Historical and Contemporary Studies of Disasters
Placing Chernobyl, 9/11, Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima and other Events in Historical and Comparative Perspective
A workshop co-sponsored by SHOT Prometheans (Engineering) SIG / SHOT Asia Network / Teach 3.11

(SHOT Annual Meeting)
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen


Manuscripts are being posted as they arrive and are listed in the order of the program. An excerpt of all mauscripts is posted below.

  • Click on the “Read more” link at the end of the excerpt to see the full manuscript
  • You will be able to post a comment using the comment feature at the bottom of each manuscript. (We encourage all viewers to post comments).

Thank you everyone for the careful care and attention that everyone is giving to this important topic.




“An Inevitable Consequence:” Changing Ideas of Prevention in the Santa Barbara Oil Spill
Teresa Sabol Spezio, Department of History, UC Davis

For decades prior to the spill, the U.S. oil industry took a reactive approach to oil spills on U.S. oceans, rivers and lakes.  Both the oil industry and the federal government believed that spills were an “inevitable consequence of the dependence of a rapidly growing population on a largely oil based technology.”[i]  Therefore, the majority of government and oil industry researchers and policymakers concentrated on containment, dispersal and removal (CDR) technology research and development with virtually no emphasis on prevention.  They believed that the existing technologies could manage the small daily spills that occurred from industries into waterways near their factories and from ships and boats that plied rivers, lakes, and oceans. The Santa Barbara Oil Spill allowed or forced these groups to take a more active role in the rise of in preventing oil spills.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) had long set the agenda for the U.S. oil industry. One of the largest trade organizations… {Read more…}


Falling Leaves:  Defoliants, Dioxin, and Disaster in Vietnam
Amy Hay, 2012 Rachel Carson Fellow, Rachel Carson Center, Munich, Germany; Assistant Professor, Department of History and Philosophy, University of Texas – Pan American

“Vietnam Defoliation Scars Expected to Last Centuries” proclaimed a 1974 New York Times headline.  The article discussed the upcoming release of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study that maintained chemical herbicides sprayed throughout South Vietnam had caused “serious and extensive damage” to inland forests and destroyed a third of the coastal mangrove forests.  As the maturation of trees within tropical forests typically took from seventy to one hundred years, and restoration of mangrove forests might well take over 100 years, the report suggested real and significant harm had been done to the South Vietnamese ecosystem.  The article also briefly mentioned that other studies done indicated that the chemical defoliants contained dioxin, and that this chemical contaminant might have caused stillbirths and deformities among Vietnamese children. {Read more…}


Technology and Natural Disaster: Reflections on a Changing Relationship
Matthias Heymann, Aarhus University, Denmark

While natural disasters had been neglected by historians for a long time, considerable interest in this topic emerged in recent years. Natural disasters appear to have recently become one of the leading interests and “most productive and innovative fields” in environmental history (Lübken 2010).[1] One of the convincing achievements in the historiography of natural disaster is the overcoming of a portrayal of disaster as an event that represents a singular point in time. Scholars like Geoff Bankoff (and many others) pointed out that disasters evolve within a history of political structure, economic system and social order which may span a considerable period of time before and after the particular event (Bancoff 2003, see also Lübken and Mauch 2011). Investigating natural disasters in broader historical context in fact offers rich opportunity to enhance historical understanding not (only) of the disaster(s) in question, but of the society and culture in which disaster took place.

A second convincing achievement I will draw on is the vast evidence sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, historians and others have accumulated that disaster (whether natural or technical) is not “natural”, no “act of god”, but a result of human interaction with technology and environment (e. g. Hewitt 1983; Perrow 1984/1999; Steinberg 2000). … {Read more…}




Complex Catastrophe: Hurricane Katrina and the Warning Response Problem
Eric Paglia, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm
Dr. Charles Parker, Uppsala University

Many of the initial post mortem accounts of the Hurricane Katrina disaster primarily attributed failure to Bush administration incompetence and the poor performance of FEMA. Although their respective responses were indeed suboptimal and contributed to the unsatisfactory outcome, the origins of the Katrina failure are far more complex. Valuable insights can be found in the pervasive, debilitating, and hard to surmount psychological, bureaucratic, and political obstacles that often lead to warning-response problems like the ones that contributed to the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe.

With the use of three perspectives, we seek to demonstrate that the failure to address the inadequate flood protection infrastructure, put in place policies and practices necessary for more effective community resilience, and to properly plan for consequences associated with the flooding of a major metropolitan area was, in fact, typical of warning-response problems. The Katrina disaster constituted a failure at all levels of government that was, in fact, years and decades in the making. This paper analyzes the roots of this failure through applying three broad explanatory perspectives inspired by psychological, bureau-organizational, and agenda-political approaches to the study of policymaking processes (Parker & Stern, 2005). The potential sources of failure that fall under these categories will be utilized to illuminate the empirical record in an attempt to understand more systematically what went wrong and why. {Read more…}


Salient Features of Disaster Management of Different Selected Countries
Dr. Rita Parihar, Dept. of Public Administration, H.P. University, India

Disasters of all types, e.g. earthquakes, floods, cloud bursts, cyclones, etc. have been occurring since time immemorial. However, their frequency, magnitude and area have increased many times in all parts of the world recent times. Different countries have framed disaster management plans according to their political, social, economical, and geographical set up. .The nature of the disasters may be different from country to country but the impact of the disaster is same in the form of devastation. Here are the prominent features of disaster management system of different selected countries.

India:- India became one of the first countries to declare a national commitment to set up appropriate institutional mechanisms for more effective disaster management at the National, State and District level. Various efforts have been done in this regard. Disaster management act 2005 demonstrated the national vision of a paradigm shift from post-disaster response to improve the pre-disaster, disaster preparedness initiating disaster mitigation projects and strengthening emergency response capacities in the country. NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) has been established… {Read more…}


Situated questions, situated answers: How international exchange of academic questions can help the recovery process from disasters.

Chigusa Kita, Kansai University, Japan

From the very early stage of the aftermath of Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, some academics were commissioned to serve as commentators for TV news coverages, to improve public understanding of scientific issues related to the disaster.  During this phase, though only insufficient information from devastated area was delivered, those academics were forced to estimate what was happening, or even would be happening.  As time passed, gradually people realized which academic(s) had been underestimating the severeness of the damage to the nuclear power plants.  This failure of authoritative scientific communication in early stage caused public mistrust of “scholars toadying up to government authorities,” and furthermore this public suspicion and responding timidness of scholars started to prevent calm scientific communication, especially related to nuclear issues.  On the other hand, voluminous information flow over the internet, especially the usage of social networking media, had formed a sphere of influence and importance. {Read more…}


Call it a ’Wash’? Conundrums of Technological Modernization and Flood Amelioration in Early 20th Century Niigata Prefecture, Japan
Philip Brown, Department of History, The Ohio State University

Civil engineering projects that shaped the outcomes of the March 11, 2011 Tohoku disaster extended well beyond those that affected the safety of nuclear power plants per se and encompassed dilemmas with which Japan has contended long before the advent of nuclear power generation.  Flood amelioration efforts represent a case in point. Modern approaches to river control – lining rivers with cement and construction of dikes – in fact did much to channel Tohoku tsunami waters and accelerate their speed as they moved inland.  Designed to protect and permit the development of lowland areas, these modern civil engineering projects represent the current end-point of an extended Japanese tradition of riparian control. This tradition was enmeshed in trade-offs between different economic and political interests, and new and older technological approaches. {Read more…}




A socialist nuclear program. The Vrancea earthquake and the Bulgarian nuclear power plant.
Ivaylo Hristov, PhD candidate, Plovdiv University, Bulgaria; Eindhoven Technical University, Netherlands

The global situation was the reason that Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries became part of the Soviet bloc’s technology area. After the Second World War, most Central and Eastern European states came under the Soviet political and ideological umbrella. In fact, this political situation formed the foundation of new relationships among the populations in this region. Unusual links between different partners emerged with the purpose of rebuilding the devastated countries after the war. Most of the newly founded connections were in the technological fields that aimed to reestablish modern societies supported by new technologies and new engineering alliances. In fact, the Soviet communist government initiated such activities in its efforts to develop a socialist community.

Understanding the processes for building new technological links with the Soviet Union requires consideration of the dynamic environment in which they emerged. The Stalinist regime was the most hated and unacceptable for the Eastern European states. The consequent models for communist ruling promoted by Khrushchev, Brezhnev, or Gorbachev consisted of attempts for improved integration and mutual coexistence. Such attempts at least softened the terror and created the chance to improve technological networks. [Read more…]


Meanings of a disaster. The contested ‘truth’ about Chernobyl
Karena Kalmbach, Department of History and Civilization, European University Institute

In this paper, I present first results of my work in progress on a comparative history of the French, British and Italian Chernobyl discourses, undertaken in the framework of my PhD. I am accomplishing my case studies on France and Britain and would like to discuss my conclusions drawn from the comparison of these two cases.

The conclusions that can be drawn from a comparison of the French and the British discourses on the health effects of Chernobyl are manifold. First of all, it becomes obvious that there is nothing like a single factor that can explain why the debate on the impact of the Chernobyl fallout developed differently in one country than in the other. Rather, we are confronted with a set of factors that bi-directionally influenced each other.

Looking at single instances only, one could gain the impression that in both countries the debate would have processed similarly. Both countries were affected by the fallout in May 1986 to a comparable degree. Both countries had a high developed nuclear sector and had been confronted before Chernobyl with accidents in their own plants. In both countries, an active anti-nuclear movement existed. In both countries, the governments announced in the first days of May 1986 that… {Read more…}

Engineering Terrorism: Technological Ingenuity, Innovation and Impact in Urban Terror 1807-2011
Dr. Mats Fridlund, University of Gothenburg & University of Copenhagen

What contributions to terrorism has engineering provided? Discussing 9/11 Chandra Mukerji (2003) stated that the WTC buildings had been made ”vulnerable to a social type that has until recently seemed impossible in the culture: the terrorist engineer.” However, this is not correct as the engineer as well as artifacts of engineering have been central throughout modern terrorisms (Fridlund 2007). To sketch this historical role of engineering to terrorism four cases of (urban) terrorism are discussed, exploring engineering as technological ingenuity in the form of engineering knowledge and technological expertise, as technological innovation focused on the novelty and conservativity of the technologies used, and finally as technological impact in the way it effected on subsequent technological development and material artifacts. {Read more…}

_________________________________________________________ A Video Game to Overcome Cognitive Limits in Comprehending Disaster
Martine Robert, PhD candidate, University of Aix en Provence (CEPERC)

Disaster is what we cannot imagine. Disaster may be considered through both prospective and retrospective knowledge, yet it is nearly impossible to believe. However, in the world of video games, disaster is a prevalent theme in the so-called ‘post-apocalyptic’ genre. In Fallout 3, the player moves through a Washington D.C devastated by nuclear war. What sets this game apart from other ‘post-apocalyptic’ productions is that it takes place in an existing town. This is therefore an essential dimension of disaster: the alteration of a world we know that in turn makes it unfamiliar. At the same time, we find traces of the world we are familiar with everywhere.

In spite of its specificity, Fallout 3 is a conventional role-playing game. The player moves through an environment and gains new abilities through overcoming challenges. The player earns ‘experience points’ after successful missions, and ’evolution points‘ at certain thresholds, which can then be distributed in Fallout 3 to different skills (force, perception, charisma, intelligence…) All of the game’s characters, players or not, have quantified characteristics. The results of their interactions, and specifically fights, are computed by applying a few rules to this numerical data. This mechanism drastically limits the forms of interaction possible: one can help a non-player character, get information from him and, as is commonly the case in a fighting game, kill him. {Read more…}




The first perception of the Hiroshima tragedy in France before the Cold War: between fascination and repulsion
Robert Belot, Director of the RECITS laboratory, Université de Technologie de Belfort-Montbéliard (France) & Zelda Chauvet, Doctoral student, RECITS

Hiroshima is more than a historical fact. The extent of the disaster transformed this historical fact into a long-lasting techno-metaphysical event. Crystallized by memory and its political uses, it slowly extracted itself from its proper context to acquire a purely moral referent status. The historical analysis is nevertheless more necessary than ever. And must be done.

This is the path we have chosen to follow to rediscover the complexity of the French scientists’ original perception. With the help of the first book written on the subject: Statu Quo of Fear[1]. Its author: André Labarthe (1902-1967), physicist at the service of antifascism, before the war, then of the Résistance movement, and a close friend to the Nobel laureate Atomist, Frédéric Joliot-Curie[2]. {Read more…}


The Introduction of the First Nuclear Reactor to Japan and Japan-UK Relations in the Cold War
Kenzo Okuda, Independent Scholar

In December 1953, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” address at the General Assembly of the United Nations. The following year, the US tested the largest hydrogen bomb in Bikini Atoll creating a deadly nuclear fallout affecting Japan’s fishermen and fishery. These two events marked the beginning of the process that led to the introduction of atomic energy in Japan. The Yomiuri Shimbun group owned by Matsutaro Shoriki played an active role in this process. Sponsored by Shoriki’s best confidant Hidetoshi Shibata, director of Nippon Television Network Corporation, “the Atomic Energy Peace Mission” led by John Jay Hopkins, president of General Dynamics Corporation, visited Japan in May 1955. Shoriki became the first chairman in January, 1956 of the newly founded Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which was to oversee the introduction of atomic energy to Japan as a national policy. In spite of this American effort, it was the UK built Calder Hall type reactor that was adopted as the first commercial nuclear reactor in Japan. {Read more…}


Do-it-yourself (DIY) Movements after the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis
Yasuhito Abe, University of Southern California

The Fukushima nuclear accident created an alternative space for science communication. This paper analyzes what I call post-Fukushima DIY (Do-it-yourself) movements in which citizens or laypeople measure the level of nuclear radiation by using Geiger counters and distribute the collected data to those who are concerned about nuclear radiation leaks by using social media. Specifically, this paper illustrates the fundamental complexities of post-Fukushima DIY movements in Japan and beyond. In so doing, this paper examines two different post-Fukushima DIY movements: Setagaya kodomo mamorukai or “Save our kids in Setagaya” and Safecast. An analysis of the fundamental complexities of post-Fukushima DIY movements enhances our understanding of the nature of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis. {Comment here…}


Displaced by Disasters: Patterns of evacuation after Fukushima
François Gemenne and Reiko Hasegawa, IDDRI – Sciences Po (DEVAST Project)

What makes the 11 March disaster so dramatically unique? In many ways, the disaster is reminiscent of many other disasters, which took place in similar circumstances. The immediate candidate for comparison is of course the Chernobyl accident: the Fukushima accident is (only, would say some; already, would say others) the second major nuclear accident in history, and it also lead to the evacuation of the zones surrounding the plant.

But the 11 March disaster can also be compared to the Lisbon disaster of 1755, which was also a triple disaster: a major earthquake triggered a huge tsunami, which set fire to the city. A more obvious comparison is found with hurricane Katrina: both are two of only a few major disasters in recent memory that occurred in industrialised countries. Undoubtedly, many Japanese will also relate to disaster to the Kobe earthquake, which devastated one of Japan’s largest cities fifteen years ago. Finally, how not to mention the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in Decemeber 2004? It is only then that most of the world discovered the word ‘tsunami’. {Read more…}


2 Responses to Manuscripts

  1. Pingback: Virtual Conference – Historical and Contemporary Studies of Disasters – 18-23 September 2012 « An STS Forum on Fukushima

  2. Pingback: VIRTUAL CONFERENCE: Historical and Contemporary Studies of Disasters, 18-23 Sept. 2012 | Teach 3.11

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