by John Downer
Stanford University and University of Bristol


Both the legitimacy and governance of nuclear power plants are premised on formal calculations (probabilistic risk assessments) proving that major accidents will not happen. The 2011 meltdowns at Fukushima suggests that these calculations are untrustworthy. Yet the assessment process has retained its legitimacy: the ‘nuclear renaissance’ continues almost unabated, with policymakers invoking the same assessments to rationalize it. This is possible because – as with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl – public accounts of the accident have framed the disaster in ways that ‘redeem’ the legitimacy of nuclear risk assessment as a practice. This paper looks at how. It outlines four basic ‘rites of redemption’: narratives by which accounts distance the failure to predict Fukushima from the credibility of nuclear risk calculations writ-large. It critiques each of these narratives in turn, and argues that they serve to occlude a wider truth about complex technological systems, with perverse consequences regarding public policy.


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