Photos by Rob Schmitz (2009 SSRC-Abe Journalist Fellow)
At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 8.9 earthquake, known as the Higashi Nihon Daishinsai (Eastern Japan Great Earthquake Disaster), struck roughly fifty miles off the coast of Japan’s mainland. While the Tohoku quake itself caused few fatalities, it set off a tsunami measuring up to forty-five-feet high, which not only devastated coastal and inland villages but also swamped the backup systems of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-reactor complex. With the plant’s batteries and diesel generators offline, at least three of the six reactors in the complex experienced complete fuel meltdowns in the early hours of the crisis, meaning that the uranium fuel rods heated to exceedingly high temperatures beyond what their zirconium cladding (outer covering) could handle (beyond 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and collapsed at the bottom of their containment units, where they may have burned through the thick steel shielding of the reactor units. The buildings housing the reactor units exploded due to a buildup of the hydrogen gas created when hot zirconium cladding reacts with water, and nuclear engineers from TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric Power Company—operator of the plant) deliberately vented the units into the atmosphere to reduce the internal pressure. To keep the fuel rods at safe temperatures, seawater was pumped into the reactors, leaving hundreds of thousands of gallons of contaminated water inside the units that will eventually have to be disposed of, either pumped into the ocean or held temporarily in barrels for dispersal. The radiological consequences of these decisions are under study now by ecologists and biologists but will not fully be understood for some time. Only recently have radiation levels dropped to a point where engineers have been able to enter the area.
- Coverage: SSRC Abe Fellows Report on the Fukushima Earthquake and Tsunami
- Book: Disaster and the Politics of Intervention, Andrew Lakoff, ed.
- Book Series: The Privatization of Risk
- Web Forum: Haiti, Now and Next
- Web Forum: Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from The Social Sciences
- Research Hub: Hurricane Katrina
- Lecture: “From Common Humanity to Humanitarian Obligation,” Craig Calhoun
Book: The Measure of America, 2010-2011: Mapping Risks and Resilience. SSRC/NYU Press
Located in the villages of Ohkuma and Futaba, the Fukushima plant was one of the fieldwork sites for my dissertation, and I have followed the ongoing crisis with dread. Roughly 16,000 people are confirmed dead, while another 9,000 remain unaccounted for, presumed swept out to sea by the tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese residents have evacuated the area due to both the radioactivity and the destruction of homes; many are now being housed in temporary shelters or with friends or family. The fear of radioactive contamination, in particular, has had far-reaching effects, with Japan suspending the export of vegetables, dairy products, fish, and other products from the region and China and Korea now scanning incoming Japanese goods and passengers for radioactivity. More broadly, the Tohoku disaster has pushed several nations, including Switzerland and Germany, to reconsider their commitment to nuclear power; Switzerland’s cabinet has voted to phase out atomic energy by 2034, and Germany will shut all their nuclear power plants by 2022. North American planners are thinking through the efficacy of existing disaster-response plans, the effectiveness of manual and automatic venting structures in their own, very similar, nuclear-reactor designs, and the common practice of onsite fuel storage.
In this essay, I want to briefly touch on three issues that the ongoing crisis has raised for social scientists: the ways in which crises work as “windows,” the complexity of disasters and their effects, and the importance of social capital and civil society in both disaster and recovery.
Crises as Dual “Windows”
Social scientists have long understood that decisionmaking in government circles is rarely a rational, predictable process that moves at a steady rate. Instead, researchers such as John Kingdon posit that problems, politics, and policies often flow separately until “windows of opportunity” bring them together in a situation in which change can occur. Policy entrepreneurs who work hard to propose new norms and solutions can create these windows, as can focusing events, such as large-scale disasters.3 Thomas Birkland has underscored how, for a short period of time after a major disaster, entrepreneurs and policymakers have the chance to knit together problems and policies, although it may take several disasters—such as the repeated loss of airplanes and lives to terrorism—before policymakers enact change.4 In this way, mega-catastrophes can serve as catalysts for transformation, just as the Fukushima nuclear crisis may push more nations to end their use of nuclear power or force alterations in the ways in which the field is regulated.
Politicians and bureaucrats have often attempted to use disasters to initiate changes that would be unthinkable under normal circumstances. Following the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, for example, Gotō Shimpei, the home minister of Japan, sought to rationalize Tokyo’s narrow, winding streets into a more modern grid. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, government planners in India were moderately successful at pushing coastal fishing communities to move farther inland. Following the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, stated that he intends to go “back to the drawing board” to have a debate on nuclear power’s costs and benefits.
In addition to serving as policy windows, disasters can reveal preexisting problems that were latent, unnoticed, or ignored by policymakers and the media. For example, Hurricane Katrina pulled back the curtain on the rampant poverty, racial divides, and uneven development across neighborhoods in the Big Easy that few outsiders previously noticed. Observers found it hard to believe that one of the wealthiest countries in the world, which can project its military power to the far corners of the globe, was unable to provide food, water, and shelter to tens of thousands of stranded local residents. So too, the Fukushima disaster has highlighted the tight connections—known by many Japanese experts as the “nuclear village” or in North American circles as an “iron triangle”—between TEPCO, politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party who focus on energy (collectively called the energy zoku, or group), and bureaucrats in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and its Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE) who oversee the industry.
The ongoing attempts at decontamination in Fukushima have exposed a more pernicious problem: the hidden labor markets within the nuclear industry, namely the thousands of day laborers who often work without health insurance and training to clean up radioactivity. Kenji Higuchi, a photojournalist in Japan, has called the temporary nuclear labor force a human-rights problem because of the safety abuses he uncovered over nearly three decades covering the issue.5 A New York Times article stated that of the 80,000 or so workers in the industry, almost 90% are subcontractors who have no formal training in handling waste or decontamination procedures and whose health and long-term radiation exposure are not tracked by administrators.6 Optimistic observers hope that recognition of the hazards to these untrained temporary workers might serve as a focal point for change in the industry.
The Complexity of Disasters and Their Effects
The Tohoku disaster exemplifies what researchers call a compounded disaster, in that while the quake itself caused few deaths, the tsunami it triggered caused tremendous loss of life. In turn, the giant wave shut down the cooling systems at the Fukushima plant, causing fuel meltdowns. (The nuclear industry has claimed that it designs reactors to withstand large-scale earthquakes, but the Daiichi system clearly was not built to handle a combination of cascading hazards.) Similarly, the 1923 Tokyo earthquake caused some initial damage, but the destruction of half of the capital city was primarily a consequence of the uncontrolled fires that broke out afterward.
Planners and scholars alike must recognize that disasters interact with local socioeconomic conditions as well as technical and policy choices—such as placing nuclear reactors in seismic areas or building communities below sea level or in areas vulnerable to flooding. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti interacted with widespread poverty, a failed state, and low-quality construction, while in India, the effects of the 2004 tsunami were multiplied by the isolation of many villages, poor early-warning systems, and the large number of people in fishing communities who lived and worked on the beach.
In the same way that disasters themselves are complex and interactive, their effects are often nonlinear and unpredictable. Many manufacturing facilities in North America found themselves idling their automobile lines after the Tohoku earthquake because Japanese companies affected by the disaster were unable to provide necessary parts. Following a “just-in-time” production strategy, many companies have saved money by reducing unnecessary inventory, but they have also created new vulnerabilities by relying on single suppliers.7 Cascading failures and ripple effects from crises will be the norm in an era when the frequency and intensity of natural disasters are increasing.8
The Role of Social Capital in Disaster and Recovery
Scholars have already illuminated how social capital (the ties that bind us together) and civil society (the organizations and associations in the public sphere between state and market) play a role in the placement of nuclear reactors. In my book Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West, for example, I explored how Japanese government officials responsible for promoting nuclear power plants worked with private energy utilities, such as TEPCO, to map out potential locations for these facilities. While technical criteria—distance from densely populated cities, access to the electricity grid, aseismic bedrock, and so on—were considered in the process, the ability of the local community to resist was the primary criterion in site selection. Decisionmakers placed controversial projects, such as nuclear power plants, in localities where they believed that civil society was weakest. In rural, coastal, depopulated communities, the numbers and political strength of fishermen and farmers were on the decline, and these communities were therefore least likely to stall or increase the cost of the projects.9
Although social capital (or the lack thereof) has played a role in setting up the public policies that have exacerbated the effects of the Tohoku earthquake, I believe that social capital will also be a core factor in the post-disaster recovery process. As Rieko Kage and I have argued, Japanese civil society and social capital have rebounded after past disasters, creating new civic associations (including neighborhood associations after the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, new clubs and unions after World War II, and new nonprofits and non-governmental organizations after the 1995 Kobe earthquake).10 These new civic groups, judo and hiking clubs, and even disaster-assistance-providing nonprofit groups have enhanced life in Japan and abroad. The Tohoku earthquake should be no exception; we have already seen emergent online communities working to raise funds for victims through fundraising drives and the sale of books as well as Japanese nonprofits and religious groups turning down volunteers due to an oversupply of helpers.
It is becoming clear that social networks are the key engines of resilience following disaster. In my forthcoming book Building Resilience, I use quantitative and qualitative studies of disasters from the beginning of the twentieth century to today to demonstrate that, more than commonly referenced factors such as external aid, socioeconomic conditions, or disaster damage, reservoirs of social capital are the most critical aspects to recovery. Neighborhoods and communities where individuals can overcome collective-action problems, promote “voice,” not “exit,” and provide each other with informal insurance and mutual assistance are the ones that recover the most quickly.11
Social capital, like all other forms of capital, can be utilized for positive or negative purposes. Some have argued that social capital can be used to ostracize or harm outsiders, and this is of course true; the world saw this in Japan in the vicious attacks on Koreans after the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and in the ostracism of methyl mercury victims in Minamata. But Japanese communities in crisis over the past hundred years have also demonstrated resilience and the ability to harness collective will for positive uses. Japan as it starts to rebuild after the Tohoku quake—and all communities recovering from disaster—should use the opportunity to rethink past decisions and consider the range of policy options for community engagement, energy creation, sustainable development, and workers’ rights. The ongoing Tohoku crisis provides a window of opportunity for both the government and the citizens of Japan to revisit issues such as a national commitment to nuclear power, the structure of the nuclear labor force, and the lack of local citizen participation in decisionmaking.
Daniel P. Aldrich is associate professor of public policy and political science at Purdue University and the author of Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West (Cornell University Press, 2008) and Building Resistance (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming). He is a Fellow in the Mansfield Foundation US-Japan Network for the Future, an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow, and currently a visiting scholar at the East-West Center.
- 1. John Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. (New York: Longman Press, 2002). [↩]
- 2. Thomas Birkland, “Learning and Policy Improvement After Disaster: The Case of Aviation Security,” American Behavioral Scientist 48, no. 3 (November 2004): 341–64. [↩]
- 3.See a subtitled version of his documentary Nuclear Ginza at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92fP58sMYus. [↩]
- 4. Hiroko Tabuchi, “Japanese Workers Braved Radiation for a Temp Job,” New York Times, April 9, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/world/asia/10workers.html. [↩]
- 5. Steve Lohr, “Japan Appears Dispensable as a Supplier,” New York Times, May 29, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/30/business/global/30supply.html. [↩]
- 6. P. Hoyois, R. Below, J-M. Scheuren, and D. Guha-Sapir, Annual Disaster Review: Numbers and Trends 2006 (Brussels: Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, 2007). [↩]
- 7. Daniel P. Aldrich, Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008). [↩]
- 8. Rieko Kage, Civic Engagement in Postwar Japan: The Revival of a Defeated Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Daniel P. Aldrich, “Social, Not Physical, Infrastructure: The Critical Role of Civil Society in Disaster Recovery,” Disasters (forthcoming); and Daniel P. Aldrich, “A Crisis Silver Lining: Volunteerism, Smarter Building and Open Debate,” Asahi Shinbun, May 5, 2011. [↩]
- 9. Daniel P. Aldrich, Building Resilience (Chicago: Chicago University Press, forthcoming). [↩]