Monday, March 21, 2011

Japan, nuclear energy and democracy

Looking at other climate blogs, nuclear power seems to be a link between the catastrophic events in Japan and the climate debate.  For many, nuclear energy is a necessary element of mitigation strategies; at the same time, resistance against nuclear power - especially by environmentalists or Greens - tends to be labeled in-consequent and irresponsible. This is often done in nationalistic terms (German angst, for example). In this post, I want to reflect upon both the irresponsibility and the nationalistic arguments. The question of energy deeply affects our basic understanding of culture and politics, to say the least. (The picture from The New Yorker here just serves as an illustration, but there is excellent free content on Japan in this issue).

I think we should avoid using national stereotypes such as German angst, or that the French or Japanese people are not afraid of nuclear power. Or that the Japanese do neither complain nor revolt. Those are national stereotypes which are used to support political goals or to 'objectify' political arguments. None of those arguments is 'true' in a literal sense. Nobody can really measure 'angst'. There are different ways how people reconcile with things that threaten their lives, be it volcanoes, the sea, earthquakes or nuclear power plants.

God / nature is in charge of volcano eruptions and earthquakes; it is the nuclear industry/science/politics complex that is in charge of nuclear energy. Humans only can pray to God in order to ease their 'angst' of tsunamis; but people can organize democratic protest against nuclear power. Labeling protest 'angst' is ridiculing the democratic movement against this form of energy. Even worse, it is ridiculing democracy.

Why do the French not protest? Do they lack 'angst', or democracy, or something else? Just read the short description of Francoise Zonabend's book "the nuclear peninsula":
A quiet French country district is the site of a nuclear waste-processing plant. Francoise Zonabend describes the ways in which those working in the plant, and living nearby, come to terms with the risks in their daily lives. She provides a superb sociology of the nuclear work-place, with its divisions and hierarchies, and explains the often unexpected responses of the workers to the fear of radiation and contamination. The work is described euphemistically in terms of women's tasks - cleaning, cooking, preparing a soup - but the male workers subvert this language to create a more satisfying self-image. They divide workers into the cautious ('rentiers') and the bold ('kamikazes') who relish danger. By analyzing work practices and the language of the work-place, the author shows how workers and locals can recognize the possibility of nuclear catastrophe while, at the same time, denying that it could ever happen to them. This is a major contribution to the anthropology of modern life.
Japanese are not afraid of nuclear energy? The philosopher Kenichi Meshima recommends to learn Japanese and calls it 'pure ethno-centrism' to label the Japanese as not revolting and accepting things uncomplainingly.

Thus, using those national stereotypes indeed is playing semantic tricks. Consider this example: I guess, you all know the sociological term 'atomistic individual' as an expression for the isolation / singularization of people in late modernity? Atomistic is here used as a negative term, of course. Why not interpret this as a wonderful semantic strategy to hide fear of nuclear energy in shifting it on the social field (but using nuclear vocabulary)? Or consider the link between the bikini atolls as a site for nuclear testing, and the bikini as a swimming suit, and finally the German Atombusen (atomic boobs? I think there is no anglophone expression), as Fritz Kramer showed in his ethnographic study. Humans are strange animals, permanently playing tricks with language to manipulate reality.

We should also carefully consider another argument; one which was made here on klimazwiebel (and which is really worth being considered, no doubt!) concerning the German 'Ausstieg' (shutdown of the old nuclear plants).
"Many people just ignore that a major energy crisis would not only affect their personal lifestyle (which they believe to be changeable maybe) but the social, economical and political security on a large scale."

I think everybody who grew up in the eighties of the last century knows that nuclear power deeply affected "the social, economic and political security on a large scale". From mass demonstrations, police force to Chernobyl, there was a huge political, social and economic uproar. The same is true for every other form of energy, by the way. Everybody knows how deeply oil affects our political security - see only recently Iraq, Gulf of Mexico, Libya etc... And it won't be different with renewable energies: they also will affect our lives, of course (except that they are non-pollutant). Energy always means power, in the double sense of electricity and political power.

By the way, I think it's amazing to see how easily many skeptics seem to embrace nuclear energy. Compared to nuclear science, mainstream climate science indeed is a club of honest brokers. No other science was so deeply corrupted by politics and industry as nuclear science was. No other form of energy was established against so many protests as was nuclear energy; no other form of energy is enforcing so many anti-democratic means and measures for being implanted and sustained.  Nuclear energy cannot be left to nuclear science alone (and never was).

Nuclear energy is - as all other forms of energy - deeply cultural and full of emotions. To think that science alone can solve this question is merely daydreaming. Oil runs through our veins, Japanese spinach and milk is contaminated with radioactivity, and wind blows through our hair - the question of energy affects each and every aspect of our lives. Indeed, no easy challenge. Maybe it is good to have earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear power in mind when thinking about future energy decisions. Humans will be involved in any case, as they are in Japan, right now.


Anonymous said...

"Embracing nuclear energy"?

You are right: no other scientific branch is so deeply corrupted by politics and industry as nuclear science. We knew that and we can see again in Japan.

There is too much money in the energy business and a lack of scientific and democratic control whatever technology you have a closer look at.

Among other aspects let me mention two:
even if Germany shuts down all its nuclear power plants: France, Sweden, China, India, the USA etc. won't do the same.
The german plants are not going to disappear, neither the nuclear waste they have produced until yet.

What ever you wish to become true: we live in a nuclear world. It's real and it won't go away when we keep our eyes firmly closed.

There is two ways to deal with this reality (besides indifference): protest against it or trying to make things better, including technical safety AND scientific and democratic control.

And yes, I remember Klaus Traube and Robert Jungk ("Atom-Staat"), both of them warning us that democracy and nuclear power do not match.
Unfortunately this doesn't teach us how to deal with reality and the problems we are confronted with.

The important point: citizens and consumers can no longer delegate responsibility to faceless managers and bureaucrats.

If failure is part of the evolutionary process, Japan and the whole world have been taught a lesson. But let me add: there is no backdoor escape for Germany in this case.


Günter Heß said...

@Wolfgang Krauss and Ralph
I had my experience with the bavarian government and the “Bayrische Bereitschaftspolizei” in Schwandorf and Wackersdorf. Not a good time for democracy. Indeed.
I just don’t think nuclear science is more corrupt than climate science or any other science. Human beings all in all, giving their best in their daily work and lives.
Your generalization is not justified, although the german media always carry that message in every other sentence. I don’t like this attitude of unjustified superiority in the climate debate and in the energy debate. It is just too easy and convenient. I even consider it irresponsible in our democracy.

Freddy Schenk said...

The problem is not Germany - nuclear power is only 20% of the energy mix here. As we produce around 150 GW, but never needed more than around 80 GW at peak value, the situation is relatively relaxed to shut down nuclear power stations in the next years.

However, the situation e.g. in France is much more difficult with 80% of electricity produced by nuclear power stations.

Chris said...

Thank you for this article. I realized that even in German news it is common to attribute protests against nuclear power to an increasing "Angst" of the Germans towards this form of energy. This is really unjustified and annoying. In fact, I think it is more the other way round: People who really became scared about what happened in Japan (which I can understand) would rather stay paralyzed and consume the news in the media, instead of going outside on the street to express their opinion.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

"I think it's amazing to see how easily many skeptics seem to embrace nuclear energy."

What is amazing about that? Isn't it rather amazing how many envioronmentalists embrace nuclear out of Klimaangst?

The latest example is George Monbiot, in today's Guardian, entitled "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power" Read it here

Werner Krauss said...

It's amazing because many skeptics are so eager to blame climate science, but never talk about nuclear science. Nuclear science has been in bed with 'power' from its very beginning; it's hiding information by its very nature; it's subsidized by governments (democratic or not); it's regularly hijacked by industry, politics, dictatorships, interest groups; nuclear science is permanently balancing on the fine line between generating electricity or bombs, and so on....
Certain skeptics love to blame mainstream climate science for "hiding the decline", but I never heard them blaming nuclear science for "hiding the fall-out". That's what I had in mind when writing 'amazing'.

Thanks for the Guardian article. Another (change of) opinion. Maybe it's not a good time for changing or even having opinions. It's more than one can bear: an earthquake, a tsunami (yesterday I saw the number of 20.000 deaths on the news ticker), and a power plant out of control. We all stare at the screen. It's demoralizing: will the pro-nuclear activists triumph when the power plant will be saved? Will the anti-nuclear front feel self-assured when not? This cannot be the question. Maybe the real challenge is to set opinions aside and to see if there is anything else left. Cherry blossom.

Werner Krauss said...

@Günther Heß #2

I agree; of course, nuclear science is not more corrupt than other sciences. This is not the point. The stuff they deal with is more 'corrupt' than other materials - that's the point. That makes the difference.

My point was to point out the hypocrisy of those who blame climate science as especially corrupt(ible) (as is documented widely here on klimazwiebel) and at the same time praise nuclear science completely uncritically.

You are right, there is no reason for unjustified superiority. But in the context of klimazwiebel's debating spirit, I think it is justified to make here this argument.

Werner Krauss said...

Nuclear semantics after Hirsohima: Japanese identity, Bikini atolls, Hiroshima and Fukushima merge in the memory of 1954 when fishermen on a Japanese fisherboat were exposed to nuclear radiation close to the Bikini atolls, where the American had tested the nuclear bomb. Another "proof" that Japan fell victim to the devilish experiments of the Americans. The author of this spiegel-online article says this is one of the reasons that Japan never fully committed to its own violation of human rights in the war.

"Und 1954 weckte dann das grausame Schicksal der Besatzung des Fischkutters "Fukuryumaru" neue Ängste: Die Japaner waren radioaktiv verstrahlt worden, als sie in der Nähe des Bikini-Atolls fischten - just zu dem Zeitpunkt, als die US-Marine dort eine Atombombe testete.

Es handelte sich wohl um einen Zufall, doch viele Japaner sehen das bis heute anders: Sie fielen demnach erneut dem teuflischen Experiment ihrer einstigen Kriegsgegner zum Opfer. Zur Erinnerung ist die "Fukuryumaru" heute in einem Tokioter Park zur Besichtigung aufgestellt.

Aus dem kollektiven Bewusstsein, als "einzige Nation" den Atombomben zum Opfer gefallen zu sein, schöpfen die Japaner bis heute fast eine Art moralische Überlegenheit gegenüber den amerikanischen Siegern. Nicht zuletzt wegen Hiroshima und Nagasaki weigert sich das Inselvolk beharrlich, sich überzeugend für eigene Kriegsgreuel zu entschuldigen.",1518,752401,00.html

Anonymous said...

@ Werner

Sorry to say that - but you risk your neck with this kind of careless talk.

Let me cite another article in SPIEGEL 12/2011, page 76, where you find an interview with the E-on CEO Johannes Teyssen.

Title: "Moralisches Handeln - über die Zwangsstilllegung alter Atomkraftwerke"

Tyssen: "Moralisch zu handeln heißt, sich mit allen Kräften auf die Bewältigung der Katastrophe in Japan zu konzentrieren. Für die deutschen Probleme und die Ausstiegs- und Umbaudiskussion sollten wir uns Zeit nehmen"

In other words: it's not the time to care about the ethno-centric consternation of the (white) western middle class, staring at screens, being torne between the news from Libya or Japan.

The triage model determines "the priority of patients' treatments based on the severity of their condition, dividing victims into three categories:
Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome"

Pick your option.


Werner Krauss said...

as far as I remember this is not the first time that you consider things cultural as secondary. As an anthropologist, I do not share this opinion. I also do not consider e-on CEOs necessarily as experts in moral questions. And what does you, Ralph, qualify as a moral priest with the authority to judge my talk as 'careless'? This sounds pretty arrogant to me.

Anonymous said...

@ Werner

of course "cultural aspects" are interesting.
In the face of a human catastrophe they clearly get less important, achieving no significant priority in a rational triage model. Any other approach would be racist.

The SPIEGEL article you have linked above does exactely what you try to avoid when you say "using those national stereotypes indeed is playing semantic tricks". Besides Kamikaze, Shikata ga nai, Sushi, Bikini, cherry blossom etc. - there are just Fugu, Fuji and Geishas missing to make the usual list of stereotypes complete.

Arrogance would be an another issue to talk about. Qualifying the moral competence of e-on CEOs or skeptical attitudes in general for instance.

Me, a moral priest?
What an assessment. I'll give a top position in my collection of defamations, promised!

How about getting back to the thread?
Thinking over if "it is good to have earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear power in mind when thinking about future energy decisions" - or cultural differences in political cynism and hysteria, just to mention two subjects of further investigation.

Another interesting point: I can't see much evidence for the "Japanese victim" theory presented in the article. It seems more to support the idea of some kind of a judgment day for Japan and the western world.


Werner Krauss said...

Ralph, please read my comments carefully before you judge them.

I did NOT qualify the moral competence of CEOs 'in general'. I said CEOs are not 'necessarily' experts in moral questions. See the difference?

I posted the spiegel-quote because it links the Bikini atolls, nuclear radiation and Japan, as I did in my post above. It adds another interesting detail. You would have realized this if you had only read my previous entries more carefully.

(Besides that I ccept your criticism of the stereotypes and apocalyptic undertone of the article. On the other hand, there seems to be a culture of apocalypse in Japan, which indeed is related to nuclear catastrophes. If so, this is not to be neglected!).

And what is wrong with considering the possibility of earthquakes or tsunamis when making decisions about future energy choices? I think we should, indeed! Why is this arrogant, hysterical and cynic? I don't understand. I am afraid you are ranting without a cause.

Concerning your 'rational triage model' and your wish to suspend culture: as in Chernobyl, obviously in Japan there are people who risk their lives in the broken power plants. This is indeed a matter of 'culture': who would you or the e-on CEO chose for such a suicidal job in Germany?

Besides that I don't like your attitude to teach me 'catastrophe morals'. Do you want to suggest that I would not help other people? That I am racist? That I do NOT CARE? If so - what makes you different from a moral priest?

Last but not least: this thread is work in progress. Yes, I 'risk my neck' in posting my meandering thoughts. This is indeed work in progress, errors included. In doing so, I offer you and others a public space to express their opinions, concerns and criticism. Please keep that in mind.

_Flin_ said...

Concerning "future energy decisions": I'd like to point over to <A HREF=">an article at Telepolis</A> about the real possibility that an Italian engineer has built a machine that creates energy from cold fusion.

I regard it as highly unlikely (just because things that are too good to be true usually aren't true) and am very skeptical that this really works. But if this is true, it will be a game-changer on a scale that is hard to imagine yet.

Concerning nuclear power i second that it's always amazing how right wing people or libertarians embrace a technology that involves a lot of regulations, state subsidies and governmental control. And which isn't really competitive in the market due to a lot of reasons (here I assume that a competitve technology leads to new plants being build, which just doesn't happen).

_Flin_ said...

I am sorry, I forgot the " at the link above again. Need to use previews more.

Anonymous said...

@ Werner

"meandering thoughts ..."

... are like meandering rivers flowing on a relatively flat surface. The water searches its path not in a straight line but in all directions offering a lower ground, thus forming loops. The outer edges of this curves are deeper while the inner edges, where sedimenst are deposited, are shalllow. There might be shortcuts from one loop to the next - and rivers cut deeper when the land rises.

To translate that: no, I don't "teach you 'catastrophe morals' and I do not suggest "that you would not help other people" or that you are racist.
Far from that. I'm just watching the confusing loops of this stream of thoughts we are floating in, keeping my eyes on deeper and lower water zones to find a way to ship through.

And no again, I do not wish to "suspend culture".
We could talk about culture of safety for instance and its compatibility with the japanese culture promoting respect for loyalty, belongingness and submission to hierarchical authority.

Obviously the "Kaizen" philosophy ("change for the better"), well known from the automobile production, has not been applied in the japanese atomic industry . Maybe democratic control and nuclear power hardly find together indeed.

And yes, I would risk my life if it was necessary to save a lot other's lifes. Who wouldn't?


fmassen said...

Werner Krauss: "Nuclear science has been in bed with 'power' from its very beginning; it's hiding information by its very nature; it's subsidized by governments"

Yes it is, but what is the percentage of subsidies in the price of 1 kWh nuclear versus 1 kWh photovoltaic energy?
Please do not use the argument of "subsidies" against nuclear electricity; this really is a double-edged sword when you include renewables.

Werner Krauss said...

@fmassen #16

Sorry, but to ask me kindly not to use the argument is not enough; you have to tell me why. So what is the percentage of subsidies photovoltaic versus nuclear? You forgot to answer your question. Please include all the hidden subsidies, too (research, risks & costs for taxpayer, costs for Gorleben, Asse etc...).

Werner Krauss said...

fmassen #16
Just stumbled across this calculation on breakthrough:

It compares German solar energy with Fukushima energy output and costs etc. (with nuclear the winner). For me, this article mostly shows that this kind of calculation is an impossible task. It tries to reduce the question of energy to costs and productivity only, while neglecting the fact that energy is always a political, social and cultural force.

I think the same would happen when we try to compare subsidies, nuclear versus solar: on first sight an easy task - just calculate the numbers; on second sight, the question what you consider as subsidy immediately comes up and obscures any clarity.

The energy debate is very often characterized by this kind of impossible conversation: one side argues politically / morally, while the other one argues only with numbers.

But in the course of the debate it more often than not turns out that the scientific argument is cultural or political, too - it only obscures its political content. The political is the inclusion and exclusion of factors in the calculation, of course.

Energy is as much a problem of communication as it is one of technology. The question of energy always carries the double meaning of 'power'; it is not possible to separate exactly the political from the scientific.
(just consider the talk about 'eco-dictatorship' or 'Atomstaat' (nuclear dictatorship).

The energy discussion is about power, indeed: what kind of society do we want to live in, and what kind of energy mix fits the respective vision best? Or is it the other way round: how much do specific forms of energy structure our visions of a good society?