Fukushima: Consensus Trance and Our Right to Know

I write as an attorney and alliance mediator. My client is the volatile situation at Fukushima. The following is a Blueprint for Collective Action


1.   The catastrophe of Fukushima continues to unfold, affecting all of us. The protagonists–TEPCO, the Japanese and U.S. governments, and the general public- appear to be in  such fear and denial that collectively we have entered a state of trance, of helplessness, resignation, and lassitude. 

2.   The spark that will awaken us is our grasp that collectively we have the right to know. We possess a fundamental human right to be informed and to inform ourselves of the   life threatening risks to our health, our well being, and our planet. 

3.   Assigning blame will not produce breakthroughs. By working together and aligning our highest creative powers, we can learn to devise solutions and carry them out      effectively. 

4.   Fukushima offers the world a unique opportunity for a shift in consciousness.

Problem Statement—Systems Breakdown/Sea of Ignorance

Fukushima may be a “wicked” problem—in other words, a problem so multifaceted and complex it can never be “solved.” I don’t accept this premise. The first step is to analyze its diverse components.

Existing harms—A significant number of containment workers and surrounding villagers were initially exposed to radiation. An indeterminate number of people will face an increased risk of cancer and other adverse health effects. Many will experience additional stress knowing that they will likely contract cancer and other life-threatening illnesses during their lifetimes as a result of their exposure. The local fishing industry has been ruined; the damages to the local and international environment are likely great but have not been measured, and are likely not easily assessed. An effective effort has not been mobilized to provide the best available medical care to people who have already been exposed, or continue to be exposed to potentially harmful levels of radiation. Can we find a cure before they become ill? Are there preventative measures that these people can take to reduce their risks? Even the knowledge that help is on its way may reduce their stress. There appears to be no known cure to prevent cancers after exposure to large doses of radiation. In this arena the victims are alone. In the swirl of politics around the nuclear facilities, we have largely forgotten them.

Worsening Situation—The situation worsens every month. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) has just announced that it has been discharging radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean for the past 2 years. One water sample from a trench near Reactor 2 contained 750 million becquerels of cesium 134 and 1.6 billion becquerels of cesium 137 per liter. These quantities are millions of times higher than the Japanese government’s regulatory limits. The water table around Fukushima has also been penetrated with radioactive material.

Failure to Monitor/Failure to Act—The Japanese authorities it seems are only taking readings of gamma radiation but not consistently monitoring radioactive alpha or beta particles. Public officials not only in Japan but also outside Japan are demurring. For example, it is unclear whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture is implementing special testing of seafood products coming from Japan. The State of Hawaii has been unwilling to conduct a full investigation and make its findings public even though debris from Fukushima is washing up on Hawaii’s beaches.

Prevention—TEPCO is not taking adequate measures to stop its discharges.

Clean up—The Asahi Shimbun reports that 60% of funds which have been officially earmarked for decontamination and clean up are being withheld.

Systems Breakdown—There are even deeper challenges. As the Yale sociologist Charles Perrow describes, when “tightly coupled” systems are overwrought (here the “system” is not only the nuclear reactors, but the closely linked ecological, economic, financial, and human psychological systems), it will take very little to “tip” the delicate balance. This could result in multiplying effects that are vastly more destructive than the precipitating cause. For example, one writer conjectures that the continuing mixture of radioactive tritium and deuterium in the presence of released plutonium could trigger another blast even more powerful than the original explosion at Reactor 3. An important technical question which nuclear physicists must confirm is: What is the threshold? If the fuel rods come in close enough proximity and there is enough fuel present, fission will begin to occur and heat is generated. If the reaction is not moderated by water, boron, or graphite rods that absorb neutrons, a chain reaction may become uncontrollable. This was the concern of Russian scientists dealing with Chernobyl. (1) What if there is another earthquake in this earthquake-prone area? Might it provide the precipitating cause? What planning is under way to deal with this contingency?  (2)

Sea of Ignorance–The most deeply disabling problem presented by Fukushima is the collective sense of fear, denial, helplessness, and hopelessness. Most people in Japan are resigned to the calamity. Nothing can be done. Outside of Japan most of us want to believe that Fukushima is a local Japanese problem. Few, if any of us, have the facts. Virtually no one has a beam on what will come.

Diagnosis—Consensus Trance and its Consequences

The Harvard trained psychiatrist Dr. Carol Wolman describes the phenomenon of the public’s “numbness” around the nuclear industry. The root cause appears to be fear and denial: the senses are so overtaxed and confused, our consciousness simply closes down. But there is a related process also at work. It is called “consensus trance.” The most famous historical example is the account by Captain John Cook when his man-of-war set anchor in Botany Bay. According to Cook’s journals the local inhabitants ignored the great ship resting before them and continued to enjoy their evening meals as though nothing unusual had happened. According to psychologists the natives experienced a “negative hallucination”: a man-of-war was so outside their normal experience, they collectively were unable to see it. Their eyes may have observed, but their brains could not process what they saw. Is Fukushima so beyond our experience we cannot bear to contemplate its consequences?

Consensus trance occurs when an entire community becomes unconscious and, figuratively, goes to sleep. The trance is consensual because each person bargains in this way: One says, “I will accept your version of reality, if you will accept mine.” The other counters with her or his story. And so they conspire. When both parties are numb, the trance becomes viral. We want to believe that Fukushima is a far away, local, and containable Japanese problem. Surely, it will never affect us. In consensus trance we sacrifice our creative powers, including our ability to imagine future possibilities, to invent effective remedies and to plan wisely. 

A Different Perspective

Although vilified by the media, TEPCO is also an isolated and tragic figure. In the terrible days since the earthquake TEPCO has never once faltered, never surrendered. Hundreds of TEPCO employees remain at Fukushima, daily exposing themselves to levels of radiation beyond regulatory standards; sacrificing themselves for their company and their country, knowing they will surely die from cancer and other diseases. If such a disaster had occurred one hundred and fifty years ago, the responsible samurai would have committed mass seppuku. The heroism of TEPCO’s engineers and other officials is the modern equivalent. Except, unlike New York’s 9/11 firefighters who are honored in the U.S. as true national heroes, TEPCO’s samurai are reduced to a statistic.

The situation at Fukushima is further complicated by another process which the writer Rebecca Solnit describes in A Paradise Built in Hell. She calls it “elitist panic.” Under this scenario the public authorities panic by perceiving the endangered public as the adversary. Rather than reaching out for assistance, the government authorities and the responsible companies hide vital information and waste precious time in shifting blame and planning scenarios to ward off the public. According to Solnit, this same pattern has been evident in every major disaster from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the Halifax explosion of 1917, Katrina, and 9/11. We witness it today in the Boston Marathon bombing.

In Japan the behavior is further complicated by powerful cultural factors. It is likely that TEPCO’s senior management and the Japanese regulatory authorities believe Fukushima is first of all Japan’s responsibility (sekinin). Moreover, it is considered shameful to ask for international assistance—especially if what you are discovering is too terrible to disclose. Elitist panic operates on another fundamental premise: full disclosure of the facts—including the fact of your own ignorance (also considered shameful under such circumstances)—will cause pandemonium. But the historical record confirms the exact opposite: in every example, Solnit demonstrates that the dominant behavior of an informed public is generosity, compassion, and selflessness. Calamity, it seems, invokes the better angels of our nature.

Thus, disempowerment is reciprocal. The public is kept ignorant; but TEPCO and the Japanese government’s position is also tenuous. By isolating themselves, they are deprived of their best potential ally–an imaginative, engaged, and innovative public. This insight may point the way to a solution.

Prescription—Empowerment & Our Fundamental Right to Know  

The Right to Know as a Fundamental Human Right–A useful first step toward empowerment is for all of us to realize that we, the public, already possess a legal right to know. We don’t have to ask for it. No new legal action is required to affirm it. This essential human right includes the right to be informed and forewarned about a present, specific, and unfolding disaster, and the correlative right to take immediate, reasonable, and effective emergency management measures. In legal terms the right to know is a composite of human and environmental rights which are well established under international law and most national legal systems. It is implied in Articles 3, 19, and 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and recognized in numerous UN Environmental Declarations since the Stockholm Conference of 1971. It has been codified and included as part of an environmental right (J. kankyoken) in Japanese, Chinese, and European Community statutes and ordinances. It has frequently been cited by the courts in these jurisdictions.

Foresight—There is a subtle, less well understood relationship between the right to know and the legal doctrine of “forseeability.” Most advanced legal systems impose a duty of care and liability on those who unleash harms when the consequences of their actions are foreseeable. The Japanese courts delivered a pioneering precedent in the famous Yokkaichi air pollution case that held that the burden of proof shifts when the plaintiffs were able to show by experimental, clinical, and epidemiological evidence that the harms originated from a specific source, involved specific toxic agents, and followed a specific pathway, entering their bodies and causing their illnesses. The more the public exercises its right to know, the more comprehensive and accurate the database that will be compiled, and the clearer the picture that will emerge of future harms that can be foreseen, avoided, or at least mitigated.

SafecastJoi Ito’s Global Open Source Initiative for Radiation Monitoring and Innovation. Safecast is a marvelous outlet for the latest information, ideas, and innovations. The Initiative is also a seedbed to test the next generation of 3-D printing technologies such as 2-Bot’s platform which can produce 3-dimensional renditions of Geographic Information System (GIS) to reconstruct and analyze the site-specific Fukushima relationships of reactors, land, water tables, and ocean. The presentation of the physical data in tangible physical form will create a powerful stimulus and feedback loop for continuous innovation.

Thousands of Empowered Explorers— What if thousands of empowered explorers—Japanese citizens and their compatriots around the world–begin to learn a fresh way of innovating around “wicked” problems by “inter-tidal thinking”? (Intertidal thinking overlays and interconnects domains of knowledge.) What if they can harness the latent power of social media and crowd sourcing? As cyber-advocates they will learn how to couple hard science with the power of chance and synchronicity from where most of science’s and humanity’s greatest breakthroughs derive. What if they have access to optoelectronic and other advanced computing which will analyze billions of bytes of information in seconds? What if by aligning their efforts they are able to cultivate their innate human capacity to peer into the future, but unlike Cassandra, they possess the skills to effect change? What if they were to align and focus their collective capabilities with laser precision on the critical challenges of Fukushima?

A Smart “Explorers’ Wheel”—It is now possible to create an online social network where concerned citizens will not only learn from each other, but also where the platform itself is intelligent. In other words, the Wheel itself becomes a powerful ally, supporting the mission of its participants, answering their inquiries, harvesting and disseminating their stories, gathering and analyzing data, and providing tools and training? A Smart Fukushima Explorers’ Wheel will rapidly become the catalyst and epicenter of innovation.

Joint Congressional and Parliamentary Hearings—Dr. Carol Wolman has organized a petition to the Congressional representatives of the western states calling for hearings on the effects of pollution from Fukushima on human health and the environment within the U.S. The petition is rapidly building momentum. Legislative oversight is one of the most effective responses in a civil society to the people’s right to know. Various senators have already expressed concern. Senator Ron Wyden (D. Oregon) returned from a fact-finding mission to Fukushima in April 2012. Senator Barbara Boxer (D. California), Representative Sam Farr (D. CA), and Senator Lisa Murkowski (D. Washington) all have strong established environmental track record. Dr. Wolman’s petition presents these and other western senators with a unique opportunity to create a precedent: Joint Hearings between their Congressional Committee(s) and the Japanese Diet. Under this process both legislative branches would collaborate. The Committee(s) would call expert witnesses, take testimonies, and assemble a record which will educate their members, constituents, and the public around the world. Concerned Japanese Diet members could reciprocate by inviting their American colleagues to Japan. Because joint hearings are novel, they will rivet the world’s attention on Fukushima and catalyze innovations.

Effective Relief—The Japanese government and perhaps other governments need to designate the victims of Fukushima as “pollution victims” who will receive immediate and adequate relief. There is an important legal distinction here. The term “relief” places the emphasis on caring for the sick and wounded; the term “compensation” carries with it the legal conclusion of responsibility and liability. An administrative system for relief finesses the complex legal issues of causation or negligence. The victims are relieved of the burden of proving these essential elements in a court of law before they can secure financial and other assistance. As a mediator for the situation, my intention is to “hold” the center, not to prejudge what will be in due course a judicial determination. Few people, however, will reasonably dispute the need for immediate care and compassionate relief.

The deep question is who are the victims? Japanese law provides for relief to Japanese victims or residents of Japan. But in this case the record of casualties will emerge only over time, and the tragedy may affect non-Japanese citizens as well. Apart from the basic fairness of caring for the medical and other costs associated with this tragedy, past experience with other pollution related diseases, such as Minamata (mercury poisoning), itai-itai cadmium poisoning, and air pollution-related diseases (asthma, emphysema, asthmatic bronchitis), demonstrates that an administrative relief system is a uniquely powerful means to assess the extent of the injuries. Japan’s record confirms that when relief is widely available, the victims will identify themselves and their stories will likely show that the actual problem may be far more serious than the public authorities at first imagine. An international fund for the relief of illnesses and physical injuries, damages to property and the environment from nuclear-related accidents like Fukushima is urgently needed. 

Engagement of UN and International Emergency Management Organizations—There is no global framework today for emergency management, especially for nuclear disasters. Fukushima presents an opportunity to create such a structure, drawing on the best available knowledge of emergency management and direct relief around the world. To date, the major international environmental NGOs have been quiescent about Fukushima. Now is the time for them to become engaged. 

Immediate Action(s)

Immediate and accurate readings need to be taken immediately of alpha and beta radiation and these findings should be widely disseminated through Safecast and other initiatives. International Medcom, Inc., a company based in Sebastopol, California, has advanced technology to take precise readings and is already collaborating with Safecast.

Beginning in early September my colleagues and I will offer a free online course to support thousands of samurai explorers in acquiring the skills noted above. The goal is to build a “field of mind” which will stimulate imaginative solutions for Fukushima. The format will be online videos in the style of a mini-TED conference with commentary from experts. A basic reference is my new book, Piloting Through Chaos—The Explorer’s Mind (“PTC/EM”–Bridge21 Publications, August 2013).

The Smart Explorers’ Wheel will begin turning as soon as explorers start asking the difficult questions, some of which are posed in this memorandum. The Wheel gains momentum as it attracts new participants and sponsors. All the required knowhow and technology to design and to launch an Explorers’ Wheel is ready. A sponsor’s organizational package is available upon request. The Explorers’ Wheel Program will offer a “Fukushima X Prize for Innovation” which should provide an additional and powerful incentive.

TEPCO, with support from the Japanese government, has a unique opportunity to seize the high ground. First, it can establish a trust to honor and to provide full and generous financial relief to its employees and their families. (The Japanese government as noted already has in place a legal framework for the administrative relief of other victims.) Second, TEPCO should consider recognizing that Fukushima is a true international emergency, and consider calling on national governments and all the relevant UN agencies and its affiliates—The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)– to lend their support for an “International Innovators’ Summit.” The Summit could be hosted by the UN University in Tokyo in November/December, 2013 and would engage some of the most creative minds in the world to join TEPCO in the search for solutions. Russian scientists can make a particularly significant contribution based on their experience with Chernobyl.

The U.S. government, especially through President Obama’s newly nominated ambassador Caroline Kennedy, also has an opportunity to strengthen its important relationship with Japan by providing scientific, technical, and financial support during this period of national recovery and transition.

If Senators Boxer, Wyden, Murkowski, Congressman Farr or other concerned legislators decide to hold hearings, they should consider inviting members of the Japanese Diet to join with them as special “advisory” guests. Together they will call and question witnesses and help the Committee to develop a record. This would represent a unique event in the history of both countries.


In the Chinese and Japanese languages the word for crisis (C. weiji, J. kiki) is written with the combined characters for danger and opportunity. The unfolding tragedy of Fukushima presents not only Japan but also the rest of the world with a unique opportunity to undergo a shift in consciousness. Its driving force is the spirit of free, fearless, and compassionate inquiry and exploration.

In this writer’s opinion the core problem of Fukushima is a fundamental breakdown at multiple levels of the integrity of systems—technical, ecological, financial, political, and psychological. This provides an insight into solutions. If negative causes can precipitate negative consequences, surely actions which help to restore integrity, at any level, may by the same process create virtuous eddies with multiplying positive effects. This Blueprint proposes many such strategies and actions. My research suggests that if even one is consciously implemented, there will be an almost immediate “field” of effect whereby this single act will potentiate many others. Causing this shift is one of the goals of an Explorer’s Wheel.

The possible fruits of such a journey are boundless: new methods to predict natural disasters and mount effective relief; new strategies for creativity and innovation; new ways of using smart technologies, open innovation, and the Creative Commons; a deeper understanding that life is short, and in the end we only have each other.

Shifts in consciousness are frightening because they demand that we deal with uncertainty in a new way. Many may quickly dismiss the proposals set forth here as “unfeasible.” The unstated and unconscious premise is that uncertainty is the enemy; fear yearns for certainty and masquerades itself as reason. But what if uncertainty instead is the fountainhead of all creative breakthroughs and our deluded “knowing,” the source of our dilemmas?  If we can together achieve this breakthrough in consciousness and apply our insights in this crisis, future historians may well look back on Fukushima as the beginning of Japan’s 21st Century Renaissance.

There is an ancient poem of hope and renewal which every school kid in Japan and China knows by heart:

“Although the Kingdom was destroyed, the castle grasses and mountain flowers are once again in bloom.”

(1) Is it possible that the discharges from Fukushima will trigger a critical threshold in the oceans unleashing a cascade of destructive consequences that are greatly disproportionate to the original cause? Parts of the oceans are reported to be already compromised. Is it possible that the daily discharge of hundreds of tons of radioactive waste from Fukushima, carried by ocean currents, will accelerate the destruction of marine ecosystems in distant regions we do not at present, perhaps cannot, anticipate? Who has competently studied such questions and possesses real knowledge to provide an expert opinion? What breakthroughs in monitoring or analysis will help our assessments and predictions? Who is in the best position to assemble the best scientific minds to investigate such questions? Which areas today are most vulnerable?

(2) How helpful might it be if we were able to predict a series of earthquakes at Fukushima with 6-12 months prior notice? What anticipatory measures might we take today, how many lives could be saved if we possess this knowledge? The opinion of most professional seismologists is that earthquakes are inherently unpredictable. But what if this premise is unsound? What if there is an effective way to predict the next earthquake or at least a better approach for solving the complex problem of earthquake prediction? (See PTC/EM pps: 133-134,204-208; also Natural Disasters – Public Innovation , also the important work of the International Earthquake and Volcano Prediction Center A related and important systemic problem is the dynamic relationship between earthquakes and volcanic activity. (See, Takefumi Kawaguchi, “Shh—the Volcanoes May Have Awakened.” The Nikkei Weekly, July 29, 2013, page 28.) There are significant differences between Fukushima and Chernobyl: 1. The radioactive discharges from Fukushima are continuous, and if anything, becoming more serious 2. Japan is a far more densely populated country than Russia, certainly near Chernobyl 3. It will not take another 9+ earthquake to tip the situation. Even a modest earthquake may suffice. 4.  The apparent influence of the Fukushima quake on some of Japan’s active volcanoes is a further complicating systemic factor.

(3) It is possible to graph and to track this process. Interested readers can test this proposition for themselves. (See PTC/EM pps. 107-110)


© Julian Gresser, August 2013; all rights reserved.  Julian Gresser is an international attorney, inventor, entrepreneur, professional negotiator, and recognized expert on Japan. He was twice Mitsubishi Visiting Professor at the Harvard Law School and is the c0-author with Koichiro Fujikura and Akio Morishima of Environmental Law in Japan (MIT Press, 1981) among other works. His just published book, Piloting Through Chaos—The Explorer’s Mind (Bridge 21 Publications August 2013) provides a blueprint on how to approach “wicked” environmental and social problems. Piloting Through Chaos—The Explorer’s Mind is based on the author’s “smart” technology which can support thousands of “samurai explorers” who have the imagination and zest to transform the tragedy of Fukushima into an opportunity for collective creativity, invention, and innovation. See: www.explorerswheel.com. This article may be freely copied, cited, and excerpted with attribution to the author. The author expresses his appreciation to Dan Sythe, George Lindamood, Carol Wolman, Patricia Bader-Johnson, Bill Moulton, Angela Marasco Gresser, and Jackeline Pereira.

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