Working Paper 2016-04

The Shelf Life of a Socio-Technical Disaster: Post Fukushima Policy Change in the United States, France and Germany

Steve G. Hoffman, University of Toronto

Paul Durlak, University of Buffalo, SUNY

UT Sociology Working Paper No. 2016-04

September 2016

Keywords: disaster, Fukushima, nuclear energy, policy change, risk, technology

Full Article


Abstract

How can large-scale socio-technical disasters prompt policy shifts beyond their local environment? We compare the impact of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster of March 11, 2011, on subsequent American, French, and German nuclear energy policies. This paper introduces the sensitizing concept of a “shelf life” to identify mechanisms that limited the impact of this disaster in the US and France but that enabled it to travel to Germany. American and French policymakers placed symbolic distance between their nation’s nuclear infrastructure and Fukushima by framing the disaster as a contingent and technical problem to be resolved with superior safety preparation. While this technicist orientation can be found in the initial German response, its distancing effects are offset by a conjunction of three mechanisms that moved Fukushima to the center of German society and politics and ultimately created the conditions for a complete phase out of all of Germany’s nuclear power generation. This included 1) a renewables energy industry eager to move into the void left from nuclear power reduction, 2) deep cultural and socio-political affinities across the two nations that were expertly mobilized by German anti-nuclear protest organizations, and 3) the unequivocal ethical messaging produced by a high-profile national committee. Taken together, these mechanisms collapsed interpretive and cultural distance between Japanese and German nuclear infrastructures, enabling the shock of Fukushima to ripple powerfully through the German energy grid for generations to come.

University of Toronto Sociology Working Paper 2016-04