Prof: Be wary of calling Japan's nuclear disaster a cultural problem

July 6, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Citing cultural problems as the reason for the 2011 Japan nuclear reactor disaster is risky because some of the key problems involving regulation and technical issues could happen anywhere, says a Purdue University expert.

"I'm skeptical about putting too much blame on the Japanese culture, because saying something is a cultural problem implies that it may be too big to fix or that it is limited to one group or country," says Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor of political science. He studies civil society's influence on the placement of controversial facilities, specifically nuclear power plants.

In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami damaged three nuclear reactors in Fukushima, and that led to radiation exposure in what is called history's second worst nuclear disaster. On Thursday (July 5), an independent commission released a report identifying causes of the nuclear tragedy. The report emphasizes Japanese cultural traits, such as not questioning authority, devotion to sticking with the program and insularity, played a role.

"Instead," Aldrich says, "the focus should be on technical and institutional problems and what can be fixed." He cites the overlap of organizations that regulated and promoted nuclear energy, the lack of evacuation plans for communities outside of the official boundaries of the plant, and the physical design of the nuclear reactor facilities. "Such realities are not just a Japanese problem because there can be similar regulatory overlap or concerns regarding resources in other countries."

Aldrich suggests that some of these concerns can be fixed by separating regulation and promotion agencies. He also suggests including citizens, activists and citizen groups on regulatory panels, as well as improved methods of reporting and attributing scientific findings.

"Even though the disaster took place in Japan, there has been impact felt around the world," Aldrich says. "Other countries - such as Italy, Germany and Switzerland - suspended their nuclear energy programs, and no matter the resource, countries can learn from what Japan has been through."

Aldrich, who is the author of "Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in the Japan and the West," says one major change for Japan is how the disaster has motivated the country's civil society. The country historically has not reflected public disagreement through protests or lawsuits. Since the nuclear tragedy, large protests toward nuclear energy policy occur regularly, and a number of lawsuits have been filed. Websites that support citizen science - where citizens themselves collect and analyze data on radiation levels, for example - also continue to grow.

"We've seen an explosion in the way civil society expresses its interests," he says. "Before the reactor disaster, almost two-thirds of the population supported nuclear energy, and now two-thirds are against it."
Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Daniel Aldrich, Aldrich is in Washington, D.C., and can be contacted by email to schedule phone or Skype interviews.