This major calamity was started by an earthquake which registered at a 9.0 magnitude...
Nuclear Reactor Disaster in Japan
The nuclear accident that would go on to become one of the deadliest disasters in the history of the modern world began with a wave. After the initial earthquake, the 10 meter high sea wall of the nuclear plant was crested by the first wave within 50 minutes.
In the basement of the plant stood the emergency power generators which were subsequently flooded, destroying the cooling systems for the reactors causing the fuel rods to meltdown and begin to leak harmful radiation into the area.
After almost sixteen hours, one reactor had its fuel rod melted almost completely, while the other two were close behind. There were three TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) employees at the Daiichi and Daini plant, who were killed by the earthquake and tsunami directly.
Although there have been no reported fatalities due to the radiation caused by the accident, it has affected the life expectancy of a huge number of people. However, the evacuation orders by the government did cost many lives as people still continue to be homeless and live in the false hope of returning home someday.
It was 11th March 2011, at 2:46pm to be precise, when an earthquake of recorded magnitude 9.0 rocked Japan. Often referred as the Great East Japan earthquake or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, it had its epicenter 70km (approximately) east of the Oshika peninsula in the Tohoku region, the northeastern part of the largest island of Japan, Honshu and the hypocenter was at an underwater depth of 30km (approximately).
It lasted for about six minutes and was the worst the country ever experienced. For Japan, this was the most powerful earthquake to hit the country and fourth largest in the world since the beginning of instrumental recordings in 1900.
This was the most devastating earthquake and tsunami for the country since the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the tsunami generated by Hokkaido earthquake in 1993 which caused 5,500 deaths and 200 deaths respectively.
The quake was strong enough to move Honshu, Japan’s main island, about two meters to the east. The huge waves it raised were about 40 meters high and caused considerable damage. However, it was the northern part of Japan, Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, which was the most affected.
The earthquake and subsequently, the tsunami had more than 200,000 people dead or missing and more hundreds of thousands homeless. And yet a disaster of such magnitude is often quoted to have been just the beginning. The damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was estimated to be around $220 billion, but it also led to an irreparable nuclear disaster.
Following the Tohoku earthquake on the unfortunate day, it was the tsunami that primarily initiated the energy accident at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, the Fukushima I (Daiichi) Nuclear Power Plant.
The active reactors in the power plant had automatically shut down after the earthquake. However, the emergency generators used to cool the reactors were destroyed by the tsunami which then led to the overheating of reactor 4 from the fuel rods’ decay heat.
The cooling being insufficient caused three nuclear meltdowns and subsequently, on March 12, began the release of radioactive materials. Between 12th to 15th March, there were several chemical explosions.
On the INES scale (International Nuclear Events Scale), the incident was rated to be a Level 7 event, the second to be given this classification, because of the release of high radioactive materials for 4-6 days where eventually the total stood at somewhere around 940 PBq.
The nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station situated at the coast of Pacific Ocean is remembered as the worst since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
Seismically, the reactors proved to be robust but fell vulnerable to the tsunami.
Initially, the evacuation order issued by government was for people living within 3km radius of the nuclear plant, which was later expanded further to 20km and people living within the range of 20-30km had the instructions to stay inside their houses.
But determining the areas of evacuation was done on the basis of the reach and distance of the radioactive plume from the site of the accident and not the dose of radiation. In regions where people were forced to stay inside their homes, the government instruction had automatically cut off logistics from the outside.
As a result, the people living in that region did not have access to basic daily necessities like foods, gasoline, medicine etc. Though the government did distribute iodine tablets immediately after the incident to reduce the risk of thyroid cancer, some areas like Minami Soma city where people faced forceful detention at their homes went unnoticed, where government did not issue an order to have the iodine tablets distributed.
While some municipalities went ahead and distributed the tablets on their own decision, some municipalities did not even care to put out the evacuation order even when those areas had high level of radiation. The difference in contamination is due to the wind direction and the terrain, and does not spread concentrically.
Unaware, a lot of people evacuated by the orders of the government had moved to more contaminated areas than the areas they were originally staying in. Even for the people living near the government announced exclusion zone, concerns regarding their health are high on their mind. People worry about the effects of low dose radiation they and their children are exposed to.
Though the government took another 88 days to admit that a meltdown had occurred, it was no secret that the disaster was one of the worst since Chernobyl.
The disaster was caused by water but it also seemed like the only way anyone could stop it as TEPCO continues to pump into the unit hundreds of tons of water to cool the reactors and bring an end to the outflow of radiation.
And this is the situation five years after the disaster, as reported by a CNN article on March 11 2016. In the hurriedly built water tanks at the site rests some 800,000 tons of water which is highly-radioactive with adding another 400 tons of water everyday to maintain the present cold shutdown state.
The government spending in collecting the radioactive earth and soil from the area is estimated to be around $1.5 billion. This too rests, in huge black bags which wears a look of the world's deadliest harvest.
It is still not clear how the water and earth are to be disposed of. However, the cleanup operations, according to TEPCO, could take up to forty years. But things are more out of control than it seems.
As has often been reported, there is a huge amount of radioactivity in the area which is not controlled. The radioactivity in liquid form, which leaks into the underground and then moves into the ocean.
The 2012 WHO report states that though the predicted risks from the radiation remain low, the two locations where people had experienced the highest radiation doses, presents 4-7% greater risk of the people developing certain kinds of cancer like leukemia.
As per the World Nuclear Association, 30% of the Japan’s power was provided by 50 some reactors in the country. But after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the country’s commitment to nuclear power stands shaken.
On 5th May 2012, came the time to shut down Japan’s last operating nuclear reactor in Hokkaido for inspection. In 45 years, this was the first time the country was left without nuclear power. Oi nuclear power plant had two of its units briefly restarted to meet with the situation but a year later they too went offline.
It is not clear if five years down the line, Japan knows how to deal with the disaster that had occurred in 2011. Japan ditched nuclear power to import about 80% of the country’s fuel as reported by the WNA.
Between 2011 and 2015, carbon emissions for the country had spiked and the rates for household electricity saw a 19% hike. Attempts to restart the reactors met with protests in the country as has been noted in the case of restarting a nuclear reactor in Sendai.
Though Japan’s government has claimed that the plants that were restarted and were in the process of being restarted were facing a safety screening of the world’s toughest kind, the popular opinion still seems to be against nuclear projects and the government also faces criticism of some of the government politicians for attempting to restart the nuclear plants.
While the Fukushima plant continued to melt, around 300,000 people living in nearby areas were evacuated, as per the Red Cross reports. Five years since the disaster, hundreds of thousands of people still continue to live in temporary housing.
Most of these people are elderly and have very few options to relocate. Though some evacuated people can visit certain exclusion zones for five hours a day, most of them find it disturbing to walk through the nuclear ghost towns where they once lived in communities.
Abandoned restaurants and stores line up on the sides of the street, while the railway stations in many of these exclusion zones have begun to crumble. The office function of at least nine municipalities were transferred completely.
At first the evacuated population took shelter in gymnasiums and used them as evacuation centers, then many evacuees moved into hotels and inns and then lastly into the government paid apartments or temporary housings where there seems to be no assurance of a permanent solution to the mass evacuation caused by the accident.
As per the report presented by Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission in July 2012, the accident had foreseeable causes and it was the plant operator, TEPCO, who failed to meet the basic safety requirements.
In October 2012, TEPCO itself admitted that it had failed to meet the safety requirements.
The massive earthquake and the hydrogen explosion have severely damaged the reactor building reactor building #4. As the radioactive cesium it contains is about 10 times more than that released by the Chernobyl accident, it is important to prevent the building from collapsing which might prove destructive for Japan. The collapse of this building might cause the release of more radiation from Fukushima which will be many more times of what has already released.
This would leave much of the country uninhabitable and lead to a huge global disaster. TEPCO has stated that it wil be possible for the reactor 4 building to withstand an earthquake of upper 6 magnitude. This better be true because experts have stated that there are chances of a quake of that magnitude or higher occurring in that area. The land within 20km of the huge nuclear plant was declared to be radioactive and unfit for human habitation.
However, the actual value of these exclusion zones which includes abandoned cities, towns, property, houses, agricultural lands, businesses etc. within the 800 sq km of the evacuated area has not been estimated yet. However, the total estimate of loss from the nuclear disaster could range from $250-$500 billion.
Though the Japanese authorities eventually admitted to lax standards and poor oversight, they were heavily criticised for denying and withholding damage information and their poor management of the emergency situation. The three investigations conducted on the Fukushima nuclear disaster brought out its man-made nature as the reports pointed out the roots of the problem to be a chain of corruption, nepotism and collusion.
Through the Fukushima nuclear disaster, once again the world was reminded of the fundamental danger associated with nuclear reactors. Apart from causing tremendous damage to the health of the people concerned, the natural environment and to a nation’s economy, the cost of such accidents is primarily borne by the common man and not the companies that are behind the build, design and operation of these firms. No nuclear reactor in the world is immune to natural disasters or human errors and one can never rule out the possibility of such an accident in the future.
The lives of tens of thousands of people in Japan still continue to be affected by the Fukushima disaster and the people who had fled their homes because of government orders to save themselves from radiation are still in a state of limbo without any guarantee or assurance of fair treatment or just compensation. While people still continue to protest against the injustice meted out to them, the Japanese government continues to push for restarting the reactors.
I would like to thank my good friend Paul Z for his valuable input and information concerning this topic. Although he is the founder and owner of a
tree removal service in Seattle, WA, his guidance was extremely helpful. While in college he had a class that covered this exact same topic and so he was able to direct me to some really helpful resources and well as dig up old notes that he had never gotten around to throwing away.