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In Wake of Fukushima Disaster, Japan's Scientists Ponder How to Regain Public Trust

28 November 2011 2:27 pm
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Dennis Normile

Communication breakdown. Science Council of Japan President Takashi Onishi wants to provide advice.

TOKYO—Public confidence in Japan's scientists and engineers took a major hit from the 11 March earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. How to regain it was a major theme of a recent symposium held here to explore the role of scientists in the accident, and their responsibilities both before and after.

"Many questions have been raised about the performance of scientists: What could we have done? What could have been done differently?" Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, an engineer and former president of the University of Tokyo, said at the 26 November symposium, which was sponsored by the Science Council of Japan, the nation's leading science and engineering society, and other groups.

The Fukushima accident exposed troubling issues, speakers noted. Despite the resources poured into analyzing crustal movements and having expert committees determine earthquake risk, for instance, researchers never considered the possibility of a magnitude-9 earthquake followed by a massive tsunami. The failure of multiple safety features on nuclear power plants has raised questions about the nation's engineering prowess. Government flip-flopping on acceptable levels of radiation exposure confused the public, and health professionals provided little guidance. Facing a dearth of reliable information on radiation levels, citizens armed themselves with dosimeters, pooled data, and together produced radiological contamination maps far more detailed than anything the government or official scientific sources ever provided.

Such developments suggest scientists and engineers "need to reposition ourselves in relation to the governmental administration and the general public [so that] the scientific community can play a useful role in providing scientific advice," said Science Council President Takashi Onishi, an urban planner at the University of Tokyo.

Several speakers blasted their own fields. "There must have been complacency" about safety among nuclear experts, said Satoru Tanaka, a nuclear engineer at the University of Tokyo and president of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan. He noted that nuclear regulators did not incorporate the latest thinking on nuclear safety and warnings from Japanese seismologists and tsunami experts into evaluations of existing plants. During the crisis, Tanaka said, his society was "not able to fulfill our stated mission" of being the most reliable source of information on nuclear power. The society is studying how to rebuild its credibility while trying to help the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. wrestle with the thorny issues of disposing of damaged fuel and demolishing the four damaged reactors.

Japan faces hard choices in recovering from the triple disaster, other speakers said. Disposing of the "tens of millions of cubic meters of contaminated soil [would] surpass the total capacity of all disposal sites in Japan," noted Kyoto University civil engineer Minoru Yoneda. Stripping soil and vegetation could increase flooding and landslides. Finding the right balance between decontamination and risk is a gray area. "The question of how much [low dose radiation] is tolerable is open," said radiation health expert Tomoko Kusama, president of Oita University of Nursing and Health Sciences.

Resolving such issues will require reliable scientific advice, but many speakers argued that paths for scientific input into public policy in Japan are underdeveloped. During the crisis, "scientists acted separately and disparately, so accurate information was not being given to policy makers," said Yoshikawa, who called on scientists to develop "a coherent voice."

In the end, although participants appeared to share a general sense that the scientific community needs to regain public trust and take a more active role in proffering advice, they put forward no concrete proposals for reform. Onishi promised a report on how the community and the council should respond by the first anniversary of the 11 March disaster.

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