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PhD Defense | Joke Kenens | Probing the potential of citizen science in the governance of nuclear accidents | KU Leuven

22 March '22

Name: Joke Kenens

Date: March 22, 2022 

Livestream: click here. Use code 165146 to attend the PhD defense.

Probing the potential of citizen science in the governance of nuclear accidents

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident was one of the most severe nuclear accidents in the history of nuclear energy. It pushed ordinary citizens to collect their own radiation pollution data in unprecedented ways. Aided by technological advancements, including the Internet and the development of cheaper sensors to monitor the environment, citizens used measurement devices to generate open-source data and radiation maps. The organizations that are born out of these citizen initiatives are referred to as Citizen Radiation Measuring Organizations (CRMOs). They have increased accessibility and transparency of information and data related to the accident for citizens and communities, filling knowledge and information gaps created by the inadequate disaster response of the Japanese government.

CRMOs and other citizen-led initiatives have increasingly gained salience in crisis management and post-disaster recovery. The heightened attention towards these practices is evident of a participatory turn within science and technology policies since the end of the 20th century, indicating a re-evaluation and promotion of lay knowledges and public participation in science, technology and innovation. This has resulted in a growing body of scholarly work that investigates citizen participation, including citizen science. This term is broadly defined as a process in which citizens engage in scientific activities with or without the support of science professionals.

Recognizing the broad diversity of citizen science initiatives, this PhD examines CRMOs as instances of grassroots (or bottom-up) citizen science, whereby citizens organize themselves independently from experts, using their own technologies and methods to produce knowledge about pressing problems such as radiation pollution. It examines the issues and questions regarding citizenship, scientific practices and science-society relations that grassroots citizen science unearths. To this end, it analyses past and present citizen science initiatives connected to nuclear accidents, including not only the Fukushima disaster, but also the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe. It does so with the aims of 1) mapping the evolution of Japanese grassroots citizen science after nuclear accidents; 2) identifying the social spaces in which grassroots citizen science emerges; and 3) probing the potential of citizen science for crisis management and recovery after a nuclear accident.

The PhD takes a qualitative research approach. Between 2018 and 2020, three research stays were organized in Japan and fieldwork was conducted at 14 CRMOs, located in-and outside the area affected by the Fukushima nuclear accident, and at 4 local and 1 prefectural government in Fukushima and Tochigi Prefecture. The fieldwork is grounded in Science and Technology Studies (STS), environmental and feminist anthropology, political sociology of social movements, citizen science studies and Japanese studies. This framework enables this PhD thesis to examine top-down and bottom-up Citizen Science in Japan (Chapter 2), the evolution of post-Fukushima CRMOs (Chapter 3), (non)interactions between government and CRMOs (Chapter 4) and articulations of shimin kagaku (a term for citizen science in Japanese) (Chapter 5). In addition, materials for 5th and 6th year students of secondary schools were developed. These materials probe the complexity of science-society relations by discussing the Fukushima disaster from multiple angels, including physics and social sciences.

The PhD draws attention to the broad diversity of CRMOs and CRMO practices. By foregrounding the close connections between communities and CRMO practices, the thesis identifies the locality as a shaping constituent of CRMOs and accentuates the responsiveness and flexibility in the organization of CRMO activities to accommodate individual and community needs in a post-disaster situation. This way, the PhD research recognizes the potential for recovery and post-disaster emergency approaches stemming from CRMO activities, because CRMOs foreground flexibility and holistic approaches to crisis management, while drawing attention to different ways of sensing nuclear debris.

Building on fieldwork findings, the study argues that authorities, policymakers and professional scientists must engage with the many modes and meanings of citizen science, which are presently emerging. This entails accounting for the disruptive potential of grassroots citizen science. By delving into articulations of citizen science, the PhD research demonstrates that concepts, such as citizen science or shimin kagaku, embed various frictions that rest in notions of citizenship and science. Because CRMOs are rooted in various understandings of ‘recovery’, ‘citizenship’ and ‘science’, they potentially problematize governmental framings of radiation contamination.  As this thesis shows, studying CRMOs can help to draw out discrepancies between citizen and governmental framings and experiences of the Fukushima disaster. Unearthing these discrepancies is important, as local and prefectural officials are not always aware of these discrepancies. Thereby officials avoid questions regarding the politics of recovery and post-disaster emergency policy that CRMOs provoke. This observation testifies to the uneasy position that grassroots citizen science occupies in Japan, furthering insight into contemporary citizen-state relations in Japan and reimagining these relations as being more inclusive and reciprocal.

Overall, the PhD research establishes the need to put citizen science in sociological, cultural and historical perspective. To draw out the many modes and meanings of citizen science, the PhD research proposes concepts, which foreground multiplicity, and tools, for authorities, policy makers and professional scientists to engage with publics in a more inclusive and sensitive way, for example through education. It calls upon these actors and on social scientists to create venues where grassroots citizen science, policymakers, authorities and professional scientists come together to nurture a science for, with and by citizens. By pointing out the potential of collaboration between CRMOs located in different world regions and by hinting at the similarities between the global upsurge of grassroots citizen science in the wake of Fukushima and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the PhD research identifies entry points for future research and collective action. The insights from this PhD research are also relevant within a broader post-disaster recovery and crisis management context, and matter at a time of global environmental and political instability with citizens increasingly making themselves heard in environmental affairs.



  • Ine Van Hoyweghen (KU Leuven)

SCK CEN mentors:

  • Catrinel Turcanu (SCK CEN)


Click here for a list of obtained PhD degrees.

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