Fukushima: a foreseeable consequence of nuclear dependency

The Fukushima nuclear disaster was both avoidable and inevitable. Nuclear technologies have too many inherent risks with widespread consequences to be a sensible choice for energy production, argues Rebecca Johnson

Rebecca Johnson
16 March 2012

One year after Japan’s major earthquake and tsunami, what are the implications of the Fukushima nuclear disaster?  The magnitude 9 earthquake and 14 metre tsunami took Japan by surprise, but was the ensuing nuclear catastrophe an inevitable or avoidable consequence?  As Japan remembers the tens of thousands who lost their lives on March 11, 2011, a recent report argues that the natural disaster of an unusually large tsunami was turned into a nuclear catastrophe by the systemic failings of the nuclear plant’s operators, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), inadequate technical and emergency preparations and back-ups, bureaucratic complacency and weak regulations.

The report by the Independent Investigative Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident, headed by Koichi Kitazawa, former Chair of Japan’s Science and Technology Agency, has been published by a new Japanese think tank, Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, headed by Yoichi Funabashi, former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shinbun, one of Japan’s major newspapers.  Based on over 300 interviews with Fukushima workers, nuclear, seismic, engineering and safety experts, and nuclear industry and government officials, including then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the Commission of scientists, doctors, lawyers and investigators detailed how mistakes were made and vital information was suppressed as the nuclear accident spiralled out of control. 

Writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in March 2012, Funabashi and Kitazawa described how efforts to deal with the escalating crisis at Fukushima were hampered by ignorance and mistakes on the ground. Acknowledging the complex and overwhelming nature of the challenges faced by the workforce at Fukushima, the Commission’s most excoriating criticism was reserved for senior officials and politicians: “nuclear advocates in industry, government, and academia, along with local leaders hoping to have nuclear power plants built in their municipalities” had for years been fostering the notion of nuclear power’s “absolute safety” to counteract anti-nuclear concerns in Japan. This nuclear ‘mura’ (the Japanese word for ‘village’, which illustrates the closeknit relations among nuclear protagonists and bureaucrats in industry and government), sustained the myth of “absolute safety” by downplaying risks, and failing to undertake necessary planning for potential emergencies because – the article explained – “preparations for a nuclear accident would in itself become a source of anxiety for people living near the plants”.  

The report shows how the Fukushima disaster was both inevitable and avoidable. The ferocity of the tsunami might not have been avoidable, but it need not have resulted in a nuclear catastrophe. Though avoidable, nuclear accidents are also inevitable, because every so often extreme conditions or human error create ‘unpredictable’ crises that may cascade out of control.  When that happens with nuclear technologies, the risks are far more severe than with any other energy source. Nuclear supporters are fond of pointing out that in an average year more people die from accidents in coal mining.  Japan’s March 11 earthquake also damaged a large gas plant in Chiba which blazed out of control for several days.  Such comparisons miss the fundamental point about nuclear technologies that explain why a “nuclear allergy” remains potent in many societies. 

Risk calculations are derived from multiplying the probability of an event and its consequences or impact.  Nuclear energy is risky because accidents carry high consequences, even if they are relatively infrequent. For this reason, countries that build and operate nuclear power plants have to pay more careful attention to safety requirements than with other energy generators.  Even so, accidents happen with troubling frequency.  As shown by Chernobyl and Fukushima, when something really goes wrong with nuclear power – or, for that matter, nuclear weapons – the consequences are likely to be widespread, indiscriminate and out of all proportion to any energy or security benefits attached to the technologies in the first place. 

For Japan, the Fukushima nuclear disaster makes recovering from the earthquake inestimably more difficult, as the time-span for reducing contamination stretches far into the future, blighting industry and agriculture in the affected region, potentially for decades.  Deaths from nuclear accidents may appear less visible as they happen over a longer time scale, with misery caused through breakdowns in people’s health and elevated levels of reproductive problems, including birth defects.

Fukushima also illustrates the dangers of decisions that balance costs with safety when it comes to nuclear risks. Japanese engineers had designed for earthquakes and tsunami of probable size, but even in an industry as heavily subsidised by government funding as nuclear power, safeguarding the reactors against risks that were regarded as extreme - and therefore unlikely - was deemed too expensive.  In a seismically susceptible country like Japan, this accident should have been foreseeable, and yet it was was unforeseen.  The tsunami knocked out the nuclear reactors’ primary and back-up electrical supply and cooling-system pumps causing “a compound disaster, with meltdowns of reactor cores at Units 1, 2, and 3”.  As the fuel heated up and chemicals in its cladding reacted with steam to release volatile hydrogen gas, explosions blew the tops off two of the reactors and damaged a third.  The explosions damaged concrete ‘ponds’ above the reactors, where irradiated, ‘spent’ fuel rods were stored under water.  These leaked and exposed the fuel rods which overheated, spewing more radioactivity into the environment. 

Soon after, radioactive iodine-131 appeared in Tokyo’s drinking water, 150 miles from Fukushima, indicating that the accident was far worse than government and TEPCO officials were admitting.  Thousands of people had to be evacuated, and a year later over 100,000 ‘radiation refugees’ are still unable to return to their homes, schools, fields and factories. According to Funabashi and Kitazawa, Prime Minister Kan kept under wraps an analysis he received on the unfolding crisis from Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission. This warned that if control was not established quickly at Fukushima it might be necessary to evacuate some 30 million people over a radius of over 150 miles, including the capital city Tokyo.

While earthquakes and tsunami of the size that destroyed Fukushima are relatively rare, other foreseeable natural and terrorist events could create similar chaos. Previously, nuclear industry protagonists tended to respond to concerns by explaining that the reinforced reactor containment vessel would withstand potential terrorist attacks or explosions. Fukushima’s disaster demonstrates that an attack does not have to be as massive as a direct aeroplane crash onto a nuclear reactor – one of the disaster scenarios discussed at nuclear safety seminars after 9/11.  Targeted explosions or cyber attacks could be used to knock out the electrical supplies, back-ups and fuel pumps of nuclear power plants with the intention of causing Fukushima-like havoc, even meltdown.  

Funabashi and Kitazawa want the lessons of Fukushima to be absorbed by the rest of the world, noting that: “Risks associated with the peaceful use of nuclear energy are certain to increase, in light of the surge in nuclear plant construction taking place in many emerging economies.”  If such a surge towards nuclear energy were to take place in many more countries, that would certainly increase global risks. Many have poorer technological and safety capacities than Japan, with greater risks of political instability.  In fact, even before Fukushima, there has not been as much of a “nuclear renaissance” as the nuclear suppliers had hoped.  China and India may be moving ahead with ambitious nuclear building programmes, but despite harnessing fears of carbon-induced climate change, French, Russian and other suppliers have found it difficult to sign up new buyers among the 150 countries without nuclear reactors. 

One problem is the high costs. Even when decomissioning costs and nuclear waste are omitted from budgets, and governments provide hefty subsidies out of taxpayers’ money to pay for construction and capital costs, nuclear remains a relatively expensive energy source.  An incentive in the past (for some governments) was that nuclear energy programmes have also provided nuclear weapons options. The history of most nuclear weapons programmes, including North Korea’s example, and abiding concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme, have contributed to deep-rooted suspicions that any country nowadays that wants a nuclear energy programme might be interested in developing a nuclear weapons option in the future. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) exists to prevent that happening, but its inability to deal with the hard cases has highlighted the contradiction in its dual mission of preventing proliferation and facilitating nuclear programmes for “peaceful” purposes.

Japan’s continuing struggle to tackle the widespread radiation problem and manage its stricken reactors, has caused a rethink on its energy policies.  Previously regarded one of nuclear energy’s flagships, Japan has suspended operations at all but two of its 54 nuclear reactors and yet, as the Economist noted recently, has kept its lights on. In the wake of Fukushima, Germany closed its remaining nuclear power plants. By contrast, the UK government appears determined to push ahead with building up to eight new nuclear power plants in Britain. The UK’s Stop New Nuclear network marked March 11 this year by forming a human chain, and blockading the site of French nuclear contractor EDF’s proposed new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. In taking this action they expressed solidarity with the Japanese people, opposed plans to build a new Hinkley reactor, and highlighted the vulnerability of Britain’s current and planned nuclear facilities.

Planetary heating from carbon emissions is one of the most critical challenges facing us. Fukushima has served to remind us that jumping in panic towards greater nuclear dependency is not the answer.  Moreover, even if nuclear power construction were doubled in the next ten years, nuclear energy would contribute too small a proportion of global energy output to have  significant impact on climate change.  A much more fundamental change of energy approach and architecture is required.  Future and developmental needs can be delivered more safely and sustainably if countries invest in changing the structures of energy consumption, production and supply, as now being pioneered by Germany.  Instead of relying on centralised grids and large power suppliers – nuclear or fossil fuel – the transition to more sustainable energy becomes feasible if pressure on national grids can be reduced with micro-production (solar, thermal, wind etc) at the local home, factory, office and village level. 

This article is republished here on the third anniversary of the Fukushima disaster


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