The lessons of Fukushima
The world has lost dozens of nuclear power plants that would still have been connected to the grid of energy-starved, climate-conscious and air-pollution-plagued countries, if only the infamous accident at the nuclear power plant of Fukushima Dai-ichi had not occurred.
Let me rephrase that: if only disinformation about the consequences of the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident had not been artificially and voluntarily maintained and spread, energy transition policies around the world would have begun gradually to reduce the carbon footprint of electricity generation, instead of locking it in, without putting electricity generation itself at risk.
Maybe we would be mourning with Japan the nearly 20,000 victims of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11th, 2011, instead of instrumentalizing them. Maybe we would be supporting its reconstruction and the preservation of its populations’ well-being and health from unnecessary pollution or energy deprivation, instead of standing by, watching the consequences of what is also our failure as we have let ideological fears turn into public policies. Maybe we would be considering how to rebuild a slightly different, slightly better world, respectful of climate, of life on earth and of what has been achieved so far, instead of having nightmares about a world entirely different because doomed and broken. Maybe those responsible for this disinformation would be taking the steps to correct it, in the name of our right to information, to functioning democracies, to life itself.
Maybe all this can still happen.
In just two weeks we will be commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, let us see what can “maybe” happen.
for the Voices
The lessons of Fukushima
By Andrew Daniels
Andrew Daniels is the author of a book on the history of nuclear power: “After Fukushima: What We Now Know”. An avid researcher based in Ottawa, his podcasts can be found on Titans of Nuclear and the Ecomodernist.
Despite nuclear power’s exemplary safety record, nuclear energy has remained inseparable from the question of safety. The Chernobyl reactor accident happened under specifically Soviet circumstances, due both to the unusual practices of that country’s nuclear industry and to the specificities of the RBMK reactor design. A question remained: how dire could an accident be in a country with a rigorous safety culture?
For some, a serious nuclear incident was the only way this could be answered persuasively; an answer derived from scientific projections would not suffice. The hydrogen gas explosions at Fukushima Dai-ichi, followed by core meltdowns, brought this question into the spotlight. Both pro- and anti-nuclear activists were energized by this incident: anti-nuclear activists were surprised that the accident failed to validate their greatest fears, while pro-nuclear activists were outraged that the messaging around this accident projected a distorted view of what had occurred.
The messaging around these explosions was outright misleading. The media can be viewed as the primary culprit, though the thinking and contributions from the DPJ government in Tokyo at best were unhelpful and at worst contributed to and magnified the media distortions. This nuclear-skeptic party was led by then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan. He comes from an anti-nuclear faction inside the DPJ, who position themselves in opposition to the dominant party of Japanese politics, the pro-nuclear LDP.
Ten years later, we still have failed to assimilate the lessons of Fukushima
There were many horrifying tragedies resulting from the Tōhoku earthquake of 2011. The greatest was unquestionably the tsunami itself, which swept away whole towns of Japanese citizens. The young and old alike were taken by the ocean’s waves, which claimed the lives of as many as 20,000 people.
Among the responses to the explosions at Fukushima Dai-ichi, the first was the tragedy of the evacuation. The evacuees suffered high rates of alcoholism, alienation, and depression. We now know with precision just how irresponsible this response was: even the most generous estimates make clear that no more than 20% of these 200,000 evacuations could have had any benefit1. The evacuation itself proved far more dangerous than the radiation; we overestimated the physical dangers of radiation and underestimated the impact of evacuations on health. It is estimated that the impact of the evacuation was 2,259 additional deaths, and it is doubtful that it saved anyone at all. The question that needs to be asked is, was it worth forcing everyone to leave?
The nuclear power plant of Fukushima Dai-ichi, even after it broke down, is less dangerous than a coal power plant functioning correctly
This tragedy was followed by two more: the loss of the reactors and then the ensuing shutdown.
Losing these three reactors was itself regrettable. Using less nuclear energy means burning more fossil fuels. Replacing fossil fuels with nuclear saved 2 million lives in the world from 1971 to 20132. The nuclear power plant of Fukushima Dai-ichi, even after it broke down, is less dangerous than a coal power plant functioning correctly. The greater issues of air pollution and climate change were sidelined as Japan’s fossil-fueled electricity generation boomed.
However, the national shutdown of the 54 power plants of the nuclear fleet may have been even worse, since it was the true cause of the fossil fuel boom. In the wake of the accident, 21 well-functioning nuclear power plant units were closed permanently across Japan, with little hope of replacement in the imminent future.
The fourth of these tragedies is in fact one that didn’t happen but was imagined to have happened: a tragedy resulting from radiation emissions that caused serious harm to people or the environment. Radiation levels never reached a level that would have endangered the public, nor was the environment seriously damaged. Farmers found that contamination levels were only high for the rest of 2011, but by 2012 their food was safe again. Even though fishing was not at all affected, imagining contamination was enough for the EU and South Korea to ban seafood imports.
Of these four tragedies, two were self-inflicted. The evacuation and national reactors shutdown were not only unnecessary but tremendously harmful, and the reasoning for this level of overreaction is not hard to discern. It reflects a persistent and deep-seated emotional response to all things nuclear. Having failed to learn lessons from the overestimated impact of Chernobyl, we continue to repeat our failings.
The irony of the excellent safety record of nuclear energy is that it results in society never gaining a realistic understanding of its true risk
Nuclear accidents being vanishingly rare means that our worst fantasies about them are kept alive, fueled by fear of the unknown. The irony of the excellent safety record of nuclear energy is that it results in society never gaining a realistic understanding of its true risk.
Ten years later, we still have failed to assimilate the lessons of Fukushima. Even after so many years, only 122,000 evacuees have been permitted to return home. Fukushima produce is safe to consume, yet South Korea continues their ban, an act the WTO labels as “arbitrary and unjustifiable”3. The contamination was limited to Fukushima prefecture, yet Hong Kong bans fruit and vegetables from five prefectures. Tests were performed to examine the radiation and contamination levels on 10,340,000 bags of rice between 2012 and 2015, but reason was found to discard only 71 of those, and none since 2015. The local fishing industry only catches an eighth of what it caught before the tsunami.
It is normal to develop some fear of technologies that involve potential dangers, but we must weigh everything in balance. Anti-nuclear perspectives imagine scenarios outside the realm of possibility. There were once those who believed that electrical outlets had the potential to electrocute someone at a distance. It took decades for this belief to be abandoned, though now such thinking seems to be an absurd anachronism. Fire has the potential to kill, yet we learned to control our fear and it is hard to imagine our development without fire. Radiation has been more of a healing tool than a destructive one. Imagining that nuclear energy is too difficult or dangerous to use thwarts our development and deprives us of a transformative technology.
2 James Hansen, https://www.nature.com/articles/497539e (2013)
3 Siripala, T. (Mar 29, 2018) Fukushima Farms Face an Uphill Battle Building Overseas Market Share. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2018/03/fukushima-farms-face-an-uphill-battle-building-overseas-market-share/