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Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011

Scientific mind meltdown


In a survey conducted more than 10 years ago, Chikio Hayashi, former director of the Institute of Statistical Mathematics, polled people's opinions toward the statements of two hypothetical airlines with regard to airplane accidents.

Company A: "Our airplanes have never been involved in a serious accident such as a crash. As this track record shows, our aircraft are absolutely safe."

Company B: "We are fully aware that any airplane accident would have serious consequences. We are paying attention to every detail and making thorough efforts to ensure that there is absolutely zero chance of any accident."

Asked which of the two companies they favored, 95 percent of the respondents picked Company B; only 5 percent supported Company A's attitude.

Whereas Company A insisted on the "absolute safety" of its aircraft on the strength of its past track record, Company B said every effort was being exerted to ensure "absolutely zero" chance of any accident. Even though both companies used a form of the word "absolute," there was a subtle difference in the nuances.

The attitude of Japan's government and the power companies has more closely reflected that of Company A when it comes to explaining the safety of nuclear stations. That perhaps is why the general public's distrust of nuclear energy has been so amplified in the aftermath of the accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Indeed, the vast majority of those who favor expansion of nuclear power generation feel in their hearts that nuclear power stations should be built — "but not in my backyard."

This has resulted in a situation, unique in the world, in which nuclear power plants in Japan are constructed far away from populated and industrialized areas — the very areas where electricity is consumed in the greatest amounts.

Another factor contributing to this situation is the large amounts of grants-in-aid from the government to impoverished municipalities that agree to accept nuclear power plants. It has been reported that these subsidies account for as much as one-half the budgets of these municipalities.

We must not forget the well-known axiom that "certainty does not exist in the real world," as asserted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book, "The Black Swan."

In France, where nuclear power generates provides almost 80 percent of the nation's electricity needs, every effort has been made to cope with the most unlikely events on the assumption that nuclear plants are not absolutely safe.

For example, Areva Corp. of France, the world's largest builder of nuclear plants, has taken precautionary measures such as installing robots and systems for treating contaminated water, which can be set in motion immediately after an accident happens. According to the mentality of average French people, it is only natural to prepare for any accident no matter how remote the possibility may be, because "no certainty exists in real world."

If such precautionary measures were taken in Japan, which ranks third in the world in nuclear power generation after the United States and France, the power industry would be bitterly criticized by the media for contradicting itself: taking preventive steps while asserting that the nuclear plants are absolutely safe.

Since the disastrous accidents at the Fukushima nuclear power plant March 11, however, the Japanese public have undergone a big change in their mindset. At a press conference Aug. 18, the newly-appointed head of the trade and industry ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency stated that a valuable lesson learned is the realization that things happen beyond their expectations. He said his agency would no longer uphold that assertion that nuclear plants are absolutely safe.

This would indicate that the government has admitted that "no certainty exists in the real world." If so, it is incumbent upon the government to clarify how to cope with situations in which a statistically impossible event does occur.

The government has not given any satisfactory explanations on how to compensate victims of the radiation leaks from Fukushima No. 1. Nor has it been able to come up with coherent views on the treatment of contaminated waste or on the basic energy policy for the future. To me, this shortcoming is rooted in the way bureaucrats try to run the country.

One crucial task facing higher-ranking bureaucrats is to fabricate a sophism to justify a false statement such as "a crow is white." I believe that one of the roots of evil itself is the failure to challenge such sophism. Bureaucrats' ability is judged on their ability to concoct sophism. Bureaucrats climbing the ladder must concentrate on doing this without paying much attention to logic, data or values.

The nuclear calamity in Fukushima shattered the myth that nuclear power plants are absolutely safe, demonstrating that the myth was nothing but sophism. The government and the power industry must take responsibility for propagating the myth in the first place. Equally responsible are the mass media that blindly believed in and spread the same myth.

The Japanese people as a whole must work to discard their unscientific mentality of overlooking the axiom of "no certainty exists in the real world." This means breaking the unscientific habit of assuming either that nuclear power generation should be promoted because nuclear power plants are absolutely safe, OR that a nuclear plant must not be built unless it can be proven absolutely safe.

The Japanese people also must recognize that the process of locating nuclear power plants in impoverished seaside villages and then providing them with economic incentives in the form of government grants-in-aid is a thing of the past.

Behind this method of outsourcing nuclear power plants to such impoverished villages was the desire of individual and corporate consumers of electricity to have nuclear plants built "not in my backyard" but somewhere else.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.


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