COMMENTARY: Lessons from the Fukushima nuclear disaster

On March 11, 2011, the unthinkable happened, as far as a nuclear power emergency is concerned. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was one of several nuclear plants in Japan hit by the back-to-back natural disasters of an earthquake followed by a tsunami, but by far the most seriously damaged. After five years, it is appropriate to take stock of this event and evaluate its ramifications.

Though the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion was the worst nuclear power accident, as far as cost and casualties are concerned, the Fukushima incident is perhaps scarier due to its origin. A 9.0 earthquake, followed by a tsunami 50 minutes later, took out electricity for generators and flooded backup systems, leaving vital cooling systems useless. Of the six reactors onsite, three had meltdowns and four suffered damage to the containment buildings.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Of course, it is easy to point out shortcomings in hindsight, but there are a few areas of note in the Fukushima disaster. First, the Fukushima Daiichi plant was in a known area for seismic activity. While the earthquake-tsunami combination was envisioned, the size of waves from a tsunami was underestimated and a 2008 report recommending a bigger seawall at Fukushima was ignored. When the tsunami reached land, it flooded the generators for the plant, which were located in the basements of buildings, a fatal design flaw.

A second deficiency which made the Fukushima accident only the second after Chernobyl to earn a 7 — the maximum level — on the International Nuclear Event Scale was the lack of accessible water nearby. Without water to cool the reactors, even the units which were not operating at the time of the accident were in danger of meltdown. Initially, workers at the plant sought to get the instruments working again by removing car batteries and rigging up a temporary system. After the water levels dropped and exposed the cores of several units, workers attempted to drop water from above via helicopters. Eventually, water was piped directly from the Pacific Ocean to the damaged reactors.

Another problem which caused more damage than necessary was the manner by which venting valves in the reactor buildings worked. Normally, the venting mechanism worked electronically. When the two main electrical systems failed, the venting valves had to be opened manually, a slow and difficult process. The delay in the decision to vent some radiation was made worse by miscommunication between Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) staff and government officials.

Clearly, Japanese energy and government officials put people’s lives in danger by originally creating too small of an evacuation zone. The first evacuation order was voluntary and was set at just two miles from the plant. Later, that order was mandatory and the zone was extended to 12 miles. However, U.S. officials who were in Japan at the time of the Fukushima crisis warned American visitors to stay at least 90 miles from the affected area.

The fallout from the Fukushima disaster has been severe. First, the crisis led to the resignation of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who was accused of bungling the response. Second, TEPCO suffered billions of dollars of damage in the accident, compounded by the lawsuits from contamination of workers who stayed behind to manage the crisis. Third, the Japanese nuclear power industry has been on life support since, resulting in loss of 30 percent of the country’s generating capacity. Fourth, the contamination from radiation venting, burning, and leaking has left hundreds of square miles of northeast Japan uninhabitable for decades and uncertainty about the potential for long-term health effects.

After the Fukushima disaster, nations around the world which utilize nuclear power revisited their safety and security policies. Though no one expects nuclear power accidents to happen, the Fukushima episode nonetheless proved the need to plan for the worst-case scenario of eventualities, whether caused by natural forces or human imperfections.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. As a senior at Susquehanna University (Pennsylvania) in 1979, he experienced the Three Mile Island nuclear power accident, which occurred just 50 miles downwind.

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