INTERVIEW/ Ulrich Beck: System of organized irresponsibility behind the Fukushima crisis

July 06, 2011

By HIROHITO OHNO / Op-Ed Section Editor

We are apparently living under tremendous risks. The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant triggered by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami drove home to us this eerie fact. How long and to what extent will the damage spread? And what is its true nature?

The Asahi Shimbun interviewed German sociologist Ulrich Beck in search of answers. Beck had already pointed out that we are living in a "risk society" even before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in 1986.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

* * *

Question: What should the world learn from the Fukushima nuclear disaster?

Answer: When a catastrophe like this happens, we are not at all prepared for this kind of catastrophe.

Q: What kind of catastrophe?

A: This catastrophe is, on the one hand, man-made, but on the other hand, geographically, socially and in the time dimension, unlimited. It doesn't have a limit.

The normal accident, as we have it in mind like a car accident, or maybe even a greater accident, even if thousands of people die, is limited to a specific place, to a specific time, to a specific social group.

But the catastrophe--the consequences of a nuclear catastrophe--is unlimited in space, time and the social dimension. It's the new kind of risk.

We're not only related to it in nuclear energy, but also, like climate change, global financial risks, problems of terrorism and many other cases. More and more, we are confronted with these kinds of risks. Fukushima is a very symbolic case of the risks of modern times.

Q: How are such risks of modern times produced?

A: Risks depend on decision making. The risk depends on the process of modernization. And they're produced with technological innovations and investment.

Q: In Japan, many political and business leaders say this catastrophe was caused by a natural disaster that went beyond the imagination.

A: I think it is a mistake, categorically a mistake, because the decision to build an atomic industry in the area of an earthquake is a political decision; it's not done by nature. It's a political decision, which has to be justified in the public and which has been taken by parliament, by businesses and so on.

After the earthquake of Lisbon (in the 18th century), all over Europe, all the big intellectual philosophers were discussing: If God is a vision of reason and is some good power to men, how could God make this possible, this kind of catastrophe?

But now it's not God who is being accused and held accountable.

Therefore, I think industries try to define it as something which has been done by nature. But they don't realize that we are living in an age where the decision making is the primary background for these kinds of catastrophes.

I think it's very important to realize this because modernity, or even what you could say is the victory of modernity, produces more and more uncontrollable consequences.

And we have a system of organized irresponsibility: Nobody really is responsible for those consequences. We have a system of organized irresponsibility, and this system has to be changed.

Q: It had been said that there was a very low possibility of a nuclear power plant causing a catastrophe.

A: Even if the probability of a catastrophe like this is very low, very small, maybe in 10,000 years or even 100,000 years, a case like this could happen--it happens.

From a sociological point of view, at least in Europe but in many other countries as well, in the 19th century, we developed a system of rules in order to cope with the uncertainties and risks produced by modernity. It includes the exchange of money against loss of an eye, or loss of an arm, or loss of the whole body or loss of the whole city. The relationship between risk and insurance was actually a system of norms, or you could even say a social contract of progress.

But if you run atomic industries, you don't have to have insurance. It's a mixture of private and state insurance. But actually, all the amount of money, which is prepared to react to this situation, is much less than what is needed. So actually, it is beyond insurance.

Q: So we lack a system that can resolve the problem?

A: We are still thinking in terms of the 19th century. But there's a historical mistake in thinking in those terms. Let me give you an example to explain it to you.

In some village in Bavaria, there were some factories, chemical factories. And smoke came out of the chimneys of many factories and destroyed the village. You couldn't even see it; it was a very simple. It seemed to be a very simple case. And of course the farmers and the villagers went to court and tried to get compensation.

And then the judge said: "Well, I can see your case. But the problem is I have to prove that there's only one person who is responsible for it. And since there are many factories, I couldn't name one person."

So there was no compensation.

Let me give you another example. How many people died from Chernobyl? There are (estimates) from 40 persons or 50 persons to more than a million. And why is this happening? Because statistics and causal norms are not prepared for these kinds of long-term consequences. Even people who are hurt by the Chernobyl accident have not been born yet.

And whole institutions are actually still designed for those small accidents and not for these kinds of catastrophic dimensions.

It's like people are on board an airplane for which there is no landing strip, or they are actually using the brake of a bicycle in an airplane.

Q: In Japan, there are now problems over compensation for nuclear disaster damages.

A: I'm talking about a principle, which is actually the basis of capitalism. Atomic energy and atomic industries are, let's say, socialist industries because the state, the population, the citizens are paying if something goes wrong.

And actually, this is a contradiction to capitalism and the market economy. We have the same discussion actually in relation to the banking system; it's quite similar. Actually, the banks should take care of possible crises, and maybe they should have an insurance principle as well. But they don't, so actually the state has to take it. This is socialism; this is state socialism.

Q: Before the Fukushima disaster took place, many political leaders turned to atomic energy as a solution to the problem of climate change.

A: It's macabre to compare two kinds of risks: climate change and atomic energy. So actually, if you refer to climate change as a greater risk, companies are using the resources for legitimating, which has been created by NGOs, in order to construct the necessity of renaissance of so-called green atomic energy resource.

I think this is a mistake, and it doesn't really take the problem seriously. We have to make the distinction between those accidents which we can control and those we can compare. If we want to have long-term responsible politics, we have to get out of climate change and atomic energy as well.

I'm not saying this has to happen tomorrow; maybe there's a long time to go. But this has to be, I think, the basic decision.

Q: After Japan's defeat in World War II, Japanese political leaders considered nuclear energy a main pillar to support the nation's reconstruction efforts. But the Fukushima accident proved that the nuclear energy can pose a threat to the nation.

A: When I visited Japan last fall, I visited the Museum of Hiroshima and I was very much impressed. I realized how much Hiroshima is part of the Japanese self-understanding and a trauma, a national trauma.

And I already, at this time, had a question. Japan, being aware of the consequences of atomic bombs, is actually the voice of the world, the conscience of the world, to get away from atomic weapons. (So why is Japan) so engaged in--even without reflecting about the possibilities--investing and constructing mainly atomic energy?

Nuclear energy is related to the sovereignty of the national state. It is maybe related to some extent to Germany. I think some of the Germans say, "Let the others still keep atomic energy." It's not going to work anyway for very long.

We're in a situation where we have these new kinds of markets, and if you are very sophisticated in those markets, you create your dominance of the world market. So I would say it's actually time for the economy, for the national economies, to get the feel and get the smell of the new markets, of the future markets, where the investment and the innovation have to be where the decisions are.

It is a great opportunity; it's creating a great window of opportunity for nations and for economies, for national economies, to invest in new resources of wind energy and energy of the sun.

Q: We have to eliminate risks that we cannot control. But will politicians who have been accepting the risks be able to do so?

A: In Germany, we have a very strong civil society and civil society groups and movements in relation to the environment. Actually, the Green Party was invented as a consequence of Chernobyl.

I think, in order to make the problems--the consequences of modern technology--visible in the public, you need democracy in the sense of civil society movements. If you don't have those movements, you have a very strong direct involvement between government and business. There's no public, there's no transparency, there's no public involved.

Actually, (there is) not really democratic decision-making, but (it's) on the basis of this kind of very strict cooperation (between government and business).

Only if we open up this very much interrelated direct interaction by a new kind of democracy involvement of civil society groups, we will have the space for public discussions, we will have the space for public alternatives, and parties are getting in.

(German Chancellor Angela) Merkel, for example, made the decision to still have atomic energy (a year from now) as a basic option for politics, in order to solve, for example, the problems of climate change and so on. But during the Fukushima (crisis), she experienced, I think, that she, as a politician, was a prisoner of the industry.

For the first time, she is really taking civil society movements seriously; she has created committees and spaces where these public discussions can happen. This is a conflict with the industry itself, but revitalizes politics and revitalizes the democratic issue of technology.

How to make decisions of industries and experts more accountable, more transparent, how participation of the people can be organized, and things like that. I think this is quite an issue.

The industry and the technical experts, so far, believe that they have the rational monopoly on saying what is a risk and what is not a risk, and what decision has to be taken. And they don't want to get the lay person and the public involved in this.

Q: In Japan, there is growing criticism about the so-called nuclear village, a closed community of nuclear experts.

A: Well, to some extent, it has been the same (in Germany). But since the Green Movement in the '70s and '80s, it changed in Germany and in other countries as well. The way to react or try to cope with those issues in Japan now would be to open up to the world and to be more cooperative. In the global age, all kinds of nations have to realize, one way or the other, that they cannot solve the problems by themselves.

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Ulrich Beck is a sociologist and a professor at Munich University. He also teaches at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. His published works include "Risk Society" and "World Risk Society."

By HIROHITO OHNO / Op-Ed Section Editor
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"The Japanese people gave the world an example of how to act in such a catastrophic situation," Ulrich Beck said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Munich. (Photo by Klaus D. Wolf)

"The Japanese people gave the world an example of how to act in such a catastrophic situation," Ulrich Beck said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Munich. (Photo by Klaus D. Wolf)

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  • "The Japanese people gave the world an example of how to act in such a catastrophic situation," Ulrich Beck said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Munich. (Photo by Klaus D. Wolf)
  • Ulrich Beck (Photo by Klaus D. Wolf)
  • Ulrich Beck (Photo by Klaus D. Wolf)

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