Q&A: “Conflictual Collaboration: Citizen Science and the Governance of Radioactive Contamination after the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster”
Extended answers from Maxime Polleri (MP), panelist from “The Promise and Pitfalls of Citizen Science,” Panel 5: The Pitfalls of Citizen Science
Question: Does your argument suggest that more non-government scientists need to position themselves between citizen scientists and the government?
MP: The concept of “conflictual collaboration” describes how initial practices of resistance by non-state actors can evolve in collaboration with official politics of state governance. In this, I argue that civic resources used to resist and reinterpret official narratives of contamination end up reinforcing a state-sponsored normalization of the disaster. Meanwhile, they become crucial techniques of neoliberal governance designed to govern the conduct of populations amid contaminated environments.
That being said, I believed that there is potential for fruitful collaborations between state and non-state actors as citizen scientists or non-government scientists merge their local knowledge with the state’s resources. This, however, raises a set of complicated ethical questions: Who gets to teach about radiation risks and what is their actual expertise? To what degree does citizens’ participation put them at risk of adverse health effects? What are the rights of those who refuse to be part of such projects? And how can they collaborate with the state without reinforcing neoliberal models of governance that burden citizens with the responsibilities of environmental protection?
Question: How much do national cultures exacerbate (or limit) some of the neoliberal tropes you lays out?
MP: My work examines how the growing impact of citizen science in post-Fukushima Japan echoes a neoliberal shift in the management of contamination, leading to reduced public expenditure, minimal government intervention, and risk privatization – meaning that risk becomes a matter of personal business rather than the state’s responsibility.
In that regard, how national cultures exacerbate (or limit) some of the neoliberal tropes in post-Fukushima Japan is very interesting. Neoliberalism has often been associated with market-oriented reforms that attempt to reduce state influence on the economy (think of the “Reaganomics” in the U.S. around the 1980s for example). Increasingly, academics are moving beyond the language of economy to criticize neoliberalism as an ideology that permeates the social sphere and promotes tropes of individual accountability, self-responsibility, empowerment, and risk management. In this context, practices of citizen science, like monitoring and tracking, can be seen as a mean through which a self-responsible citizen becomes an “entrepreneur of himself” to use the words of French philosopher Michel Foucault. In Japan, neoliberal restructuring came after the economic crisis of the 90s, which followed the Japanese asset price bubble. In the 2000s, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi began to heavily emphasized a discourse imbued in a neoliberal language, pointing toward the individual responsibility of Japanese citizens. As the anthropologist Anne Allison explains in that regard: “Under its new banner of ‘risk and individual responsibility,’ the government asked its citizens to remake their subjectivity and become strong and independent individuals ‘capable of bearing the heavy weight of freedom’” (2015: 41). This was very much a novel discourse. It went against the traditional national model that had long emphasized group harmony and collectivism as ideal cultural values, according to which a good citizen was expected to stick with its group in times of hardship, to remain attached to its native village, to uphold the kinship obligations of its household, or not to criticize its government. As such, both ideologies have created a very paradoxical form of citizen science in Japan. On the one hand, citizens are increasingly encouraged to be self-responsible in the management of radiation risks. On the other hand, they are also condemned when they used the results of their work to criticize the governance of the disaster or to claim residual contamination. For instance, mothers that have used citizen science to show contamination after Fukushima were sometimes labeled as traitors or unpatriotic individuals by members of the state or the community. This is the irony of merging neoliberal ideology with long-held tropes of collectivism. They both promotes citizens’ initiatives, while condemning them at the same time.
Question: I found the ways you showed that citizen science could be co-opted by the state and serve its priorities fascinating. Is there something specific about radiation risk that makes the citizen science around it more easily manipulated by the state? (eg - that it is ‘invisible’ and requires technologies to ‘see’ it).
MP: Currently, one of the government’s top priorities is the reconstruction and revitalization of Fukushima, often via a socioeconomic lens. I believe that breaking-up what we mean by “citizen” and “science” in post-Fukushima citizen science reveals how co-optation by the state happens.
First, the arrays of citizens involved in the tracking and monitoring of radioactive contamination make the category of citizen scientists hard to pin down in its essence. There are many kinds of citizens in citizen science. The category of citizen scientist is far from homogenous, especially in terms of gender, age, occupation, and political positions. These factors strongly influenced why people entered citizen science, how science around radiation dangers was mobilized, as well as how data about radiation risks ended up being interpreted differently (safe vs. dangerous). In this, some citizens can hold a vision of revitalization similar to the state’s priorities, excluding other social perspectives on recovery. For instance, some farmers are more concerned by the revitalization of the rural economy, rather than with the potential effects of chronic low-dose exposure to radiation. Furthermore, many citizens love their region, even in the aftermath of a disaster. Consequently, some have used citizen science to revitalize their area. This is a position that is similar to the government’s priority and often tolerated, encouraged, or co-opted.
Secondly, what is meant by the “science” of citizen science after Fukushima is mostly the mobilization of scientific technologies that already existed, often for the purpose of a simple tracking and monitoring agenda. In other words, citizen science used technologies to palliate gaps in government measuring (which is noteworthy and useful), but they have not created alternative scientific framework to radiation science. Co-optation happens when governments or corporate lobbies see values in how citizen scientists saved them time, money, means, while providing free labors (especially when citizens pay for their own monitoring or produce data that is open and available to all). In this, they can potentially exploit citizen science, delegating the monitoring of contamination to the victims of a disaster. For instance, when I was doing my fieldwork, the Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Agency had planned to remove 80 percent of radiation monitoring posts in Fukushima, arguing that the radiation levels in many areas had stabilized themselves—owing in part to the presence and efficiency of monitoring networks provided by citizens. This decision was controversial, since problems of radioactive contamination persist. Fully retiring these posts will force citizen scientists to take on the burden of monitoring, shifting liability for ensuring safe living conditions onto the shoulders of the nuclear victims. Lastly, an important part of the science of radiation risks was embedded in a culture of secrecy, denial, and propaganda that was shaped by the nuclear arms race of the Cold War and created ongoing controversies. Considerations over international security and political stability were often prioritized over the safety of workers or citizens who had been exposed to radiation. This legacy can be carried on by some citizens who unwittingly replicate these propagandist forms of knowledge.
Question: Your account of citizen scientists and governmental and corporate entities appears to be formed largely from the perspective of citizens -- citizen scientists or not -- but not that of the governmental or corporate actors. Taking the other perspective, could one describe the post-contamination regime in Fukushima as one of co-optation, rather than "conflictual collaboration"?
MP: The concept of “conflictual collaboration” was used to describe how issues of resistance and collaboration are not always necessarily opposed; they can also happen at the same time. In other words, practices of resistance should not be theorized as de facto opposing governmental tactics or other forms of dominance. Some aspects of citizen science can intersect with governmental tactics at specific levels (e.g., promoting repatriation to Fukushima), while other parts can be highly critical of the state governance of contamination (e.g., lack of data, openness, or transparency). That being said, co-optation is definitely a part of the concept of conflictual collaboration, in that some elements and practices of citizen science are being appropriated by the state or corporate entities for different purposes than what initially intended by citizen science. However, co-optation is not always happening against the will of citizen scientists in a kind of disciplinary way. Broader factors, like similar visions of what counts as post-disaster “recovery,” also enable collaboration with the state or corporate lobbies.
It is interesting to see that initially the rise of citizen science was highly criticized by the state. After Fukushima, many citizen scientists legitimized different views about the official assessment of the radioactive contamination. Their scientific practices of monitoring made the materiality of radioactive contamination perceptible beyond governmental narratives and maps, revealing unexpected residual contamination and highlighting the limits of state expertise. The state perceived this as an attack on its authority and often attempted to repress their movements. For instance, it tried to highlight technical shortcomings of citizen science centers. In her book “Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists,” (2016) sociologist Aya Kimura demonstrated that mothers implicated in citizen science were seen as impediments to the social and economic recovery of Fukushima, both by the state and by a part of the population. Because their work discovered residual contamination they were seen as going against the revitalization efforts and accused of spreading harmful rumors. The emergence of non-state actors in radiological protection was initially met with disregard and difficulties.
Now, more than 10 years after the disaster, we see an important reversal of opinion by the state on citizen science. The works of citizen science is sometimes encouraged and promoted at the official levels. Yet, it is important to note that not all forms of citizen science are encouraged or co-opted by the state. It is helpful to break down the different types of citizen science that emerged after Fukushima to better understand why some citizen science initiatives are co-opted, while others are not.
First, some citizen scientists have used their work to highlight the dangers of living in contaminated areas. This kind of citizen science sustains tropes of permanent evacuation, which heavily clash with an official state politics that rather attempts to repatriate evacuees to Fukushima. Without much surprised, the state did not encourage this specific form of citizen science. Moreover, many of these organizations no longer exist because of different reasons. Some citizens have been shocked by the residual radioactivity that they measured and have evacuated permanently elsewhere, other organizations cannot sustain the funding necessary to operate their activities, and many simply became tired of delving in these activities. This kind of citizen science has also failed to gain momentum at the legal level. In some instances, the Japanese court acknowledged the possibility of radiation risks to the health of citizens, but rejected their demand for official evacuation, arguing that doing so was a question of individual choice and self-responsibility.
Secondly, there is a form of citizen science that is used to revitalize the socio-economic life of Fukushima, as well as to promote repatriation. Lastly, there are also many organizations that produced open data on contamination while leaving the interpretation of its risk open to the public. Open data on radioactive contamination can be used and interpreted by anybody, freely, and for any political purpose. Co-optation happens in the latter two cases: when the practices, narratives, and purpose of citizen science coincide with the state politics of revitalization (e.g., raising awareness about Fukushima, lowering anxiety, encouraging repatriation, promoting food sales) or when citizen science fills in the gaps of state responses by providing free work under the form of monitoring or open data (that can then be interpreted according to the state’s standards). Indeed, the scale and heterogeneity of residual contamination make it very difficult for a government of the moment to monitor and track radiation everywhere. Resorting to the work of citizen science palliates these gaps. As such, from the state viewpoint, citizen science lead to reduced public expenditure, minimal government intervention, and the privatization of risk, where risk becomes a personal matter rather than one overseen by the government. Moreover, organizations promoting nuclear power are encouraging the role of citizen science in post-disaster governance, often to better prepare for nuclear accidents. In this, citizen participation is increasingly seen as an integral part of monitoring before, during, or after a nuclear disaster. By providing supporting data, the citizen role change from that of a passive victim to an active participant. What we are seeing is an important reorganization of expertise moving toward transnational network of citizen monitoring. This is part of decentralized strategies that delegate an important part of nuclear safeguards to the citizens, while ironically being described as grassroot movements.
Ultimately, this direction can be theorized as a new form of neoliberal abandonment, in which the responsibility for ensuring radiological protection is shifted onto the shoulders of citizens, rather than being the burden of states or corporate polluters. Citizen science is as such co-opted when it fits a state’s vision or provide unpaid labor that can be mobilized in specific directions.
Question: The references to Cold War secrecy in your text are puzzling to me. What is the role of the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in public and private responses to the Fukushima disaster? And have not the findings of the long-term studies of radiation exposure that followed the bombings, e.g., those overseen by the U.S. National Academy of Science, available to the public?
MP: Much of what is known about radiation adverse health effects came from the atomic bombings of Japan. These tragedies produced the opportunity to study first-hand the effects of radiation exposure on human beings. After World War II, these studies were initially pursued in secret by American authorities. Survivor data, which became known as the Life Span Study, was first collected by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), later to be succeeded by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), which still produce research on the survivors and their children. Data produced by this research is referred as the “gold standard” for radiation exposure studies. As anthropologists Goldstein and Stawkowski (2015) summarize, the Life Span Study created many safety standards that were used for public health purpose, worker safety, or environmental litigations in the growing nuclear industries of the post-war period. In particular, the study lead scientists to the conclusion that certain doses of radiation, above 100 millisieverts (mSv) per year, correlate with an increase of cancer occurrences. Above this level, radiation is linked with cancers of the blood, breast, thyroid, lung, stomach, and brain, while also impairing immunity to infection and increasing the risk of cataracts, heart disease, or stroke. However, the Life Span Study never established a firm causal link of adverse health effects below 100 mSv per year. This does not imply that 100 mSv is a safe threshold, but that the research simply cannot provide a correlation. The science and management of risk associated with exposure below such level (often referred as low-dose) remain harsh areas of controversies and debates.
While the Life Span Study represents one of the most ambitious scientific research available on radiation danger, it was also criticized for its methodological shortcomings, as well as for inattention to low-dose risks (below 100 mSv). First, the ABCC was founded in 1946 and the study did not include people who passed away from the effects of radiation. Physician and epidemiologist Alice Stewart claimed that this omission led to an unrepresentative study population, producing a cohort of “healthy” survivors. Secondly, the study focused on external exposure by radiation rays due to waves of gamma and neutron radiation. After an atomic explosion, individuals are exposed to short-term and high external doses of radiation. Some contend that the study is insufficient to understand the risks associated with different radioactive particles released during a nuclear fallout or after a nuclear power plant accident. As historian Susan Lindee (1994) summarizes, the Life Span Study never included the estimates of inhaled or ingested radioactive particles in their calculations, nor did it include estimates of the exposure to residual radiation for citizens who had returned in the area after the bombings. In Hiroshima, radioactive fallout got mixed with pyrocumulus clouds, producing the infamous “black rain,” which later felt on people. Third, the actual study of external dose of exposure was dependent on a process of dose reconstruction, rather than factual measurement. For example, the dosage estimates produced by the Life Span Study were based on the approximate positions of the survivors, who were sometimes asked to remember their initial location many years after the bombing.
Additionally, the nuclear arm race of the Cold War heavily influenced the acceptable boundaries of radiation hazards. It did so by often promoting the interests of national security and nuclear warfare over the well-being of communities living in the pathway of radioactive contamination or nuclear fallout. By now, the effects of radioactive contamination faced by First Nations, Marshallese descents, and Downwinders are increasingly being documented. Historians are also studying the generations of Soviet and American workers who were contaminated during the nuclear arms race, a time in which radiation dangers were often rebuked. For instance, historian Kate Brown describes the secrecy and control of scientific knowledge that characterized the production of plutonium during this era, as well as the dismissal of those who attempted to speak out about issues of safety. In this context, what was deemed “safe” or “dangerous” was invariably intertwined within the imperatives of war and national security. For those more interested in delving in these issues I would recommend some of the following books: Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima by Susan M. Lindee, Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War edited by Barbara Rose Johnston, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown, and The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico by Joseph Masco.