This day six years ago, tsunami waves crashed into Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, leading to a meltdown, which by one estimate continues to leak an astounding 300 tons of radioactive waste into the Pacific daily. A selection of reports and a lead article by M.V. Ramana, on what some have called history’s worst environmental disaster.
It has been six years since the term Fukushima has become synonymous with the multiple meltdowns of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Here are six lessons that may be learnt from what happened then and since then.
The first lesson is that severe accidents at nuclear plants and other facilities are not one-time events and dealing with just the damaged structures, let alone the radioactive contamination of the environment, from such accidents can take decades. Fukushima, as Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research phrased it, is, “possibly the longest running, continuous industrial disaster in history”. The recent discovery of high levels of radiation within Unit 2—so high that even robotic cameras cannot operate in that environment for long —serve as a reminder of the complexity of the ongoing effort to deal with the meltdowns in the reactors. Indeed, as Safecast, an organization that has pioneered citizens’ monitoring of radiation levels in the aftermath of the accidents, pointed out “The process of removing melted fuel debris from the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi is expected to take decades, and these recent findings remind us once again that TEPCO has little grounds for optimism about the challenges of this massive and technically unprecedented project”. The early expectation offered by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that it would start removing the melted fuel from these reactors by 2021 is almost certainly not going to materialize.
The second, and related, lesson is that the impacts on the people who lived near a nuclear accident site are also long lived. There are still tens of thousands of people who were evacuated from the areas near Fukushima who are yet to return to their homes. The Japanese government, of course, would like to reduce this number as soon as possible, both for financial reasons, and to affect how people view the situation in Japan, especially as the 2020 Olympics are coming up. It is lifting the restrictions for people to move back to areas that were contaminated, but with the proviso that it would stop housing subsidies for the evacuees. As a result, people are forced to move back to areas with relatively high radiation levels.
A third lesson is that human beings are not the only ones affected by the accident. When the inhabitants of the areas around Fukushima were evacuated, they were not told that the move was for a long period, and they were not allowed to take their pets. As a result, dogs and cats and cows and so on were all left behind. Many of these starved to death but some animals are still alive, trapped in the exclusion zone. There are, fortunately, some volunteers who have saved hundreds of animals from the area. Studies have revealed deleterious effects on a range of birds as well, barn swallows for example. The forested regions around Fukushima have also been badly affected, as was the case in Chernobyl, and forest fires have become an additional source of risk for radioactive releases.
A fourth lesson is that the accident could have easily been worse and only luck prevented much greater levels of land contamination and human population impacts. Because of the direction of the wind during the worst phase of the accident, most of the radioactive materials released went over the Pacific Ocean. Another fortuitous occurrence was at the water filled pool that contained the irradiated spent fuel from Unit 4 of the Fukushima Daiichi. Because this Unit had been shut down, all of its fuel was inside the pool and generated the most heat, leading to the pool’s water to start boiling. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has modeled what happened there and found that the water levels had come close to below the top of the fuel rods. But “accidental” water leakage from the reactor fortuitously prevented pool water levels from dropping so low. Had the tops of the fuel rods been exposed to air, there could have been a fire leading to the release of large quantities of radionuclides. On 25 March 2011, Shunsuke Kondo, the chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, told Prime Minister Naoto Kan that a fire in pool 4 could require compulsory relocations out to 110−170 kilometres from the reactor site and voluntary relocations out to 200–250 kilometres. In other words, even the population of Tokyo might have been forced to relocate—a logistical and human nightmare.
A fifth lesson is that institutions that profit from nuclear energy continue to seek to build and operate reactors, even if there are obvious risks from doing so. This is the case in Japan, where companies like the Kansai Electric Power Company and the Kyushu Electric Power Company have applied and received permission to restart reactors that were shut down after the meltdowns in Fukushima. In turn, this is because nuclear establishments have underestimated, and continue to underestimate, the likelihood and severity of possible accidents. The reactor restarts in Japan were rationalized using various arguments that do not hold up to scrutiny, including assumptions that the reactors to be restarted were safe and the chances of an initiating event, such as an earthquake, were too small to be considered seriously. Concerns of the local communities were dismissed as inconsequential. As multiple polls have shown, a majority of the Japanese public are opposed to such restarts. a testimony to the undemocratic nature of decision making when it comes to nuclear matters.
A sixth lesson is that although the country has been generating only a tiny fraction of the nuclear electricity it used to generate, the lights still continue to shine in Japan. In 2016, nuclear power provided only about 2 percent of all the electricity in the country in comparison to 29.2 percent in 2010, the year before the accident started. Not only that, starting with the fiscal year 2015 (Japan’s fiscal year is from April 1 to March 31), Japan’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have fallen below the levels in FY 2011. After an initial spike, emissions have been declining since FY2013, mainly because of “decreased electricity consumption and the improvement of carbon intensity in power generation”. The latter, in turn, is because of an increasing fraction of renewable energy in electricity generation.
Although proponents of nuclear power may not admit it, the technology comes with an inherent risk of severe accidents. Such accidents can impact people, animals, birds, and plants living in wide swaths of areas around nuclear facilities. These impacts can also last for decades. Finally, it is by no means inevitable that carbon dioxide emissions must increase when reactors are shut down.
M V Ramana is Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia.