Fukushima – 10 Years Later

On 11 March 2011, Japan’s east coast fell victim to the big Tōhoku earthquake. The earth shook for several minutes, causing a huge tsunami, 370 km from Tokyo in the Pacific. As a consequence of both, earthquake and tsunami, several nuclear power plants suffered damage. The one most affected, was Fukushima-Daiichi. In the following days, three of six nuclear reactors suffered a meltdown there. In reactor four, serious damage through hydrogen explosions occurred.

How was that possible? Japan is located in an area highly prone to earthquakes. In the past, there were multiple occasions, during which earthquakes were followed by tsunamis, causing substantial damage to the built environment of Japan’s coasts. When building a nuclear power plant, designers and decision-makers need to take safety requirements into account. The question is, with what should you calculate and would you take a once-in-a-century event into account?

The reactors in Fukushima-Daiichi were constructed between 1967 and 1979. As a comparison, this was also the time when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was being built. In an effort to increase safety and in stark contrast to its Soviet contemporaries, the Japanese reactors featured containment vessels, which added an additional layer of protection against the unwanted spread of radionuclides. While the nuclear power plant in Soviet Armenia was equally being built in an area prone to earthquakes and at the same time, its Japanese counterparts had higher standards of anti-earthquake safety. All in all, Japanese reactors were state-of-the-art facilities, in regards to safety easily comparable to those in the USA, Sweden, the Soviet Union, or France.

The construction site of the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant around 1971. Author: U.S. Department of Energy, public domain.

So what happened? In essence, safety considerations were not taking exceptional disasters of the scope of what happened in March 2011 into account. In other words, the strength of the earthquake and the height of the tsunami were simply greater than the biggest anticipated strain on the nuclear power plant’s facilities. If your reactor is only planned to run for about 45 years, why would you calculate with disasters happening once every 100 years? The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), wanted to save money by disregarding a possible but not very likely threat.

Soon, the a Japanese parliamentary panel declared that it was not only a natural disaster. Instead, it was also a human-made one, because official institutions believed that measures taken were sufficient and that the cost-safety calculation was appropriate. This is correct, since humans created this envirotechnical system, in which the nuclear power plant was integrated into the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Environmental Historian Sarah Pritchard (Confluence) takes inspiration from Charles Perrow‘s normal accident theory and Thomas Parke Hughes analyses of technological systems. Following these scholars, accidents inevitably happen in complex technological systems, if humans are involved in crucial aspects. The creation of the nuclear technological system, of which Fukushima-Daiichi was a part of, embedded high-risk large-scale technology into an environment prone to natural disasters. Pritchard argues, that the Tōhoku-earthquake and the ensuing Tsunami did not rupture the envirotechnical system between power plant and Pacific Ocean, but instead altered it. Water is still being used as coolant, only this time the reactor has emitted fissile material into the sea.

For Pritchard, both nuclear station and aquatic system are still bound and interwoven to each other. This becomes clear, when studies find tritium in the groundwater and thus figure out, that the envirotechnical system goes beyond the obvious connection to the Pacific. This also puts the question on how to deal with the accumulating nuclear waste, much of it in the form of contaminated water stored in tanks at the site.

For TEPCO water was both a saviour to re-establish cooling of the molten reactor cores and a medium of contamination at the same time. As it is now, the operator struggles with securing the rests of the destroyed reactor cores and storing them somehow safely on land. Since radioactivity prevents a lot of the decommissioning work, the current situation, which in the past has continuously produced more contaminated water, has to somehow continue. The reactor cores need permanent cooling to prevent further uncontrolled chain-reactions. Due to the initial destruction of the cooling circuits and the following makeshift replacements, water was not kept within and reused as coolant, as it leaked into the reactor building. From there, it was pumped out, treated and stored outside the plant. In several occasions, it was ultimately dumped into the Pacific. At this moment, an end to this problem is not in sight.

Given the ten-year-anniversary of this instance, I was interviewed by the local Greenpeace Group Gießen, Germany. The team around Anina Vogt, Vincent Roeper and Diana Becker conducted the interview and I am very grateful for this collaboration. We discussed issues of safety, the current situation at Fukushima and the exciting question, whether nuclear energy could be useful in the context of the current climate crisis.

The interview can be watched here.

This year, we will also commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Therefore, it makes sense to reflect upon the role nuclear energy plays in European energetics. This is even more true, since some nuclear industries, such as the French, Swedish and British ones, face the tough decision whether or not to reinvest into the aging nuclear infrastructure, the alternative being renewable energy sources. In this sense, I am sure we will witness multiple publications on this topic in the coming weeks.

By Achim Klüppelberg