Slow Burn – Dirt, Radiation, and Power in Fukushima

Slow Burn – Dirt, Radiation, and Power in Fukushima (Peter Wynn Kirby, University of Oxford)
Amid the radioactive fallout of the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and across what would come to be known as the Exclusion Zone, Japanese members of the nuclear lobby laboured to contain the political fallout of the Fukushima disaster. This paper scrutinizes the profuse rhetoric over recycling as mobilized by nuclear boosters and the wider operations of circularity in waste management in Japan. Japanese leant heavily on the notion of recycling to attempt to frame the clean-up in Fukushima in more ideologically convenient terms. This led, for example, to officials trumpeting plans to ‘recycle’ over 16 million cubic metres of radioactive topsoil scraped from hundreds of square kilometres of Fukushima Prefecture, as well as efforts to achieve ‘thermal recycling’ by generating electricity from the incineration of collected irradiated vegetal matter and the large amounts of protective clothing and other material used in the ‘decontamination’ campaign. By scrutinizing this appropriation of recycling rhetoric and its leveraging across Japan’s nuclear waste management apparatus, this paper exposes contradictions and distortions in contemporary Japanese policy that have considerable political and geographical ramifications.
Discussant: John Scanlan (University of Central Lancashire)

Peter Wynn Kirby is an environmental specialist and ethnographer based in the Nissan Institute at the University of Oxford. He holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Before coming to Oxford, Peter worked at several universities, including tenured/permanent positions, in Japan, France, and the UK. He has been a member of the Technological Life research cluster in Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment since 2012. Peter’s research focusses on toxic waste and nuclear risk in Japan—notably in the irradiated aftermath of the 2011 tsunami disaster in Tohoku—and scrutinizes the cultural underpinnings of environmental attitudes, from popular culture to conceptions of purity and pollution. His ethnographic work on nuclear Japan predates the advent of the Fukushima radiation crisis and currently traces the human toll of the triple-meltdowns across Fukushima’s fraught social terrain. He is the author of the monograph Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan (2011), as well as numerous other scholarly publications. Peter’s current research interests include the complex ‘conversions’ of material culture, from recycled garbage to reprocessed radioactive matter; and the novel subjectivities encountered in robotics labs, as well as challenges posed by future growth in robotic waste.

John Scanlan works in cultural history / aesthetics. He is the author of On Garbage (2005), a book-length essay on ‘waste’, and more recently Memory: Encounters with the Strange and the Familiar (2013) and Easy Riders, Rolling Stones: On the Road in America, from Delta Blues to 70s Rock (2015), which is currently being made into a feature documentary titled ‘Road Music’. He is the Series Editor of Reaktion Books’ ‘Reverb’ series, which publishes studies that look at the relationship between music and place. He is currently working as a research fellow with a public art research project at the University of Central Lancashire, which is called In Certain Places ( His recent work as part of this project has been focused on the Cumbrian coast, a sub-region that remains unknown to many, although it is home to Sellafield, the biggest nuclear waste reprocessing site in the country. A new book-length publication, titled West Cumbria: On the Edge, will be published in February 2019.