Technology and the Crisis in Japan

Apr 22, 2011 4:40 PM ET

Risk and Responsibility: The Bills Start Coming in From Fukushima

 By Nigel M. de S. Cameron, President and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies (C-PET) in Washington, D.C. 

The terrible human cost of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami remains to be counted. But some things are already clear. Chief among them: that one of the wealthiest, most high-tech, most cautious societies ever to have lived on planet earth fell prey to a deal of wishful thinking when it came to risk assessment. Books will be written on this subject; enterprising authors I’m sure are already at work.   As I look through my double lens of technology and responsibility, I read two stories that leave me troubled. Deeply troubled. Stories about people and machines.   First the story of the machines that weren’t. Japan leads the world in robotics – especially, “humanoid” robotics, robots designed to look and behave like people and therefore fit for interaction with the rest of us as something other than mere smart machines. That’s material for another column (for a book!), but it is specially interesting here.    The story of the efforts at a clean-up after the multiple disasters that struck the Fukushima nuclear generators have been largely the story of humans and heroism. Like those disaster movies where reactors go wrong (K-19: The Widowmaker is based on fact), humans expose themselves to radiation risk to try and solve the problem. From the very start, this was reported at Fukushima. Crews were sent in with fire-trucks and hoses. Engineers had to turn valves. Humans were in the radiation firing-line, and if reports are to be believed there are men and women who will die as a result.   And as the disaster shifted from “far less serious than Chernobyl” to “yes, Chernobyl-level,” the risks that were being accepted by managers and, apparently, by the managed, got worse.   Read more >>>     BCLC13389