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The severe earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami has brought about the next emergency: the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Daiichi has come under severe pressure and a nuclear meltdown is a realistic scenario for at least two of a total of six reactors.

Fukushima Daiichi is not the only power plant to be affected by the earthquake. According to Greenpeace, also facing trouble are Fukushima Daini (4 reactors), Onagawa (3 reactors) and Tokai (1 reactor).

The scientific and technological particulars are difficult to understand. For the most solid explanation I have come across in plain English I recommend Rachel Maddow’s 13-minute video at MSNBC (click here).

Over the next days, discussions are bound to erupt as to the use and risks of nuclear energy and what this implies for energy policy. Questions will be raised as to whether this could have been prevented and, if so, how. Citizens around the world and, especially, the Japanese will want to know whether their government has acted responsibly and in a transparent way. How hopeless and helpless must we be when faced with a natural catastrophe?

Risk is one of those uncomfortable notions that have to do with probability. Following probability theory, all events are possible, including the worst- and the best-case scenarios. What varies is the likelihood of occurrence. Natural disasters like earthquakes of the order of 9 points on the Richter magnitude scale are risks of low probability but with potentially devastating impacts.

Policy has, of course, to consider such risks as well, whereby their low probability will often remove them from the immediate centre of attention. There are two reasons for this: first, there are many other risks with higher incidence rates, therefore prioritization is necessary; second, the technologies needed to mitigate the effects of high-impact risks such as natural disasters are very costly. Is that too cynical of an argument? Under normal circumstances most people will think not. Faced with the pictures of the Japanese disaster, they are likely to say yes, and demand redress.

However, before we rush to classify the Japanese incident as one of those inevitable and unpredictable events, some questions need to be answered. The following list is not exhaustive. You are cordially invited to add your own. (fn1)

• Was the Fukushima nuclear power plant designed and/or upgraded according to the latest safety standards—in general and, more specifically with regard its cooling systems and containers?
• Is it true that the majority of Japanese nuclear plants are not designed to cope with earthquakes above 8 points on the Richter scale?
• Were the recommendations of the IAEA of 2003 regarding the “Seismic Design and Qualification of Nuclear Power Plants” taken into account? How?
• Why does the IAEA not use more quantitative indicators and thresholds (but rather prefers to talk about ‘adequate’ technologies and the like)?
• How were the various safety incidents faced by Japanese power plants since the 1990s been reflected in Japanese energy policy?

Depending on the answers to the above questions, we can then decide as to whether this was an incident which could not have been avoided; or whether it could have been avoided had the safety standards been adhered to. Accordingly, we may then begin to tackle the questions about the fundamentals of nuclear power energy (yes vs. no), or its particulars (the ‘how’).

fn1: On the role of scientific expertise in risk assessment and regulation, consult also the European Journal of Risk Regulation and Alberto Alemanno’s blog