue even more, these references must be taken serious, especially because the global nuclear industry is not making efforts itself to cut the link between peaceful and military use.
But then there are the political issues that are hindering a fair and effective dialogue today.
In post-accident situations, one could say that ‘science is under pressure to deliver evidence’ even more than in normal conditions, and this obviously influences concrete scientific discussions on potential health effects. It is clear that these scientific discussions should be able to take place in an open, transparent and serene atmosphere, but one can observe that this needed atmosphere was and still is largely missing in public discourse in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident. Specifically with respect to low dose effects, also in Fukushima, the issue of the so-called ‘100 mSv threshold’ is an issue in urgent need of formal public deliberation among all concerned actors. Although there is major scientific support for the vision that no such threshold exists, it now serves post-accident politics that are not to the benefit of the citizens.
We also can observe that, in the aftermath of the accident, an opportunity to create societal trust is lost, given the fact that the public and civil society have not been invited by the Japanese authorities to participate in deliberating a possible restart of nuclear energy production.
As a conclusion, I want to argue that there is a need for a kind of post-accident governance that would be fair and effective in the way it would seek societal trust in its method instead of in anticipated or promised outcomes.
With respect to the Fukushima post-accident situation, research must continue to assess concrete health effects in the interest of social justice. Meanwhile, time will show to what extent these health effects emerge, but we cannot and should not wait for evidence in the interest of a more fair and effective post-accident governance. While one can imagine the possibility of finding a scientific consensus on the actual effects in the future, we have to accept that striving for democratic justice and societal trust in Fukushima will have to be done now while research on health effects will continue for some time to come. And in the general interest of rendering that research with credibility, science has no choice but to involve civil society in general and the affected citizens in particular in that research.
In light of the previous, an essential criterion for social justice and societal trust is the maintenance of the Linear Non-Threshold hypothesis and the current limit of 1 mSv per year for the public as the protection principles to inform post-accident governance. It is from that perspective that we can understand that the precautionary principle is an ethical principle rather than a scientific principle. While, especially in post-accident conditions, the principle is vulnerable to strategic interpretation in conflicts of interest, it would need to serve post-accident governance in the common interest of all concerned, taking into account the complexity of the problem and with a special concern towards to the vulnerable.
In Fukushima, we are in post-accident conditions, but not in post-crisis conditions. During the Citizen-Scientist International symposium in Tokyo last September, I proposed the establishment of a national committee that would facilitate and moderate dialogue on post-accident issues. That dialogue should involve all concerned actors, but it should be facilitated and moderated from out of the academia. This actor is today the only one with the potential to bring everybody together and to organise a fair and effective dialogue that would be able to transcend polarisation.
Gaston Meskens, Tokyo, Friday 13 November 2015
For background info and the programme of the seminar, visit http://unu.edu/events/archive/conference/understanding-and-communicating-risks-post-fukushima.html#overview
This statement followed a series of invited lectures I did on post-Fukushima social justice in Japan earlier in 2015
Lecture “The Right to be Responsible – Ethical reflections on risk assessment in post-nuclear accident situations”, done at
- The Second Asian Workshop on the Ethical Dimensions of the System of Radiological Protection, Fukushima Medical University, Fukushima, 2 June 2015
- The United Nations University Chubu Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development, Nagoya, 4 June 2015
- The International Peace Research Institute, Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo, 5 June 2015
Lecture “Dealing with low dose radiological risk: The challenge of striving for democratic justice and societal trust and peace in the absence of scientific evidence“, done at the Study Group on Radiation Health Effects After the Nuclear Accident, Sophia University, Tokyo, 18 September 2015
Lecture “The Consolatory Practice of Leaving – On reflexivity as art activism in the age of populism, positivism and profitism“, done at the Session ‘Between Arts and Science’ of the Fifth Citizen-Scientist International Symposium on Radiation Protection, Tokyo, 20 September 2015
Lecture “The Right to be Responsible – Ethical reflections on risk assessment in post-nuclear accident situations“, done at the plenary session of The 2015 Citizen-Scientist International Symposium on Radiation Protection, Tokyo, 22 September 2015