The White Rabbit says “Its terrible, just terrible! We’re running out of energy, Alice”. Soon after, a Dodo robot declares to Alice, “There is an ‘ace’ form of energy called nuclear power. It is clean, safe and renewable”. Alice concludes in awe, “it would be optimal for a resource-poor Japan!”
(The Dodo makes no mention of the risk of earthquakes or tsunamis to Alice.)
This conversation is enacted for the benefit of daily visitors, including young mothers and children, in one of the many scores of public relation buildings attached to nuclear plants across Japan.
The Alice-Dodo-White Rabbit act neatly summarizes Japan’s nuclear ‘safety myth’ – the belief that Japan’s nuclear power plants are absolutely safe. Over the decades, school textbooks, TV commercials, street banners, technologists and scientists have affirmed this myth through a medley of cultural, political and economic symbols.
But, in a country like Japan, how does a nuclear safety myth rise to the status of a dominant narrative? Isn’t this a country where ancient traditions of knowing and foretelling disasters through legend and folklore account for a diversity of local narratives? Isn’t this a country where populations have historically, been deemed better prepared than their neighbors, due to their incessant exposure to natural hazards coupled with their historical experience of building disaster-prepared communities?
Perhaps, a partial explanation lies in the fact that over the past six decades, Japanese society has had little chance to debate the construction of its establishment myths. Primarily because avenues that would democratize public debate around the issue of nuclear safety (among other issues) have remained stunted.
The 2011 Fukushima disaster has certainly changed some things. An otherwise politically apathetic nation has responded vociferously to this year’s mega-disaster. Thousands of young Japanese have used social media and forms of cultural expression (particularly the now famous song, It was always a lie) to protest against nuclear power. The protests are gaining ground in principle, but their demands remain largely ignored by nuclear lobbyists. One might ask, for how long?
Disasters are inevitable in a mono-logical, mono-conversational society where there are no easy avenues for dialogue, debate and participation. No society - developed or developing - is immune from this tendency. The less we talk about an issue of public safety and concern, the less we understand it and the more we come to trust the perpetuation of establishment myths, with little room for instituting accountability and transparency mechanisms.
Democratizing public debate on acceptable risk, through modern forms of legend and folklore – the social media, news media and public forums - is more important than ever.