The Fukushima question 5 years on

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Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking into the effects of the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region on 11th March 2011. You might have read Emma’s personal account of the earthquake while teaching in Sendai, the closest city to the quake’s epicentre, or followed the stories or our staff who volunteered in tsunami-stricken Ishinomaki in the months after the event.

But while the earthquake and tsunami had the most immediate and devastating effects, it soon emerged that there was a more sinister side to the disaster that would tap into the world’s deepest and darkest fears. I am referring, of course, to the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant.

We felt that we needed to tackle the controversial subject of Fukushima in our ‘5 years on’ series but would also like to make it very clear that we have no concerns with regards to the safety of any our customers (or anyone for that matter) travelling to Japan. However, nobody reading this can fail to have noticed the almost blanket media coverage of the Fukushima disaster in the days and weeks after the earthquake. Whereas the strength of an earthquake can be measured in magnitude and the impact of a tsunami counted in buildings destroyed or lives lost, how does one measure the impact of a nuclear meltdown? No lives were lost, no buildings destroyed, no towns washed away or physical damage inflicted – but somehow the effects of the nuclear disaster were all the more terrifying for being unknown.

What with the international media are busy forecasting a Chernobyl-style nuclear holocaust and fomenting global hysteria with their doom-laden prophecies, and the Japanese media diligently pretending nothing actually happened, what is the rational human being to make of it all?

In such cases as these, I find that it’s best to ignore the media and turn to the facts. There’s no sugar-coating this: it’s pretty bad. But consider the facts, and you might find that it’s a bit less bad than you think. Read on.

 (AP Photo/Kyodo News)
(AP Photo/Kyodo News)

What actually happened?

When the earthquake struck Japan at 2.46pm on 11th March 2011, the Fukushima Power Plant’s standard safety systems (called SCRAM) came into effect successfully. All the reactors were automatically shut down, and emergency diesel generators kicked in to run the coolant pumps – a necessary function to keep the reactors’ fuel rods from melting (this, incidentally, is what people mean when they say ‘nuclear meltdown’).

It was the tsunami that caused the real problem. 50 minutes after the earthquake the wave rolled inland, easily surmounting the plant’s 5.7-metre seawall and flooding the control rooms, disabling the backup diesel generators to five of the six reactors. When these failed, power supply switched to emergency batteries, which were only able to run the cooling systems for a few hours. When these ran out, the fuel cores began to melt, producing excess heat that caused the plant’s zirconium fuel cladding to react with water to produce hydrogen gas. Hydrogen is highly flammable, and when mixed with ambient air in high enough concentrations it can auto-combust – which is exactly what happened next. The resulting series of hydrogen-air explosions caused severe damage to the reactor containment buildings (though they didn’t breach the reactors themselves, as misreported by ABC News in the US).

All this resulted in radioactive material being released into the air via steam, and into the ocean and groundwater via the leakage of water from the cooling systems. Whereas the airborne radiation was released more or less all at once, radioactive water continued to leak into the sea in untold quantities for at least two years after the disaster.

What area was affected?

In all the confusion and hysteria surrounding the Fukushima accident, geography rather went out of the window. What with the French media (TF1) reporting that transport had ground to a halt throughout the Japanese archipelago (wrong), the BBC insisting that Tokyo was a ghost town (also wrong), and Korean outlet KBS reporting that Tokyo Airport had been flooded by the tsunami (wrong again), it’s not really surprising that those outside Japan were a little confused (source). Come to it – people inside Japan were pretty confused too.

Facts – Tokyo  265km from the Fukushima exclusion zone. Kyoto is approximately 715km from the Fukushima exclusion zone. In reality, airborne radiation from the Fukushima plant affected a relatively small area in the north of the country, and even people in nearby Fukushima City had little reason to fear the ill effects of contamination. The popular impression that the whole of Japan was on the brink of a nuclear holocaust was grossly exaggerated. As Amy, a travel consultant in our Boulder office who was working in Sendai at the time, explains:

“It was not fun having to convince all my distant relatives that I wasn’t glowing at night or starving to death (my parents were fine with me staying, once I said ‘it’s bad but not flee-home bad’, but for some reason all my cousins/uncles/aunts were sure I was dying secretly). So I wasn’t all that thrilled with the foreign coverage as it made Sendai sound like it was in the middle of nuclear wasteland and everyone was going to get cancer.”

Constant comparisons with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster didn’t exactly help. It is an oft-cited fact that the Fukushima disaster was the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, and only the second nuclear disaster to be given the highest classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale. These things are technically true, but the actual scale of the Fukushima disaster was much smaller than Chernobyl. For instance, Fukushima has released an estimated 340-900 PBq of radioactive waste while Chernobyl released 5,200 PBq, and radioactive material from Fukushima travelled only as far as 60km overland while contamination from Chernobyl affected the surrounding area for up to 500km. Overall, it’s thought that radiation levels produced by Fukushima were 10-20% of those released by Chernobyl. I’m not saying Fukushima wasn’t bad – but that’s quite a considerable difference.

What are the predicted long-term risks?

Not all radioactive material carries the same amount of risk. For example, Iodine-131 was released in large quantities at Fukushima and is very harmful (it’s known to cause thyroid cancer), but it has a half-life of eight days so becomes harmless after a short period of time. Tellurium-129m, another by-product, decays after just six days. One of the more persistent elements emitted at Fukushima was Caesium-137, which can hang around for just over 30 years and spreads easily because of its high solubility – but most of this it thought to have been absorbed by the mineral-rich topsoil around Fukushima.

In the five years since the disaster, clean-up efforts have gone a huge way toward making the area around Fukushima safe. Whereas Chernobyl was left to decay naturally, population-dense Japan could not afford to leave large areas of habitable space to rack and ruin, so huge amounts of money have been ploughed into removing low-level radioactive waste from the Fukushima area and bagging it up for storage. This month, James Conca reported in Forbes that many of the residential areas within the 20km exclusion zone are now considered safe enough to be resettled, with 70% of residents to be allowed to return in 2017. The plant itself will take many more years to make safe, but the risk of these activities to the public is, Conca insists, “vanishingly small”.

As far back as May 2013, in fact, the United Nations Committee on the Effect of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) declared its findings that the Fukushima disaster had had no immediate health effects, and was unlikely to be responsible for significant health effects in the future. The timely evacuation of 170,000 people from the area surrounding the power plant on the day of the accident meant that the overall exposure of the population to radiation was very low, and there have as yet been no reported cases of acute radiation syndrome among the exposed (compared with 134 cases after Chernobyl). A report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in March 2013, meanwhile, reported that the overall increase in cancer risks for those who had been exposed was likely to be so small as to be undetectable.

What all experts agree is that the psychological effects of anxiety caused by the fear of radiation exposure are sure to be far, far more damaging than the physical effects of the radiation itself – leading to a similar spike in psychosomatic illness among evacuees as was observed in the Ukraine after Chernobyl.

Though the personal risk of radiation to people in Japan is extremely small, it is important to realise that the clean-up so far has only been skin-deep. The plant itself still contains high-level radioactive material that needs a secure storage destination – something Japan doesn’t have, and probably shouldn’t ever build due to its propensity for seismic activity. Another alternative is a Chernobyl-style ‘sarcophagus’, which would entomb the plant and its radioactive waste until such a time as it can be made safe. Meanwhile, who knows what effects the radioactive water that poured into the ocean for at least two years after the disaster could be having on the marine environment?

As Junichi Sato, the outgoing Executive Director of Greenpeace Japan, reminds us – the superficial risks may be cleaned away, but in reality “a nuclear disaster is ongoing and never-ending” (source).

Why did it happen, and is anyone to blame?

With a disaster of this size, it’s unsurprising that there has been a lot of finger-pointing in the aftermath of the Fukushima incident. Were the appropriate safety measures being observed? Could this accident have been prevented? The short answers are no, and yes.

Since the Fukushima accident, it has been suggested that TEPCO, the organisation in charge of Fukushima, had various chances to make its premises more secure prior 2011. Plant officials ignored warnings given by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1991 that their backup power supply system might be open to malfunction; they failed to act after an engineer raised the possibility of tsunami damage after a flood the same year; and they altered the layout of the plant’s emergency cooling system in violation of nuclear regulations in 1967 – a move that might have aided the spread of hydrogen to one of its reactors. All of these failings augmented the severity of the Fukushima disaster.

Amongst the various accusations levelled at TEPCO, however, the most shocking is the suggestion that nuclear chiefs ignored the findings of a 2008 tsunami study, which found that the plant’s seawall defences would be ineffective against a tsunami over 10 metres high. TEPCO officials apparently ignore these findings on the ground that a ten-metre tsunami was ‘unrealistic’. As we now know, the tsunami of 2011 reached heights of up to 15 metres. In the light of these findings, three former TEPCO executives were charged with negligence in February this year.

But it isn’t just TEPCO that has come under fire. The Japanese government has also been heavily criticised for its perceived attempts to play down the scope of the accident, and many accuse officials of having concealed information from the public for fear of exposing themselves to further criticism (obviously, that backfired) and reluctance to expand the evacuation zone.

The bottom line is this: the Fukushima disaster had been foreseen, and could – should – have been avoided.

What is the likelihood that this will happen again?

The Fukushima disaster raised many questions about whether nuclear power is a safe energy source, and gave environmentalists cause to renew their arguments against it.

Nuclear energy is contentious at the best of times, but Japan’s position on the seismically active Pacific Rim makes it a particularly risky proposition. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised doubts about Japan’s nuclear facilities in 2008, arguing that the existing plants were only built to withstand tremors of up to 7.0 magnitude (the 2011 quake was magnitude 9.0). Prior to that, in 2007, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant was forced to close for 21 months following a magnitude 6.6 earthquake – demonstrating that Japan’s nuclear infrastructure wasn’t entirely shake-proof. When it comes to major earthquakes and Japan, it’s not if – it’s when, so are Japan’s remaining nuclear facilities living on borrowed time?

It’s thought that more than 80% of Japanese now oppose nuclear power, and even Mr Naoto Kan, prime minister of Japan at the time of the disaster and one-time nuclear advocate, was forced to reverse his position after facing the very real prospect of having to evacuate 50 million people from Tokyo during the Fukushima debacle. All of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors were shut down for safety inspections after the 2011 earthquake, leaving the country without nuclear power for the first time since 1970. As of February 2016, three of these have now been restarted – but will mounting public distrust of nuclear energy push the scales in favour of more renewable sources in future?

As this accident reminded us, nobody really knows what the earth might do next. The Fukushima disaster was bad, but it’s a blessing it wasn’t a whole lot worse. Even our best predictions are no guarantee against disaster – and surely the benefit is never worth the risk.

In this article I’ve tried to answer some common questions and fears regarding the Fukushima disaster, but there are many left unaddressed. If you’re interested in learning more about Fukushima, the following links have a wealth of information – both pro- and anti-nuclear – that might help you find the answer to your question.

Greenpeace / IAEA / IAEA Director General’s Report / World Nuclear Association / Why Fukushima was preventable


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