A tale of two reactors

Right now, by sheer chance I am sitting in the same chair, in the same place in Stockholm, as when I first heard the news about the Chernobyl accident. But today it is the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan that has had an explosion.There are interesting lessons in how the two disasters have been playing out.

25 years ago I was listening to the radio while playing with my computer. At first a news report told that there had been a radiation alarm at the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden. Over the day news updates confirmed the alarm, but also reported that the radiation was found on the outside of the reactor buildings, not on the inside. It had to be coming from somewhere else. By evening, it was fairly clear that it was blowing in from the east and speculation began to zoom in on a nuclear accident. Meanwhile the Soviet Union was stonewalling, not just externally but internally : Pripyat, the town next to the reactor, had been evacuated 36 hours after the accident – at first only a minor accident had been admitted, a government committee was sent to investigate, and after 24 hours of investigation they concluded that there was indeed extremely high radiation levels and an evacuation ought to happen.  Eventually the truth got out in the West, partially helped by blurry US surveillance satellite photos showing infrared hot spots at the reactor.

Compare that to the Fukushima reactor event. In the immediate aftermath of the Sendai earthquake the reactors automatically shut down, but the cooling systems were damaged by the tsunami. This caused a nuclear emergency to be declared, and evacuation orders to be sent out. At 16:30 JST there was an explosion, perhaps due to hydrogen buildup due to low water levels. This was reported in Japanese and global media within half an hour.

Unlike Chernobyl, there is massive reporting from the accident. Above I link to a Wikipedia article that lists various sources. There are at the moment 809 videos on Google video (most from the last 254 hours) showing everything from the detonation itself to expert interviews to rough simulations of radioactivity spread. Every single statement from the Japanese authorities are reported, blogged about and analysed.

What has happened in the past 25 years is a tremendous growth of media. Not just more television channels, not just more globalisation, but an increase in the number of personal media production channels. Earthquakes can be detected and followed in real-time on Twitter, the Sendai earthquake filled the net with pictures and videos from phones and cameras from eyewitnesses, individuals are commenting and reacting in a myriad ways, with other people acting as filters by recommending and linking to insightful or interesting posts. This is of course amplified when a disaster happens in a gadget-rich place like Japan;  there were little of the kind after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. But the technology is spreading and getting cheaper, as evidenced by the recent events in North Africa – the revolution will be televised, blogged, tweeted, translated, and remixed. Central control of information is threatened and in the long run likely futile without having such a stranglehold on people’s creative productivity that the economy suffers. This was one reason the Soviet Union had problems: the creative impulses that in open societies produce entrepreneurship, innovation and constructive criticism were hobbled or forced underground. The Internet was not built to transmit pictures of cats (yes, Maru is safe!) but that apparently pointless activity is producing spin-off companies, affecting animal rights issues and triggering many unexpected projects. It is not inconceivable that distributed reactions to the Fukushima incident can help evacuation, coordination and recovery in creative ways that no civil defence planner had ever envisioned.

This also leads to transparency. When bureaucrats and authorities kept information from people at Chernobyl it led to many people coming to harm. Few if any of them were held accountable for it – largely because they were acting according to the proper procedures of an uncertainty avoidant system aiming at top-down control over information flows. Better to do nothing – even when it causes harm – but follow the rules than take a risk to one’s position. Especially if bad news might threaten the structure one is dependent upon. In the past Japanese authorities and nuclear industry have been criticized for not being transparent enough. The mechanism is very similar. But inside an open society it is curtailed, and will likely be even harder to maintain as information becomes harder to contain. Actions will be scrutinized, people held accountable.

The effects of natural disasters are often more dependent on the resilience and vulnerability of the societies hit by them than the actual physical power of the disaster. The same is true about the effects of adverse information on societies: some societies are resilient and can absorb the bad news, adapting to the new situations. Others are brittle and suffer a cascading effect (again, the events in North Africa come to mind). Open societies tend to be resilient because a variety of views are already present, a multitude of solutions will be proposed and processes of adaptation can start immediately and without waiting for a central decision. Closed societies lack these mechanisms and often prevent them: they overestimate the importance of consensus, they close off potential solutions, they assume selected experts can find the one true solution despite the messiness and surprises of the real world. Yes, open societies are vulnerable to various forms of misinformation and panics, but so are closed societies too – the sheer diversity of media sources and agents tends to limit the effectiveness of misinformation. The imperfections of the system are on average noted and responses tried.

This is largely an instrumental argument for open societies, and freedom of expression and communication. One can obviously give other ethical arguments for them, from epistemic virtue to fundamental rights, depending on one’s favourite system. But in the end what matters is that when disasters happen we should welcome the shaky footage from cellphones uploaded to Youtube: they are indeed making the world better.

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One Response to A tale of two reactors

  • Peter Wicks says:

    "But in the end what matters is that when disasters happen we should welcome the shaky footage from cellphones uploaded to Youtube: they are indeed making the world better."

    Yes indeed: our moral decisions, that is to say our decisions about what to do, should be based on whatever will promote health, happiness, prosperity…and safety. That's why I like utilitarianism.

    And I agree: despite the horrendous suffering, there are some truly inspiring lessons about how technology, good organization and planning, openness and freedom can conspire to improve our preparedness and response to disasters. Of course it will be even better when we've figured out how to predict and avoid them (preferably before the meteorite strikes, or the supervolcano erupts).

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