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Reviewed by:
  • Learning from a Disaster: Improving Nuclear Safety and Security after Fukushima ed. by Edward D. Blandford, Scott D. Sagan
  • Takuji Okamoto (bio)
Learning from a Disaster: Improving Nuclear Safety and Security after Fukushima.
Edited by Edward D. Blandford and Scott D. Sagan. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2016. Pp. 232. $27.95.

Except one environmental historian, the contributors to this collection of articles are social scientists and engineers, and all chapters, including the one by the only historian, mainly analyze contemporary factors that caused and probably worsened the disaster in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011. Historians, nevertheless, will find the topics discussed here relevant to their interests.

Those who regard the unprecedented tsunami as the cause of the Fukushima nuclear failure might think that it could not have been prevented anyway. They might even accept the inadequate seawall heights of the nuclear plant as the result of reasonable statistical risk analysis concerning the historical tsunamis. However, after seeing Nobumasa Akiyama (Chapter 4) argue that poor crisis leadership in the government and the power company [End Page 192] prevented appropriate decision-making right after the earthquake and tsunami, one might start wondering whether the disaster could not have been handled in a somewhat better manner, though stopping it from developing at all might seem inconceivable. It might not have been so bad as it actually was. Toshihiro Higuchi (Chapter 5) criticizes the Tokyo government’s over-reliance on numerical standards for radiation protection that confused and troubled the evacuating population. Both Kaoru Naito (Chapter 3) and Kazuto Suzuki (Chapter 6) point to the possible effectiveness of the synergy between nuclear security and safety efforts, represented by the so-called B.5.b measures developed after 9/11 in the United States, which were somehow not adopted by the Japanese. Phillip Y. Lipsy, Kenji E. Kushida, and Trevor Incerti (Chapter 7) conclude that in Japan, the largest power companies’ nuclear plants were more vulnerable to tsunami and flooding than those of the smaller businesses, implicitly blaming the power industry’s regional monopoly system.

Furthermore, Edward D. Blandford and Michael M. May (Chapter 8) summarize that in addition to being part of the background of the failure, “lack of transparency before the accident made the political consequences of the accident more severe than they might otherwise had been” (p. 195). And finally, according to Gregory D. Wyss (Chapter 2), even the siting and design of the Fukushima Daiichi and its inadequate seawall heights were the results of the Design Basis philosophy that the Japanese government and nuclear industry had been invoking. With a different Design Basis philosophy, the flooding could have been prevented on 11 March 2011, as was observed at the Onagawa plant, which underwent a tsunami as high as the one that struck Fukushima Daiichi (Kushida, Chapter 1). After these examinations of the factors that caused and worsened the disaster, the authors naturally look to the future and suggest ways to improve worldwide nuclear safety and security.

The social scientists’ and engineers’ analyses of the Fukushima disaster will give historians precious insight on where they should seek its historical root causes. Besides topics that have been discussed well since the Fukushima nuclear failure, some other issues still remain untouched. They include, for example, apparent disregard of security matters in the nuclear industry, lack of concern with crisis management in the government, and historical development of the use of Design Basis. Though these may no longer seem to be closely related to the interests in the Fukushima disaster, they can open up new possibilities for historical study of technology in general, which would not have been very obvious to historians but for such contemporary analyses as this book presents. [End Page 193]

Takuji Okamoto

Takuji Okamoto is professor of history of science at the University of Tokyo. His interest is in the history of physics in the United States, the development of operationalism of P. W. Bridgman, and the cultural and political implications of science and technology in modern Japan.



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