Leaking water and collapsing trust: a comment on recent Fukushima news

Fukushima – or more precisely its eponymous Dai’ichi nuclear power plant – was in the news again this week. And, as is almost inevitably the case when energy infrastructure makes the popular press, it was for the wrong reasons.

The first indication I got that something was afoot was when a Tweet from plant operator TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) appeared in my timeline, only to be swiftly deleted. It then reappeared ten minutes later with some minor English language corrections, and informed the reader that radioactive data had risen at drainage points – but that no contaminated water leakage had been confirmed. Another story then popped up about high radiation levels in a separate drainage channel. Both incidents continue to be investigated, although it has been suggested that contaminated water from rain puddles on the roof of one of the reactor buildings may be to blame for one of the radioactivity rises.

Fishing port, Nakoso, Iwaki, Fukushima.

Fishing port, Nakoso, Iwaki, Fukushima.

Now I am not a chemist or marine biologist, so I will not comment or speculate on potential effects of this on the adjoining marine environment. What I do know about, though, is engagement with publics and stakeholders on uncertainty and risk, particularly when it comes to energy and the sea. I also happen to have a bit of experience with the social dimensions of marine contamination in Fukushima, having spent time there on a Japan Foundation Fellowship last summer.

What jumped out at me, therefore, was a statement from the local fisheries cooperative that trust in TEPCO had ‘collapsed’ after a briefing meeting on the new developments. There appears to be particular anger that the high radioactivity levels have been continuing for some time, and that information relating to these developments is not perceived as being sufficiently timely or detailed. All of this also comes against a backdrop of negotiations between TEPCO and fishers over plans for a sub-drain to pump up groundwater from beneath Dai’ichi, decontaminate it and release it into the ocean.

It is well known in energy social science that trust is an important part of dialogue and engagement on risks, so the images of justifiably furious fishers inundating TEPCO officials with questions during meetings on subdrains and these leaks show exactly the kind of process that can result when conditions of trust are not in place. Anybody ever uttering the phrase ‘people get emotional and you can’t have a rational discussion’ should take a look at footage of the Fukushima fishers challenging TEPCO representatives to see how profoundly people are affected when their whole livelihood and way of life is seen as being under threat. You don’t need to be able to understand Japanese – let alone Fukushima dialect – to see that emotions are an integral part of governing environments. (As the newsreels from NHK Fukushima appear to be deleted on a seven-day rolling cycle, I’ve linked to a video of a meeting last year on the subdrain plans. Q&A starts at about 40 minutes in).

It is also worth reflecting on why exactly this trust has collapsed. Alongside a perceived lack of transparency in TEPCO’s monitoring, there also appears to be a sense that – with the myriad leaks springing up on site nearly four years after the earthquake and tsunami – the operators somehow give the impression of lacking complete competence in their operations. The fishers and cooperative officials I spoke to in Fukushima often talked about the nuclear plant itself as something distant and out of their control, expressing worry that any unexpected events at Dai’ichi could undo their hard work in re-establishing trial fisheries and slowly rebuilding consumer confidence through careful monitoring of produce for sale. This in turn can even lead to a vicious cycle – even when an operator does try to communicate in a timely manner (TEPCO, for instance, now uses Twitter to report incidents), their attempts may be viewed with scepticism if the organisation itself is not trusted.

Team effort - fishers, cooperative administrators and prefectural scientists unloacl a trial catch.

Team effort – fishers, cooperative administrators and prefectural scientists unloacl a trial catch.

But if fishers cannot trust TEPCO, to whom can they turn? One of the things that surprised and impressed me in equal measure last year was the good working relationship between the fisheries cooperatives and the prefectural (i.e. regional)-level scientists. Local government scientists contribute to radioactivity monitoring of marine produce, and get out and about by driving around the ports for face-to-face informal interaction with fishers. The long-term working relationship they have with the cooperatives, stretching back before the accident, lends itself very well to creating conditions for informed debate on marine radioactivity and the uncertainties contained within it.

But whilst local government scientists can act as a conduit for both getting information on radioactivity to fishers and also giving fishers a means of airing their monitoring needs and thoughts on the radiation situation, what they cannot do is bring Fukushima Dai’ichi under control. The recent radioactivity incidents illustrate that there are still unknowns – no matter how small – about the boundaries between land and water around the nuclear power plant. One of the challenges now is to acknowledge the profound implications these uncertainties can have on coastal communities and stakeholders in Fukushima with a deep connection to the sea, and to treat their very legitimate concerns with appropriate respect.

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