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Human Error and Human Healing in a Risk Society: The Forgotten Narratives of Fukushima


Every year, on March 11, the nation remembers the tragedy that happened in 2011. For one day, the media is engulfed with stories of survival, heroism, tragedy, lost loved ones, parents still searching for their children's remains, evacuees seeking compensation. But on any other day of the year, these stories are forgotten, only to resurface again a year later. But while stories of grievances over a natural disaster persist, a different type of disaster has a different type of narrative. Human error—design flaws, regulatory failures and improper hazard analyses— was largely to blame for the calamity that beset Fukushima’s coastal communities a day after the tsunami had ravaged its towns. Just when a community had awoken from the worst possible nightmare of their lives, an even more unimaginable accident was transpiring: the nuclear power plant in their neighborhood had just exploded, resulting in the immediate evacuation of their shattered homes. Why was a nuclear power plant built in their backyard? And had its presence over the years outweighed the terrible consequences it had now created?

When I first met Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Vice President Yoshiyuki Ishizaki on December 15, 2014, he articulated the great strides his power company had made since the harrowing days of the March 11th, 2011 catastrophe. He spoke candidly on how the antinuclear federal administration—led by the Prime Minister at the time, Naoto Kan—had stormed into his office demanding explanations, eager to put the blame squarely on the owners of the nuclear plant. He hinted on the federal government’s desire to disassociate themselves and absolve responsibility from any damage caused by the multiple explosions at the power plant. This relationship between Japan's political factions, the general public, and the nuclear industry has a long history of contestation since nuclear energy was first introduced in the 1950’s. It was supposed to be a way, or rather the way out of the imprint of devastation left from the ashes of the Second World War. And yet, how can the only country in the world to be subjected to the horrors of the nuclear bomb pave a future that depends on an energy source derived from the very weapon that annihilated its cities? This dissertation is an exploration of the narratives that are born through human error. I examine how marginalized populations perceive risk and investigate the various factors that have contributed to Japan’s embrace of nuclear energy.

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