AbstractIn high-risk industries, the development of reliable safety systems has made it easy to forget that operators may one day be confronted with dramatic, life-threatening situations. This article examines one such catastrophe, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. It will shed light on the mechanisms at work in operators’ attempts to mitigate the disaster, even as they knew they would be exposed to a radioactive environment. Using available literature and official reports, it will show how the decision process used by workers to make tragic choices involving self-sacrifice unfolded within three orders of determination: institutional, organizational, and the field. Although these regimes did help actors to make hard choices, we will show that they simultaneously created ethical blind spots. Just as the complexity and tight coupling of this high-risk industry leads to “normal accidents,” we argue that self-sacrifice in the wake of such accidents is masked by what we call “normal blindness,” which hides the underlying tragic choices actors must make. This article argues that normal blindness need not be inevitable and that further exploration of and reflection on the ethical lessons of the Fukushima accident could help us to better prepare for such situations in the future.

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