Nuclear science meets social science in novel summer program

One of the many lessons hitting home for the nuclear industry in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster four and a half months ago is this: Public trust is hard to earn, and even easier to lose.

The meltdown of the plant’s reactors caused by the March 11 magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan earthquake and ensuing tsunami not only provided fuel for skeptics of nuclear power, it illustrated a cultural divide between nuclear engineers and society at large.

Satellite image taken March 16, 2011, of damaged reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (DigitalGlobe photo)

That divide will be addressed at a summer school, “Reflections on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident,” to be held in Berkeley from July 31 to Aug. 5. The event is being organized by faculty at UC Berkeley and the University of Tokyo as part of an ongoing effort to improve social scientific literacy among nuclear engineers.

“Fukushima provided a case study for this program, but even before Fukushima, nuclear energy was not well-accepted by the public,” said organizing chair Joonhong Ahn, UC Berkeley professor of nuclear engineering. “A big part of the reason is the lack of understanding by engineers of society. We didn’t know how to talk with people, and we needed to listen more. That is what we are trying to teach in this summer school.”

The six-day program is part of the Global Nuclear Education and Research Initiative, or GoNERI, led by the University of Tokyo with funding from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Sciences, an agency comparable to the U.S. National Science Foundation. One of the core missions of GoNERI, launched in 2007, is to integrate nuclear science and engineering with the social sciences.

Most of the 25 students enrolled in the summer school are nuclear engineering graduate students from the University of Tokyo and UC Berkeley, but a number of the rest represent other disciplines – including sociology and history – and other schools.

The students will attend lectures that address regulation and public policy failures, as well as lessons in ethics, risk and uncertainty. Lecturers include nuclear engineering and social science faculty from UC Berkeley, the University of Tokyo and other Japanese universities, as well as J. Samuel Walker, a retired historian for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Tetsunari Iida, a prominent advocate for phasing out nuclear energy in Japan, and Tatsujiro Suzuki, a commissioner at Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, are also scheduled to speak.

This year’s summer school will be the third such event in the GoNERI program, with UC Berkeley and the University of Tokyo taking turns as primary hosts for the students.

“These summer programs are baby steps, but I don’t think big steps are the way to go here,” said Cathryn Carson, UC Berkeley associate professor of history and co-chair of the summer school’s organizing committee. “Graduate education is the right venue because we are reaching students who, for their own reasons, are asking serious questions about the field that they’re getting into.”

At least two more summer schools are planned in the GoNERI program.

“The assumption among many in the nuclear field has often been that if we just find better ways to explain nuclear power, the public will understand it better, and therefore accept it,” said Carson. “Empirically, that model of one-way communication has failed. That was evident when public opposition blocked the proposal to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. It’s been a painful process of self-discovery among some of those in the nuclear field that they need more understanding of societal issues and processes.”

Ahn noted the goal of the summer school is not to come up with specific policy recommendations, but rather to establish a framework of thinking. “It is about training future nuclear industry leaders that members of society should be equal partners rather than people who need to be educated,” said Ahn.