Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University


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Disowning Fukushima: Managing the credibility of nuclear reliability assessment in the wake of disaster

Journal Article

John Downer - Former Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow

Published by
Regulation & Governance, July 22, 2013


This paper reflects on the credibility of nuclear risk assessment in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns. In democratic states, policymaking around nuclear energy has long been premised on an understanding that experts can objectively and accurately calculate the probability of catastrophic accidents. Yet the Fukushima disaster lends credence to the substantial body of social science research that suggests such calculations are fundamentally unworkable. Nevertheless, the credibility of these assessments appears to have survived the disaster, just as it has resisted the evidence of previous nuclear accidents. This paper looks at why. It argues that public narratives of the Fukushima disaster invariably frame it in ways that allow risk-assessment experts to “disown” it. It concludes that although these narratives are both rhetorically compelling and highly consequential to the governance of nuclear power, they are not entirely credible.