Kath Weston

The Fukushima Radiation “Problem” (問題): Secrets, Lies, and Technostruggle



One of the distinctive characteristics of radiation is that the presence of beta rays, gamma rays, and “hot” particles cannot be detected without some sort of scientific apparatus that measures the sieverts (Sv) or becquerels (Bq) in terms of which invisible, potentially deadly effects on life are gauged. In response to the ongoing radiation releases at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the March 2011 earthquake in Japan, individuals, households, and businesses collectively have made a massive investment in handheld Geiger counters. That investment has materialized as much in response to unreliable, contradictory, and obfuscatory “releases” of information from corporations and government agencies as it has in response to the release of radiation itself. This session considers the increasingly widespread use of Geiger counters in everyday life in Japan as a form of technostruggle, in which people attempt to seize the means of production—in this case, knowledge production—by seizing the means of perception. The ability to wield a technology that is itself emblematic of the nuclear age mitigates the loss of sovereignty that Ulrich Beck has identified as occurring when people cede the assessment of potentially life-threatening conditions to risk analysts, medical practitioners, and scientists who have cornered the market, as it were, on the valuation of toxicity, danger, and threat.

People have used Geiger counter readings collected in Japan to create crowdsourced radiation maps, to agitate for topsoil removal at school playgrounds, to make informed decisions about whether and where to evacuate, to target areas for phytoremediation projects, etc. In the process, 一般人 (ippanjin, common people ) have acquired considerable technical expertise on various aspects of nuclear engineering and physics, often in the course of working together with university-trained experts to make sense of their findings. Meanwhile a few credentialed authorities have troubled the “rule of experts” by resigning from their official positions and putting their expertise at the disposal of ordinary citizens. Some practitioners and observers, both inside and outside Japan, have styled these efforts as heroic, speaking of sleuths with Geiger counters, video guerrillas pursued by the State, and whistleblowers with the courage to take on powerful corporate interests. At the same time, the focus on a personalized, relatively expensive technology has certain limitations. We will look at some of them, including the effects of fetishizing a particular technology (Geiger counters over, say, dosimeters), the limited ability of households to deploy this technology to trace radioactivity through institutional channels or commodity chains, and the need for more grassroots organizing focused on the deployment of knowledge produced through technostruggle.


Ulrich Beck, “The Politics of Knowledge in the Risk Society” (PDF)

Matthew Penney, “Japanese Cancer Expert on the Fukushima Situation,” Asia-Pacific Journal (online at http://japanfocus.org/events/view/100). Original article by Nishio Masamichi, “福島原発事故における被ばく対策の問題” (“The Problem of Radiation Exposure Countermeasures for the Fukushima Nuclear Accident”) at http://www.toyokeizai.net/business/society/detail/AC/548a752507bc6c3aa0fd3db058e8098a/page/1/

Yabu Shirō, “Toward Pirate Communism: Tyranny and Anarchy,” trans. Adam Broinowski [Yabu’s diary from March 2011] (http://jfissures.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/toward-pirate-communism-tyranny-and-anarchy/)

“Tokyo Area Parents’ Radiation Worries Grow with Discovery of Local ‘Hotspots.’” (http://mdn.mainichi.jp/mdnnews/news/20110621p2a00m0na017000c.html)

Adriana Petryna, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens After Chernobyl (Ch. 1 “Life Politics After Chernobyl,” Ch. 2 “Technical Error: Measures of Life and Risk,” Ch. 5 “Biological Citizenship”)



Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands in Post Cold War New Mexico (esp. Ch. 5 section on “The Psychic Toxicity of Plutonium” and Ch. 7, “Mutant Ecologies”)

Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, Introduction

Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts

EX-SKF, “Radiation in Japan: ‘Experiment’ Just Got Bigger, as Fukushima to Fit All Infants, Kindergartners, Schoolchildren with Radiation Monitoring Badges” (http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/2011/06/radiation-in-japan-experiment-just-got.html)

Shigeru Sato et al., “Japan’s Radiation Sleuths Toil with Borrowed Geiger Counters” (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-12/japan-amateur-radiation-sleuths-using-borrowed-geigers-seek-hidden-dangers.html)