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Risk Communication and Governance:

The Case of Nuclear Energy in Japan

The etymological definition of “risk” comes from the late Renaissance Italian riscare, or to “run into danger.”[1]  Most would agree that unless you are a thrill-seeker or engaged in a profession such as fire-fighting, running into danger is likely to shorten your expected lifespan and hence should be minimized. Many times, however, we talk about taking “calculated risks” which can be beneficial – a risky investment might be yield high rates of financial returns, for example. In addition, my personal risk threshold may differ significantly from yours, and that may be shaped by different cultures and life experiences. In Japan, by way of illustration, riding a bicycle without a helmet is very common, whereas in the U.S. this is viewed as high-risk. While as an autonomous individual I may have wide purview to make decisions according to my unique appetite for risk, we live within socio-political and environmental contexts over which we may have limited direct control. For instance, government officials or private sector business interests may make decisions about how to regulate or operate certain industries, such as the construction of my home, the safety features of my car, or the location of polluting factories. I may be able to exercise some influence over these though democratic institutions, depending on the society I live in; but often my exposure is baked into the normal fabric of my everyday life, to the extent that I do not think about it. For example, how many Japanese consider moving overseas to escape the increased risk of natural disasters due to climate change? How many Americans decide to move overseas due to the ever-higher number of school shootings? For most of us, risk avoidance is not possible; instead, we consider how to minimize our risk, both as individuals and societies.

Once having articulated the goal of minimizing risk, however, we are faced with another conundrum: how do we know for what we are at risk? How do we assess our exposure to risk? And then, how do we reduce it? All of these questions concern not necessarily just scientific knowledge, but also how we are educated and informed about risk, our perceptions, and how we participate in making decisions about risk which affects us and our communities. Accordingly, this paper will explore risk governance and communication, and discuss how those concepts are articulated differently for nuclear energy than for other hazards, using Japan as a case study. Nuclear energy was selected due to the uniquely political nature of the debate surrounding risk governance and communication on this particular issue, which allows the constructed nature of risk to more clearly articulate. Treatments of risk governance and communication surrounding natural hazards, for example, tend to focus on technical aspects at the expense of understanding the social nature of risk constructs. When the topic shifts to nuclear energy, however, these social constructs related to how individuals and communities perceive and treat risk are more clearly visible. Japan was chosen as a case study to meet the course requirements for which this paper is prepared. The treatment of the case study is limited in scope to secondary materials, namely, English-language academic literature. 

To begin, let us first discuss what is meant by risk. In an article published earlier this year, Andreas Klinke and Ortwin Renn summarize the shifting ideas about risk. The traditional view is that risk was thought of as an objective property of a potentially harm-causing event, activity, or object. In order to understand and estimate risk, the main task was to calculate the probability of harm to humans and the environment (Klinke & Renn, 3). Social scientists, however, are now conceiving of risk as belonging to a much greater socio-political context. In addition to calculating probabilities of harm, addressing risk also necessitates addressing human feelings about risk. This requires understanding the broader social conceptualizations of risk and considering the impact of hazard on different groups and objects as part of a complex social and political fabric, which may be affected by or interact with other factors in complex ways. Technical and nontechnical aspects must be taken into account, and a systems view is required to begin to analyze the interlinkages (Klinke & Renn, 4). Defining, calculating, and articulating risk is not a technical exercise left to scientists of the natural world. Rather, per Klinke and Renn:

Risk is the product of a social process that attempts to articulate the contingencies of human action in a way that collective decisions can be justified on the basis of anticipating possible outcomes (3).

Therefore, we may conclude that risk is neither simple nor straightforward. It cannot merely be calculated as a function of probability and effect, but is also a complex, interacting network in which collective, binding decisions are made about social issues.

Having established that understanding risk requires examining it as a social construct beyond a simple technical calculation, let us turn our attention to the concept of risk governance. The field of political science defines governance as the multitude of actors and processes that lead to collective, binding decisions. Risk governance, as defined in a joint paper by Marjolein B.A. van Asselt and Ortwin Renn, is the application of governance to risk-related decision-making, pertaining to how political actors – meaning individuals and/or institutions – handle risks in inherently uncertain, complex, ambiguous and subjective contexts (432). According to van Asselt and Renn’s research, risk governance should be analyzed according to two main frameworks: first, the complex, interacting networks through which choices and decisions are made and influenced; and second, by examining the normative principles which inform actors how to handle risk (443). The core themes in the current scholarly literature on risk governance, as treated by van Asselt and Renn and other researchers, includes communication with and inclusion of all relevant stakeholders; integrating all relevant knowledge and experience from various sources, including uncertainty, perceptions, and values; and reflection by all actors in important, difficult issues, a reflection which should be viewed as an ongoing process and undertaken iteratively. These themes highlight the strong connection between politics and communications; in fact, political theorists such as Hannah Arendt, drawing on a tradition which stretches back to the ancient Greeks, define politics as nothing more (and nothing less) than an act of public speech. Clearly these themes also assume that there exists the structure of an open, democratic society in which all relevant stakeholders have even the possibility of being included, and who may contribute their input with relatively little fear of reprisal. However, even in more restricted political regimes, a multi-stakeholder model might be applied to analyze risk governance, although the stakeholders may represent a subset comprised of competing interests within the relatively closed arena of a one-party system.  [2]

While communication clearly plays a crucial role in risk governance, the two are distinct, and in fact, the field of risk communication preceded that of risk governance as a field of study. Risk communication as an academic topic of inquiry emerged in the United States in the 1980s with flood of scholarly articles and practical handbooks (Kasperson, 1233). This sudden interest (and funding) is widely attributed to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, which highlighted many gaps in the technical and socio-political processes surrounding hazard risk reduction with regards to nuclear energy. In 1989, the U.S. National Research Council held a conference on risk communication and issued an influential report, Improving Risk Communication, which remains an important reference tool still up to present day. According to this benchmark, risk communication can be understood as “a dialogue among people conducted to help facilitate a more accurate understanding of risks, and…the decisions they may take to manage them” (Árvai, 1245). This may appear similar to the definition of risk governance, and indeed it is. This is may be due to the tendency to approach the “how-to” of risk communication as a simple matter of educating the general public about existing scientific risk assessments, or ‘correcting’ implied misperceptions of risk by laypeople. Sometimes, this one-way communication is conducted without regard to social contexts. Therefore, the overlap between risk governance and risk communication is emphasized, in order to underscore the importance of active, integrated participation by a wide range of stakeholders in grappling with all aspects of risk from an approach which treats the social construction of risk with care equal to the technical aspects.

Let us turn our attention now to the task of exploring how risk governance and communication articulate in the case of Japan with regards to nuclear energy. Following the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011, these issues have been the subject of much attention. Prior to the accident, Japan depended on nuclear energy for some 30% of its energy needs, and was anticipating increasing that to around 40%.[3]  As a highly industrialized country poor in natural energy resources, Japan relies on energy imports; currently around 90% of its energy is imported.[4]  In the wake of the nuclear accident, energy prices spiked, disproportionately impacting the poor. Recent reportage indicates that fatalities of the elderly and vulnerable, who may have died due to lack of heat following the dramatic rise in energy prices, could have been underestimated.[5]  Nevertheless, public trust in the Japanese government and the nuclear industry plummeted after the Fukushima disaster as revelations came out about the inadequate safety standards, lack of emergency preparations, and overall lax safety culture at TEPCO, the nuclear plant’s operator, as well as the cozy and permissive relationship between TEPCO and Japanese regulatory authorities. This lack of trust was accompanied by declining support for nuclear power in Japan, and the government has been unable to fully reinvigorate the nuclear energy program in part due to public opinion. As a representative democracy, Japanese politicians and government officials must carefully weigh public concerns against energy security needs, and to date, only 9 of Japan’s 42 nuclear energy reactors are operating.[6]

In this context, risk governance and communication is a topic of great interest for the future of nuclear power in Japan. Feminist scholar Aya Kimura describes risk communication in the post-Fukushima era as “pervasive” and has studied how the Japanese nuclear industry has attempted to “refashion…risk into something positive” (24). In this narrative, Kimura observes, risk is promoted through various civil society communication and engagement channels as “something to be bravely taken by savvy individuals” (24). In addition, Kimura notes further main threads of risk communication, many of which have an economic or national security component in addition to addressing social concerns. One thread pertains to the security of the food products from the Fukushima prefecture. Especially in the wake of the nuclear accident, but continuing still to the present day, domestic and international consumers avoided products from affected areas due to contamination fears. This has impacted the regional economy, not to mention the individual farmers, and is also a subject of concern for the government’s interest in national food security, that is, maintaining certain strategic percentages of domestic agricultural production. Hence, concerns about contamination have been portrayed in risk communication as fūhyōhigai, or ‘harmful rumors’ (Kimura, 28). Another thread in the risk communication discourse pertains to reopening the nuclear reactors and the strategic interest of nuclear power for Japanese energy security, given the nation’s lack of indigenous natural energy resources (Kimura, 30). The final thread which Kimura discusses is the importance placed in risk communication on the idea of homecoming, namely, that evacuees should return to affected areas in order to rebuild the regional economy. Although this is often messaged as a socio-political and cultural revitalization, the subtext (which is not lost on the evacuees) is that the government would like to end its financial support for evacuated communities and demonstrate through the return of the evacuees that nuclear energy continues to be a viable solution to Japan’s energy needs (Kimura, 29).      

Nuclear energy is a complex issue which could benefit from frank discussions about social needs for an affordable and secure energy supply, alongside a clean and safe environment. Importing expensive fossil fuels from unstable, conflict-torn regions is surely not a sustainable solution, irrespective of the dubious political and human rights records of the world’s chief energy exporters. Fluctuating global energy prices due to unexpected events in faraway lands, monopoly price controls by OPEC, and the steady warming of the planet may seem to indicate that nuclear energy should have a place in Japan’s energy mix. Yet, the burden of risk posed by nuclear accidents poses great costs on all levels – to the environment, to the economy, and most of all to the lives placed under the shadow and fear of a nuclear disaster. Thus far, the approach of the Japanese government and nuclear industry has not been to face these concerns head-on and engage in substantive dialogue. Rather, the emphasis has been placed on projecting reassuring messages and relying on the passage of time to calm the searing memories of the Fukushima disaster and the accompanying widespread civil engagement on the issues at stake. 

Even if Japanese government and industry interests in favour of reinvigorating the nuclear energy program (the so-called “nuclear village”) should succeed in calming socio-political responses to the extent that a full restart becomes viable, this does not address the underlying trust issues, which are persistently lingering. Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist and Sabine Roeser, in their 2015 paper on morally responsible risk communication in the post-Fukushima era, note that in situations of low social trust, empowering civil society is crucial for producing legitimate, socio-politically acceptable decisions (342). One-way, top-down approaches are counterproductive to rebuilding trust, and in a low-trust context will merely fuel continued mistrust in government and industry risk communications. Nihlén Fahlquist and Roeser counsel that a greater emphasis on morally responsible risk communication would be helpful; otherwise, the lack of trust and sense of hopelessness and passivity could be reinforced, making it difficult to build any meaningfully diverse and broad civil society support around re-exploring how to meet Japanese energy needs (343). Above all, they argue, communication and decision-making should proceed hand in hand; by engaging civil society as an equal decision-making partner, this builds social trust in the decision-making process and consensus support for the process itself as well as the ultimate outcomes (336).

When it comes to natural hazards such as earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis, Japan is regarded as a global leader in risk governance and communication, and engages robustly on both the scientific and social aspects of risk. Its whole-of-society approach, in which different layers of government coordinate with the private sector and civil society organizations, is hailed as a benchmark for the world, and widely studied and emulated. With regards to nuclear energy, however, Japan is still seeking firmer footing. It is not alone or even behind in this, as other societies are also struggling to establish appropriate risk governance and communication approaches towards this very politically sensitive area. Given Japan’s expertise in risk governance and communication regarding natural hazards, as well as its recent experience with the March 2011 nuclear disaster, the world is still looking to Japan to develop and pioneer new models which will marry the best attributes of a democratic, free society with multi-stakeholder, collaborative decision-making and the resources and technology of an industrialized, developed economy. Yappesu![7]  Let’s do it together! 



  [2] See, for example, the depictions of interagency stakeholders competing to influence                    complex risk governance structures as depicted in the television series “Chernobyl.”

  [3]  See, for example, the World Nuclear Association’s page about Japan:


  [4]  Ibid.

  [5]                 than-the-fukushima-disaster.

  [6] According to the World Nuclear Association – see footnote 4.

  [7] Regional expression from Miyagi prefecture of Japan, the neighbor of Fukushima         prefecture.


Árvai, Joseph (2014), “The end of risk communication as we know it,” Journal of Risk Research, 17:10, 1245-1249,

Bostrom, Ann (2014), “Progress in risk communication since the 1989 NRC report: response to ‘Four questions for risk communication’ by Roger Kasperson,” Journal of Risk Research, 17:10, 1259-1264,

Chen, Xiang et al. 2019. “Inequalities of Nuclear Risk Communication Within and Beyond the Evacuation Planning Zone.” Applied Spatial Analysis and Policy 12(3): 587–604.

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Date Published

January 18, 2020
2:00 pm Saturday, Tokyo (GMT+9)


Nuclear Energy, Japan, Fukushima, TEPCO

About the author
Florence Maher
Florence Maher is a Master’s degree candidate in Public Policy and Social Research and Rotary Peace Fellow at the International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan.


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