One year on: the lessons of Fukushima

On the first anniversary of the Japanese tsunami, Rob Lyons asks why some fairly minor damage to one nuclear plant became the story.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

Sunday marks the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan on 11 March 2011. The quake, measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, was the biggest ever to hit Japan and one of the biggest anywhere in the world in the past century. The resulting tsunami caused roughly 20,000 deaths. Yet, shockingly, the biggest issue about the disaster remains the resulting inundation of a nuclear-power plant at Fukushima, which so far appears to have caused precisely zero deaths from leaking radioactivity.

There are many valuable lessons to be learned from this tragedy. One is the importance of development. The earthquake and tsunami that affected the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004 were only marginally larger, yet killed well over 200,000 people. Direct damage from the Japan earthquake was relatively small thanks to high building standards. Warnings allowed many people to escape the unprecedented seawater surge that followed, though video of the wall of water hitting coastal towns is still shocking. Even so, the world’s third largest economy will take a long time to recover fully from what happened. Thankfully, Japan has the resources to do that.

This, however, is not the main lesson being drawn from events a year ago. Around the world, the conclusion many commentators and politicians have drawn is that nuclear power is inherently dangerous and that we need to stop all future nuclear development. This is a perverse conclusion, absolutely flying in the face of the facts. The reaction against nuclear power post-Fukushima reveals much about the navel-gazing, risk-averse worldview that has such a paralysing effect on life in the developed world today.

The Fukushima 1 plant was an elderly one. Building work on it began in 1967 and it was commissioned in 1971. There were a total of six reactors at the plant. At the time of the accident, reactor No.4 was shut down with no fuel in it (it was in a storage pond, which itself created problems), while reactors No.5 and No.6 were in cold shutdown awaiting planned maintenance. When the earthquake occurred, the three remaining reactors did exactly what they were designed to do: they shut down automatically and emergency generators came online to maintain cooling. So far, so good.

However, the tsunami that followed breached the sea defences, cut off the main power supplies, and flooded the rooms holding the emergency generators. As a result, the nuclear fuel in the reactors overheated and meltdowns occurred in reactors 1, 2 and 3. After a few weeks, when the problem was contained but not under control, the plant was finally made safe. Meanwhile, the Japanese government had enforced a 20-kilometre exclusion zone around the plant and had advised people within a further 10-kilometre radius to be ready to leave, too.

The next lesson of the incident, therefore, is that even ageing nuclear reactors are safe. (Modern designs should be considerably safer still.) If the sea defences had been larger or if the emergency generators had not been vulnerable to flooding, then nothing of great significance would have occurred at Fukushima. In hindsight, there was a culture of secrecy and an arrogance around safety that increased the possibility of a serious accident. It was clear that a variety of far-from-impossible scenarios had not been considered, let alone planned for, which led to a chaotic reaction in the immediate aftermath of the accident. But it is also the case that this was an old reactor design facing a tsunami of unforeseen magnitude and the resulting problems were, if anything, surprisingly small.

Alongside this is a third lesson: accidents can happen. Not everything that happens is reasonably foreseeable or easily preventable. The important thing is to learn the right lessons when bad events occur. Unfortunately, in all the hype about Fukushima, the wrong lessons are being learned.

Not a single person has died because of exposure to radiation as a result of the Fukushima accident, though two plant workers did die in a flooded basement room as a direct result of the tsunami. But lesson four is that overreaction to a problem can be worse than the original problem. For example, it was reported that 45 patients died after the botched and hurried evacuation of a hospital in the Fukushima prefecture, and this was not the only such case. One centenarian committed suicide rather than be forced from his home in the exclusion zone.

Most of Japan’s nuclear-power plants were shut down for testing after the accident or kept offline after maintenance for longer than expected. A country with hot summers like Japan has become reliant on air conditioning. With power supplies reduced, more people seemed to be affected by heatstroke. In July, it was reported that 26 people had died from heatstroke in the spring and early summer, compared to six people the year before. These may not all have been down to the problems caused by the nuclear shutdown, but it can’t have helped that people were being constantly nagged to reduce their power usage. Ironically, two workers at the plant, wearing very heavy protective suits to protect them against the radiation, died from heatstroke.

As for the people who were evacuated, their lives have been turned upside down. A survey of the members of one village showed that many have drastically reduced incomes, they have often been separated from the rest of their extended families, they face uncertainty about the future and even harbour nagging concerns about radiation and cancer. The result is that some have turned to drinking and smoking more, raising their risk of illness from these, more prosaic factors. The risks of returning to their homes and rebuilding their old lives would seem to be much lower.

For Japan to turn against nuclear power is, perhaps, understandable. For Western nations to do so is perverse. There has been only one incident at a civilian nuclear-power plant in history – at Chernobyl – that has caused any substantial loss of life, in a badly run facility with a flawed design in the soon-to-collapse Soviet Union. There has been no comparable incident anywhere else before or since, and even the after-effects of Chernobyl have been routinely exaggerated.

What has risen up in the West is, in the words of Frank Furedi in the aftermath of Germany’s post-Fukushima decision to scrap its nuclear programme, ‘competitive scaremongering’. One group trying to win authority and approval has emphasised climate change as the biggest danger to humanity (and therefore we need low-carbon nuclear power) while another has talked up the risks of nuclear power in order to support expensive and unreliable renewable energy, like wind and solar power.

So a fifth lesson is that we need much greater scepticism about such emotive claims and a hard-headed approach to the future of energy. We will need abundant, cost-effective energy to enable society to develop in the decades ahead. We know that the major options for creating that energy are all, by any reasonable standard, safe. Whichever technologies can deliver affordable, reliable power should be actively considered and added to the mix.

That kind of sensible calculation is, however, made unnecessarily tricky by the general chaos and uncertainty at the heart of Western institutions today. That a powerful Western leader like German chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained chemist, should perform a 180-degree turn on the issue of nuclear power in the space of a year – she had previously reversed a decision to scrap nuclear – is testament to the inability of Western governments to offer leadership on anything.

This is the most important lesson, one year on, from the earthquake and tsunami: it is the crisis of politics that is holding society back. We have the technical capability to move society forward, to cope with natural disasters and to learn from serious accidents. But without a sense of purpose about what society should look like in the future, and how to get there, the uncertainty of society’s elites – and the absence of a capacity for the wider population to give them a genuine democratic kick-up-the-arse – could prove to be the biggest disaster of all.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Robspiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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