“What does it feel like?”

The news about Fukushima Daiichi nuclear waste leaking into the ocean and groundwater, prompts us to take a look at what the sciences can model effectively when it comes to environmental decision making and risks

By Rajeswari S Raina
Published: Monday 02 September 2013

The news about Fukushima Daiichi nuclear waste leaking into the ocean and other groundwater bodies, prompts us to take a look at what the sciences can model effectively when it comes to environmental decision making and risks. There is a need for good science and an ethical rationality over and above scientific rationality in public policy decisions

Is it like a shower? Is it warm? If you look up, how far up can you see? Does the rain enter your eyes, your nose? Can you fill your mouth with rainwater?

These are questions that children ask. Children who will grow up never knowing what the rain feels like. They will never know what the grass feels like against bare feet or the taste of an apple or cherry from their own orchards. They grow up in zones around the unfortunate Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors; live indoors, sprint on tracks built inside school corridors and public buildings, watch the world from within, and have heard recorded voices of birds. ‘What does the rain feel like” symbolizes a generation that has lost a normal life!

A special panel on ‘Medical and Academic responses to Fukushima Nuclear Accident’ organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the Asia Pacific Science, Technology, Society (APSTS) Network Conference in Tembusu College, National University Singapore, July 15-17, 2013, highlighted these questions. The child psychologist, Dr. Komatsu, presenting these questions and the pictures drawn by these children had the audience gasping for reason. Is there any rationale or justification that can explain this loss?

On the 26th of August 2013, the Government of Japan declared that it was moving to the forefront and taking over the reactors and the clean up operation from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which was to clean up and monitor the radiation leak, especially the contaminated water. Today, the Japanese Government and the Nuclear Regulatory Authority rate the Fukushima leak of contaminated water into the ecosystem – ocean and neighbouring groundwater systems, as 3 (a high danger rating in the scale of 7). But this rating and the show of strength from the state happens more than two years after the disaster in March 2011. It comes after public acknowledgement last week, of over 300 metric tones of contaminated water leaking out into the ocean and other groundwater bodies. The water that leaked has beta radiation levels of 80 million becquerels per litre (over 8 million times the permissible radiation level limits for drinking water). The government has now demanded a thorough ‘risk assessment’ of underground storage of this irradiated water. Technologies, specific solutions are available – two long ‘ice walls’, liquid glass or sodium silicate pumped into the soil– one to prevent fresh groundwater from the hillsides to reach the nuclear waste, and the second to prevent the contaminated water from flowing into the ocean and other local water bodies. The ice walls may take anywhere between 1-2 years to build – till then, underground trenches may be needed to divert the groundwater flows from hillsides to other channels. Science and technology (S&T) will always come up with a solution once there is a problem; but the incidence of the problem is beyond S&T.

At the APSTS Conference, the panel spoke about uncertainties and natural disasters, and the ways in which the Government is supporting radiation affected people – the tracks painted onto sealed school corridors, are definitely signs of this wholehearted support from the state. The state was prepared for these support services. It had enough doctors from its own Nagasaki and Hiroshima, from various collaborating hospitals and research institutes from across the world, and a few trained psychologists and social workers to care for those affected by post trauma distress syndrome. But the children have little distress. They do not know what they have lost, or why they are in this make-believe world; apparently, the rotten heap of apples lying untouched in their own yard was once delicious fruit preserve that their mothers claim they made at home!

Risk and decision making

Today, there is need to revisit the distinction between risk and uncertainties. More specifically, to ask whether public policy on nuclear waste (the case we discuss here) should rely exclusively on scientific rationality. Risk assessment studies were once the heart and blood of STS. Kristine Shrader- Frechette, Sheila Jasanoff, Ulrich Beck, Mark Sagoff, and many others (whose works I am yet to read) have contributed richly and generously1 to the debate on the nature of S&T, development decision-making involving S&T (processes, components or products), and risk. There are published papers on estimating risks of nuclear disasters of various types – especially in the wake of an earthquake or other natural disasters in different locations (within high seismic activity regions, near dams, etc.). These studies estimate the probability of occurrence of a risk event, as well as the probable magnitude and range (especially in terms of time and economic damage) of loss. Japan is aware of the risks.

Let us recall that the Japanese government did reconsider its nuclear energy programme in the months following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. It also had enough energy reserves to shut down 50 of its 54 reactors after disaster struck and check each power plant for any damage due to the earthquake.

What is clearly damning about the recent announcement about leaking contaminated water into the ocean and other water bodies in the region is that they are being debated right now in the USA, and similar problems about nuclear waste were analysed and published previously. In particular (Shrader-Frechette, 19972) a study that questioned the rationality framing the decisions and assessments about the public safety and hazards of storing nuclear waste permanently in the Yucca Mountain and Maxey Flats underground repositories, shed light on what is happening today in Fukushima Daiichi. The US Department of Energy spent millions of US$ - the tax payer’s money to build the underground repositories in the Yucca mountains, to store nuclear waste. A special peer group of hydro-geologists and geologists ‘unanimously concluded in 1992, that no specific predictions …. were possible because of massive uncertainties’ (ibid, p. S149). In 1995, a National Research Council Committee of the Board on Radioactive Waste Management said that ‘uncertainties could be bounded and that it was possible to estimate reliably hydrogeological and repository performance over the next million years’ (ibid, S 150).

The questions that Shrader-Frechette asks are the following: How do we know whether to accept or reject a given scientific model – for example, for groundwater migration- when the situation is empirically under-determined? And how do we –as scientists and policy makers, frame such questions of model choice, when they have important policy consequences?

There are serious methodological concerns about calibration of the hydro-geological models (system assumptions and values for particular parameters), and inadequacy and inaccuracy of data available. There is a gap between the period of interest (a million years being tens of thousands times more) and the number of years for which data is available for any factual observation. In addition substantial spatial and temporal heterogeneity of the hills, the incidence of rain, the sub-surface drainage patterns, pose complex methodological issues that the models have to address, and make assumptions about.

When scientists are asked to makeup for these problems with benchmarking, the hydrogeological measurement problems are innumerable. For one, there is no group of fully representative soil cores for a hillside (marked by heterogeneities and changing nature of fracturing). Also, the nature of drying and wetting of the soil and associated time lags (exhibiting hysteresis) over the long term, alleged soil moisture features like ‘wilting point’ and ‘field capacity’, etc., demand accurate meso level data over time, for any reliable benchmark. If poor measurements are not allowable, the alternative, model calibration or designing the model to reproduce the specific field responses within some range of accuracy is a bit of a travesty. This is because establishing a criterion of fit between simulated responses and recorded responses, to ensure accuracy of the model, is not possible without long term measurements in the first place (which, funnily enough, is why we need a model!). Finally, because hydrogeological situations are so unique, complex and heterogeneous, and are changing over time, replication is impossible. So ideally, when scientists who are aware of these methodological and measurement problems are asked to use the best available models, they should state that these models are the best available, but are inadequate.

Science and public policy

Even when an ideal model is available, when public policy and in this case, public safety is in question, Shrader-Frechette presents six scientific reasons why the ideal model may not be enough to provide a conclusive answer. For instance, even with a best fit model, there are questions about what levels (of the parameter- in this case radiation, or ground water contamination due to stored wastes) are considered safe enough.

Most critically, in situations where risks are known, there is a need for ethical rationality which can help policy makers select from alternative technologies, be it for energy generation, solving problems created by energy generation, or providing rapid response to people crushed by the solution thus provided. Risk is a clear statement thus (measurable and estimable probabilities and values), born of good transparent, ethically informed S&T and public policy. Today, when the NRC in the US has re-opened the Yucca mountain permanent nuclear waste deposit debate, and the residents of Fukushima Daiichi are facing the same (post tsunami and earthquake) hydrogeological phenomena that cost them dearly, we must reiterate the need for good ethically informed S&T and decision-making. As Shrader-Frechette (1997) notes, the anti-science movements gain from science’s own failure to acknowledge and confront many such questions that have public policy implications.

It is apt that Japan’s IV Basic S&T Plan (2011-15) begins with changes in the expected roles of S&T given the ‘unprecedented crisis’ following the East Japan earthquake and tsunami. The document details the plans the country has to ensure that S&T is promoted and contributes effectively to the New Growth Strategy. S&T, according to the Basic Plan, is required to cater to sustainable growth and societal development, basic sciences and addressing priority challenges, and public policy created with society. There are serious efforts on the enable the latter – public policy with social articulation and participation. Yet, this document, though formulated post-tsunami and post-reactor meltdown, does not even mention risk. It does not consider it necessary to use S&T for risk assessments, communication to allay public fears and build trust as well as to ensure transparent communication within the sciences and their data sources. It does not consider it necessary to state where the borders between scientific rationality and ethical rationality in public policy meet and merge or diverge.

Perhaps a statement about risk assessments and the limitations that these assessments had, would have helped in the current situation when people fail to understand how their Government and its extremely high S&T capacities, left TEPCO to handle the nuclear waste clean-up. At least the transparency could have brought some reprieve and space for conversation between the government and the people in this province. The panel of medical doctors and experts who spoke at the APSTS Network Conference spoke about how well the state was responding the crisis, and preparing people physically and mentally to adjust to life in their newly irradiated world. The panel too, did not refer to risk, but to uncertainty. In a country that is considered a leader in S&T, in advanced theoretical and experimental research, it is surprising that the distinction between risk and uncertainty does not figure in its dialogues about the disaster and follow-up action. Now that the state is taking over the clean-up operation, public sector science and public policy have the opportunity to articulate these distinctions. In particular, they have an opportunity to gain the trust and partnership of the people who have been affected, and those who may be potentially affected.

We, as mothers and fathers across the world need a form of ‘trusteeship’ where ethically informed S&T and policy play a major role. We need a guarantee that our grandchildren will grow up knowing what the rain feels like.

1  I must emphasize the passion and generosity to promote knowledge that some scientists maintain, even in cases where their publications are not counted for promotions or when their publications voice not-so-popular issues in the interest of public welfare

2  Kristin Shrader-Frechette, 1997. Hydrogeology and Framing Questions having Policy Consequences, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 64. Proceedings of the 1996 Biennial Meetings of the Philosophy of Science Association. Part II: Symposia Papers (Dec. 1997) pp. S 149-160.

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