Fukushima Two Years Later

by Will Davis

At about a quarter to three in the afternoon on March 11, 2011, a gigantic and unprecedented earthquake struck just over 110 miles off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. The quake was followed, just over 40 minutes later, by the first of several rounds of tsunami, which inundated enormous areas and eradicated entire towns and villages. Over 19,000 people were killed or are still missing, and over 6,000 survivors were injured.

Central to most narratives on this cataclysmic natural disaster has been the story of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. While no deaths have been attributed to the nuclear accident itself, or to radioactive contamination released from the plant, and while deaths at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site proper have been very few (three persons were killed on the day of the earthquake and tsunami—one by falling from a crane, two by drowning), the story of the nuclear accident continues to dominate press worldwide.

As we approach the two-year anniversary of these events, it’s important to look back and ask some honest and direct questions about the nuclear accident and how it relates to us here in the United States. What do we know now that we didn’t in the early days? Can we say for sure what was happening, both on a large and on a minute scale? Could the accident have been prevented? What are we doing to ensure something similar never happens again? What about the radiation exposure to the public? We will try to answer these and other important questions as we look back at two years’ worth of study and analysis, recovery and cleanup, and planning and preparing.

(Above, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station under construction in 1971. To the left of the photo, Units 1 and 2 can be seen complete while Unit 3 is under construction; Unit 4 has not yet been started. Nearer the camera is the construction site for Units 5 and 6. Photo courtesy Will Davis collection.)

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami … and what we now know

As already described, the earthquake struck at 2:46 PM local time, and at that moment the three operating reactors at Fukushima Daiichi—Units 1, 2, and 3—detected the earthquake and were immediately shut down on a seismic scram signal. (The other units—4, 5, and 6—were shut down for maintenance.) Simultaneous with this event was a LOOP (loss of offsite power), caused by the electric distribution system outside the plant being damaged by the earthquake. At the Fukushima Daiichi station, the emergency diesel generators started as designed, and provided power to begin cooling down the three reactors that had been operating.

There has been speculation in some quarters that the earthquake caused damage to the plants and that this helped lead to the accident. In fact, all indications are that plant operations were nominal from the point of the seismic shutdown, LOOP event, and commencement of shutdown cooling at the three operating plants. As late as last November, presentations by the Tokyo Electric Power Company at the American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting revealed no suspicion of material failures at the plants prior to the tsunami’s arrival, as corroborated by recorded plant parameters and operator statements.

Of course, the actual triggering event of the accident was the tsunami-derived inundation of the plant 40 minutes after the earthquake, which, because of the pressure of the violent inrush of water, caused more physical damage than an equivalent–depth slow flooding event. The tsunami flooded the plant because the protection was inadequate; the protection guarded against tsunami of nearly 20 feet while the actual event was almost 50 feet. It should be noted, though, that an unanticipated factor in the event was the fact that the coastline actually dropped several feet—thus negating a percentage of the tsunami protection.

The inundation of the plants meant that both the (mostly below ground) diesel generators and near-grade electric distribution equipment was rendered inoperable. This is the situation called SBO (station blackout), where no AC power is available at all. Generators were called for, and shipped from outside the plant, but the sheer damage to the site made bringing them in and moving them around exceedingly difficult. In addition, procedures for their use did not really exist. The total loss of AC power meant that only DC power, to operate some valves and instruments, was available—and even this was limited not only by the time until the batteries discharged, but also by damage as well. At that point, the plant was crippled by loss of power, serious physical damage, confusion on site due to communication problems (and continued aftershocks), and lack of solid emergency operating procedures in such events. This led to a loss of cooling for Units 1, 2, and 3 reactor cores, ultimately resulting in severe core damage. Failure of the containment function of the reactor buildings led to the release of radioactive material to the environment.

At the ANS 2012 Winter Meeting, Akira Kawano of TEPCO stated that spare seawater pumps (both portable pumps, and replacements for built-in or installed pumps destroyed by the tsunami), spare sources of electric power (of all three ranges—high voltage AC, low voltage AC, and DC—used at the plant) and spare pressure cylinders to allow operation of valves after loss of electric power would have been exceedingly helpful in the hours after the tsunami. TEPCO has gone far beyond provision of these items, though, in its plan for tsunami protection at nuclear plants in the future.

It is important to point out that Units 5 and 6 did not experience a long-term blackout because one of the above ground air-cooled diesel generators installed at that northern section of the site remained fully operable. This diesel was at Unit 6, but power was patched in from it to Unit 5 later. Air-cooled diesels did exist at the area of Units 1 through 4, but the destruction of the electric distribution network inside the plants by water coupled with the loss of fuel tanks rendered these useless. (In this case, “air cooled” means that the diesels used conventional radiators to dissipate waste heat to the air, unlike the large emergency diesel generators that required seawater systems to be operable in order to dissipate engine heat.)

Regarding this tsunami damage and its implications, TEPCO has addressed its future commitment to safety at its nuclear plants by designating three courses of action:  First, it will take what it calls “Thorough Tsunami Countermeasures,” which means large seawall protection, protection of buildings inside the seawall should the seawall be breached, and also provision of multiple backup power sources. Second of the triad is “Securing Functions by Adopting Flexible Countermeasures,” by which it is meant that many varied backup power sources and sources of site assistance will be spread among many other sites. Finally, under “Mitigation of the Impact after Reactor Core Damage,” TEPCO plans to make serious preparations to control events, even should the first two steps fail. This includes, but is not limited to, installation of hardened, filtered containment vents that can be operated remotely under even accident conditions. Click here to see a brief TEPCO synopsis of its accident analysis report that contains these three steps.

Eventually, all operators of nuclear plants in Japan will take serious measures like those described above, and more, to prepare the sites and personnel against future events like this. Some have already begun; click here to see a detailed account of preparations at two different sites in Japan. These efforts are enormous; Chubu Electric Power has stated that it will invest 140 billion yen (about US$1.47 billion)  in its Hamaoka nuclear plant upgrades.

At left, view of Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 through 4 after the accident. Photo courtesy Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force.

Two of the reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi were severely damaged, and another partly damaged, by explosions of hydrogen gas that was generated by the damaged fuel while in contact with steam. This hydrogen got into the reactor buildings, built up in concentration, and later (quite famously, for both explosions were filmed from a distance) caused explosions in Unit 1 and Unit 3 reactor buildings. Evidence delivered by TEPCO at the ANS 2012 Winter Meeting now shows that the probable leakage point of the hydrogen into the primary containments and into the reactor buildings (after first getting out of the damaged reactor vessels) was through the drywell head flange at Unit 1, and also possibly at Unit 3. (Other papers delivered at that meeting hinted at other possible leak points; none can be assured until the plants are decommissioned.) Unit 4 experienced a hydrogen burn event as well; this is now known to have occurred because PCV (primary containment vessel) venting at Unit 3 allowed hydrogen to enter a common exhaust stack, and flow not only out the stack but into Unit 4’s reactor building. Delayed and/or difficult venting of the containments is the key factor in this portion of the accident; venting would have prevented overpressurization of the primary containments, allowing them to retain physical integrity.

Containment vents have become a major topic of discussion after the accident. At the ANS Winter Meeting, Sang-Won Lee, a representative of Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power stated that all of its OPR1000 and APR1400 nuclear plants will have filtered containment vents installed by the year 2015 since KHNP considers  this the “final means to prevent an uncontrolled release of radionuclides to the atmosphere.” (Interestingly, all South Korean nuclear plants will fit or backfit seismic trip equipment as well.) Here in the United States, hardened vents, perhaps filtered, will eventually be fitted to all boiling water reactor plants with Mk I and Mk II containments; click here to see some detailed background on the decision-making process and on filtered vent systems at reactors in other countries. For more background on decision-making regarding filtered vents, click here.

Do we know all of the things that were going on at Fukushima Daiichi?

The answer to this question is a qualified “yes.” In the time since the accident, many reports have been developed by TEPCO (and many other bodies) to attempt to explain the accident progression. As these reports came out, each subsequent report has benefited from more and better detailed information on the actual minute-to-minute actions being taken by operators on site, and from more detailed records that have been released. As of November 2012, when TEPCO made presentations on the accident at the ANS Winter Meeting, there were no new announcements made about operator actions, equipment failures, and records—and TEPCO representatives stated on several occasions that it is thought that the full range of operator actions is as well known now as it will ever be.

In terms of what was happening mechanically, we might say, throughout the accident, the truth is less certain. The loss of most of the plant instrumentation and the inability to access parts of the reactor buildings (even today) means that the exact progression of events once serious core damage began isn’t known. It will not be known until the plants are more accessible (during defueling, years away) and not fully known until the plants are decommissioned and dismantled. It must be added that while these findings will eventually significantly add to our storehouse of knowledge, they’re not essential to setting up procedures and equipment to prevent any such accidents in the future.

For such detailed reports as mentioned above, you can click here to see the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations report on the accident; you can click here to see a massive 500 page report on the accident by TEPCO; you can also find the American Nuclear Society’s Fukushima Committee report here.

Could the Fukushima Daiichi accident have been prevented?

We could say “yes” at some, or many points along the way—for example, we might say (getting into details) that had the hydrogen explosion not occurred at Unit 1, there may not have been any serious core damage at the other units due to the site-wide problems caused by the Unit 1 hydrogen explosion. This is cherry picking, though; the best answer to the question is “yes, had the site been properly prepared for tsunami of the actual size experienced, and even if not, had it been prepared to respond both from inside the site and from outside to such a natural disaster.” I’ve provided a link earlier to show what’s being done in Japan to prevent such events; a clearly defined path for US nuclear plants to increase nuclear plant safety can be found in a document that the Nuclear Energy Institute calls “The Way Forward.”

Our first modern wake-up call in the United States to such events was 9/11, in the sense that this experience was applied to nuclear plants here; after this, what are called “B.5.b” enhancements to US nuclear power stations saw the provision of numerous pieces of equipment to help combat site emergencies that included physical damage. Since the Fukushima Daiichi accident, much more has been developed. The industry response to the accident is called FLEX, and it provides essentially the same sort of mobile backup responses that the Japanese are beginning to implement (for stations that will restart.) The FLEX response is by now well known; you can click here to see details of its implementation and progress.  There are also multiple documents available at NEI’s Safety First website, found here.

So, the answer to “could this accident have been prevented” is “yes”—which means that future occurrences can also be prevented. The important provisions are spelled out clearly in the FLEX plans, and in those fairly duplicate plans being pursued by the Japanese: prevent loss of all AC power (station blackout) and prevent loss of the ultimate heat sink (where heat from the reactors and spent fuel is ultimately deposited, be it water or even the atmosphere) and prevent core damage.

What about the radiation dose received by citizens off site?

The World Health Organization has just released a report that tells us that the dose received by persons not on the site was actually not dangerous—in fact, according to WHO, most persons in Fukushima Prefecture received no more than 10 mSv, although some received as much as 50 mSv effective dose. You can read the entire report by clicking here.

This is not to say that the trauma experienced by those evacuated from the prefecture is not real; it is. It is important to understand that prevention of future events like the Fukushima Daiichi accident will also prevent massive evacuations of people from their homes. What it does mean is that exposure received by most people is far less than what they normally receive through the course of daily living and travel in a year. Click here to calculate your dose rate where you live in order to compare it to the figures in the WHO report.

The Fukushima Daiichi accident has been given the same INES scale rating as the Chernobyl accident—a rating of 7, or “Major Accident.” This is because both accidents resulted in a release of radionuclides to the environment concurrent with reactor fuel damage. However, the release from Fukushima Daiichi was only about 10 percent that of Chernobyl; thus, the equivalent rating on the INES scale doesn’t tell quite the whole story.

Where do we go from here?

In terms of the Fukushima Daiichi site, the planned decontamination and decommissioning of the whole site might take as long as 40 years, according to TEPCO’s road map for site decommissioning. In the meantime, TEPCO will be performing a great deal of research on how to safely dismantle the nuclear plants, very likely with international cooperation.

Worldwide, each nation that either has nuclear plants or aspires to have them has made some hard decisions. In the case of a few, like Germany, the decision has been made to abandon nuclear plants entirely; Bulgaria recently decided not to build a nuclear plant, as well. In the cases of most nations, though, reviews and reports on ‘lessons learned’ from the Fukushima Daiichi accident have evolved into robust plans for action; this strategy applies to the United States, South Korea, and China as three of the foremost proponents of nuclear energy. Many other nations that did not have nuclear power prior to the accident but wished to have it are still on course to build nuclear plants; perhaps most well known of these is the effort underway in the United Arab Emirates. Many nations realize the need for electricity in order to have a more productive and safer society; in a number of cases, nuclear is the leading choice. (Also notable for entering into nuclear energy programs are Kenya, Vietnam, Turkey, and Kazakhstan.)

Indeed, it would seem that the greatly increased public dialogue and involvement after the accident on many varied aspects of nuclear energy (not just safety) has not led to widespread fear, shown by favorable poll numbers in the United States. Even as time goes on, the polls in favor of nuclear power hold up.

This has allowed the present-day general discussion about greenhouse gases and varied energy generating sources to, for the most part, include nuclear energy on an intelligent and rational basis. Much of that basis centers on the passive safety features of new nuclear plants such as the Westinghouse AP1000, which is designed to endure SBO events for 72 hours with no operator action whatsoever, and after that time and with some operator action to transfer water, can maintain core and containment cooling indefinitely. The reactor plant is also designed so that even in the event of a severe accident, the core will remain inside the reactor vessel—an important step in the prevention of release of radioactive material to the environment.

Nuclear plant operators and government regulators worldwide have responded to the Fukushima Daiichi accident with still-increasing vigilance, inspection, research, and action. It’s clear that such an accident must never be allowed to happen again—and by the actions being taken at least in the United States, it would appear that we are well on our way to ensuring that we can meet any and every challenge that future severe events might bring, for the safety of both the plant operators and the citizens they serve.


Will Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society. In addition to this, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

About Will Davis

Will Davis is the Communications Director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian, newsletter editor and member of the board of directors. Davis has recently been engaged by the Global America Business Institute as a consultant. He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013–2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

27 thoughts on “Fukushima Two Years Later

  1. Jim Hopf

    “…with catastrophic far-reaching (perhaps, at worst, global) consequences for life on the planet”

    “….pressing problem to begin discussing after that. What to do with the hundreds of thousands of tons of so-called ‘spent’ fuel (worldwide) which are going to require maintenance (at unimaginable cost) for thousands of years and security (again, at incredible cost) for hundreds of years”

    I see notions like this expressed alot in the outside world, but I have to admit I’m surprised (and disappointed) to see them here.

    Fukushima showed us that even the worst concievable event (full meltdown of three large cores followed by failure of containment), the effects are neither catasrophic nor far reaching. No signifcant health impacts are projected and significant radiation levels are limited to the local area. “Life on the planet”?? Are you kidding me?!

    The cost of nuclear waste (once through cycle)? Exactly 0.1 cents/kW-hr. That fee covers all the costs of waste management, transport and final disposal (to impeccible standards unprecedented for any waste stream). The fee is routinely audited by the govt. to ensure its continued adequacy. As time goes on, through repeated delays, the fee only becomes more adequate, due to compounding interest.

    The plan (for Yucca, anyway) was to leave the repository “open” and monitor it for a few hundred years and then seal it. The cost of the initial monitoring is modest, and is more than covered by the 0.1 cent/kW-hr fee. Once the repository is sealed, it requires no monitoring, “security” or attention of any kind. It is no different from any other (buried) waste stream in that respect.

    Finally, the nuclear waste “problem” is notably NOT “pressing”. Storing the tiny volume of spent fuel, for many decades, involves negligible risks and negligible costs (again, less than 0.1 cents/kW-hr). We have all the time in the world to “solve” this problem, which is probably why politicians have decided to play politics with it.

  2. John Brian Shannon

    Hi James Greenidge,

    I appreciate that you are pro-nuclear — and for good reason.

    Nuclear power, under the present modes of use, has the ability to provide fully half of the world’s electrical power needs for up to 300 years, based on the total of known and estimated uranium reserves.

    (Fascinating graphic here) http://johnbrianshannon.com/world-energy-graphic/

    (See shortform Perez & Perez quote on nuclear power here) http://johnbrianshannon.com/perez-perez/

    (A very quick read here) http://www.asrc.cestm.albany.edu/perez/Kit/pdf/a-fundamental-look-at%20the-planetary-energy-reserves.pdf

    Nuclear can be clean, safe power, and the entire long chain industry could provide millions of jobs worldwide.

    But it could also go very wrong, with catastrophic far-reaching (perhaps, at worst, global) consequences for life on the planet.

    Acknowledging that, does not make me anti-nuclear. Far from it, for the best, long-term use of nuclear power it makes sense to advocate for very high standards and to be critical of human decision-making failures as regards nuclear power plant failures.

    It is not the plants themselves that are failing, but rather, the human decision-making element which is failing all nuclear power, everywhere.

    Sweeping that problem under the rug, is not the answer to the problem.

    It needs to be thoroughly discussed, solved, agreed, and then those changes must be implemented without delay. And the sooner we do that the better.

    Because we have a much more pressing problem to begin discussing after that. What to do with the hundreds of thousands of tons of so-called ‘spent’ fuel (worldwide) which are going to require maintenance (at unimaginable cost) for thousands of years and security (again, at incredible cost) for hundreds of years.

    It is something that only the United States can solve and it is the only country that could set a working precedent for other nations to follow.

    All nuclear fuels, spent and un-spent, can be reprocessed for use in various reactors. It is a simple matter of cost. It also may be the only way to get rid of it — short of loading it into a rocket to the Sun for incineration, which was actively discussed in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

    Unimaginable amounts of power are available from so-called ‘spent’ nuclear fuels, all it needs is some political leadership and a robust feed-in-tariff scheme, and all of that spent fuel would suddenly become an extremely valuable asset.

    This administration has it’s hands full with a barely-recovering economy, winding down of two wars, big cuts to the Defense Department budget, the oil & shale-gas boom and the normal business of the nation.

    However, I’m hoping the next administration will aggressively seek out ways to utilize every kw/h of energy stored within so-called ‘spent’ fuel rods (or pellets). Which are not spent at all, but merely return less bang for the buck and therefore are replaced with fresh rods, once they hit the 50% – 55% ‘spent’ benchmark.

    Why do I advocate for this? Because using a feed-in-tariff scheme to rid ourselves of spent fuels, will free us from the unimaginable costs of storing and securing ever-less-stable nuclear fuel rods over the next few thousand years.

    And, all this, while gaining truly astounding amounts of electrical power by their use.

    We need to properly and efficiently get past the present regulatory failings (not by avoiding our responsibilities, but by squarely confronting the problems and instituting efficient and workable solutions) so that we can get on to the ‘real business at hand’ which is the safe use, re-use and re-processing of so-called ‘spent’ fuels, in order to save us trillions of dollars of storage and security costs, now, and in the coming decades.

    Very best regards, JBS

  3. Pingback: Weekly Digest for March 11th » NA-YGN Southeast Region

  4. James Greenidge

    It will be interesting to see how the mass media covers the anniversary and the “consultants” they’ll dig up who’ll explain that the fat lady hasn’t sung yet regarding the nuclear “crisis”. Just as dismaying though is that in these last two years, neither the nuclear “industry” (nor their individual plant management), nor the nuclear professional organizations or atomic workers unions have come up with an aggressive public nuclear education campaign via TV programming or PSAs. This why tomorrow on the 11th the anti-nukers will run amok with their hypocritical nuclear health/safety rants before eagerly sympathetic media cameras flashing Fukushima Geiger-counter tots and make the mountain that nuclear acceptance has to climb that much higher. BTW, I just don’t buy the polls that Americans are largely “for” nuclear power. More accuracy their unrecorded punchlines is “…yea, several states away!” I don’t call it positive acceptance of nuclear power when citizens aren’t comfortable with plants cited just outside the city like they are with oil and LNG. This is the time to challenge challenge challenge the FUD-dites and proudly hawk the historically nil mortality/public damage record of nuke plants and its non-polluting small footprint nature friendly virtues and compare casualty rates with other industries, but instead it’s likely that by tomorrow night the public will have been stroked just a little more fearful and doubting by totally unchallenged off-the-wall anti-nuclear proponents.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  5. JimHopf

    All coal plants (let alone the grossly polluting “grandfathered plants) are far more of a health risk and have far more environmental impact, per kW-hr generated, than any old BWR. Sorry, if power plants are to be retired, we need to close all grandfathered coal plants, and then close ALL coal plants, before we even think about closing any old BWRs.

    Then again, as I posted above, given the *political* cost to the industry (as opposed to real cost to society) of any significant release, due to the deep prejudices against anything nuclear held by society, maybe it would be in our best interest to close the very worst (most risky) plants. Or upgrade them. We would do so strictly because it is in the political interest of the industry. A tragic, irrational shame though.

  6. James Greenidge

    re: ” Apparently, nuclear’s relatively tiny negative impacts are “not acceptable in advanced society” but fossil fuel impacts that are orders of magnitude larger are barely worth attention, or any large scale effort to reduce (at all quickly or with any urgency).”

    I concur! There is such an incredible bald-faced hypocrisy among groups concerned (hysterical?) about the health & safety aspects of nuclear power but turn cricket of fossil fuel’s non-hypothetical historically proven mega-death score over generations. Why this green hypocrisy and nuclear’s near sterling nil mortality/public damage record isn’t hawked more by nuclear energy advocates — especially when the media is sure to trot out Fukushima Geiger-counter tots and show local needlessly evacuated ghost towns to commemorate and swing fear — floors me!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  7. Dave Hancock

    ‘bottom line’ of the problem, the Boiling Water Reactor. BWR’s have twice as many valves, and twice as much piping, as Pressure Water Reactors; culminating in the multiplicity of potential problems. GE Executives, including Jack, were informed with concerns of ‘underground’ Backup Generators, over 20 years ago; so who is to blame. A large part should be placed where it was designed, and built for failure; GE. GE also, dis-engineered the Niagara Mohawk Unit 2 facility, located in NY. The vulnerability of Boiling Water Reactors, far out weights any benefit to society. Dave Hancock – p.s. Great Article

  8. Catherine

    I’m sorry you feel my comments display “prejudice” against Nuclear. After Fukushima, we as a nuclear community know better than killing the messengers of bad news. I’m glad you share my views at the end and agree on the facts. I hope we will move forward in the face of adversity, the earlier the better.

  9. JimHopf

    This is one more case of the question of how far one goes, and spends, to reduce risk. The question never has a clear answer, but all I’d like is a fair playing field where all technologies or energy sources go to roughly the same extent (in terms of dollars spent per life saved). This is not the case, however, as I discuss in my post above. There is tremendous prejudice against nuclear power, and any negative impacts it ever has, and it is generally held to standards thousands of times as strict. AtomikRabbit’s comments on coastal buildings, etc.. are spot on.

    As it is impossible to reduce risk to zero, or plan to defend against literally any event, no matter how rare it would be (e.g., a comet directly striking a plant), you have to draw the line somewhere. Well….., one axiom that I’ve heard used, especially for things like earthquakes and tsunamis, is that you design the plant so that the earthquake/tsunami required to “break” the plant would be so bad that a nuclear meltdown would be the very least of our concerns.

    I think that logic has a lot of merit, but alas, it was predicated on a remote degree of rationality and objectivity by the public and politicians (and media). At Fukushima, the earthquake and tsunami were so bad that they killed 20,000 people and literally wiped a string of coastal villages off the map. The meltdown caused no deaths and had no measurable health impact. Economic costs may be of the same magnitude, but as many here have pointed out, many of the meltdown related costs may be unnecessary. It is clear, under any objective reasoning, that the plant meltdown was “the least of the region’s concerns.” And yet, the meltdown is just about all the public, politicians and media choose to focus on. The nuclear risks (only) must be reduced or eliminated. Better coastal building standards? Not so much.

    I don’t necessarily disagree that higher tsunami walls weren’t warranted, in this specific case. But in general, we have a real problem of the nuclear industry volunteering to go, or being required to go, to orders of magnitude greater lengths than any other industry to reduce risks.

    It may be because our industry is dominated (governed?) by engineers who are eager to volunteer to attain ever higher levels of performance and technical excellence (regardless of cost), because they love the science/challenge, and they are eager to find a source of funding for their scientific/engineering work (you won’t get funding unless there is a “problem” that “needs” to be solved). Meanwhile, other industries (e.g., coal) are run by businessmen who resist any and all measures to improve performance (e.g., reduce pollution), no matter how desperately needed, and warranted, those measures are, because it harms their bottom line.

  10. James Greenidge

    John Brian Shannon

    True, there were design oversights and neglect and mismanagement and ill-equipped circumstances regarding Fukushima, but this overlooks the rock bottom fact that despite all those glaring deficiencies no one was killed and no public property damage. There just aren’t too many industries with such redundancies or robustness that can claim that without some bad resultant casualties, and those that have such seldom have wholesale careers and facilities on the chopping block to answer for it. That report should mention that context and not be cited as a general indictment of the concept of nuclear power by the antis who inevitably will. Constructive laying of blame is one thing, but deconstructive demonizing is another. Fix an already incredibly safe industry and get on with it. No need to reinvent the wheel or windmill. Myself, I sure would’ve liked to’ve heard about those Japanese plants that DIDN’T toe the “cultural” line and are designed and functioning just fine but are suffering from a knee-jerk major shutdown not of their making.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  11. JimHopf


    Worldwide fossil fueled power generation causes hundreds of thousands of deaths every year (~1000 every single day) and is the leading cause of global warming. It’s pollution also cause several hundred billion in indirect economic costs every single year (~$100 billion/year in the US alone, according to EPA). Now, the first significant release of pollution in non-Soviet nuclear’s entire 40+ year history has resulted in no deaths and no measurable health impact, but “required” 160,000 people to leave their homes (i.e., move somewhere else), and will cost ~$100 billion.

    As others have pointed out, even the continued evaluation is largely unjustified (i.e., is a fabrication) and most of those people could/should have moved back along time ago. It is more a case of govt. inflicted suffering than anything else. I’m sure alot of the economic costs are also largely unnecessary.

    And yet, even if it were true that permanent evacuation of ~100,000 were required, it’s pretty obvious that nuclear’s “costs” or impacts are completely negligible compared to those of the fossil fuel alternatives. (Speaking of people having to move, I’m sure that global warming will eventually result in a whole lot more than ~~160,000 people having to move, from coastal areas, etc…)

    You say that nuclear “deserves” a bright future, but your comments display significant prejudice against it; a prejudice that is shared by much of the public. Apparently, nuclear’s relatively tiny negative impacts are “not acceptable in advanced society” but fossil fuel impacts that are orders of magnitude larger are barely worth attention, or any large scale effort to reduce (at all quickly or with any urgency).

    I’m for advanced (safer) reactor concepts as much as anyone, but to a large extent nuclear engineers keep trying to find engineering solutions to what is primarily a political/social problem. That is, deep-seated public prejudice against the technology, and the manifestation of that prejudice in regulations/requirements on nuclear that are thousands of times as strict (in terms of dollars spent per life saved, etc..) than those placed on competing (mainly fossil) sources.

    I’m not confident that any energy source can compete on such an unfair, unlevel playing field, over the long run, regardless of technological excellence. The resulting nuclear decline will be tragic, given that the impacts of the resulting fossil fuel use will be orders of magnitude larger. Nuclear can not help reduce public health and environmental impacts if it is not deployed. Thus, at this point, the main goal needs to be maximizing deployment, and not chasing some dream of zero risk.

    Tragically, I agree with you in some sense, given the way things are. Given the tremendous prejudice people have against nuclear power and any impacts from it, no matter how small (as demonstrated by the Japanese reaction to Fukushima, and their insistance that fossil fuels be used instead, against all reason), the industry may have to reduce release risks to virtually zero, since the *political* damage to the industry from any release is simply too great.

  12. John Brian Shannon

    Hi Brian,

    Inquiry Declares Fukushima Crisis a Man-Made Disaster
    By HIROKO TABUCHI Published: July 5, 2012 New York Times


    “TOKYO — The nuclear accident at Fukushima was a preventable disaster rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture, a parliamentary inquiry concluded Thursday.”

    “It was a profoundly man-made disaster — that could and should have been foreseen and prevented,” said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the commission’s chairman, in the report’s introduction. “And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”

    ” The report placed blame for the tepid response on collusion between the company, the government and regulators, saying they had all “betrayed the nation’s right to safety from nuclear accidents.” Tepco “manipulated its cozy relationship with regulators to take the teeth out of regulations,” the report said.

    Dr. Kurokawa reserved his most damning language for his criticism of a culture in Japan that suppresses dissent and outside opinion, which he said might have prompted changes to the country’s lax nuclear controls.

    “What must be admitted, very painfully, is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan,’ ” Dr. Kurokawa said in his introduction to the English version of the report. “Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” The Japanese version contained a similar criticism.”

    And, then, there is this;

    The Carnegie Papers
    James M. Acton and Mark Hibbs


    “With appropriate foresight by Japan’s authorities and industry, it appears that the accident could have been avoided or prevented.”

    “A former IAEA safety official with many years of experience in assessing the safety of nuclear power plants against extreme events said that the failure of NISA and TEPCO to make sure that Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station had been better prepared for what happened in March 2011 raised questions about Japan’s political will to effectively enforce a growing international consensus that an array of potential external threats must be addressed.”

    “Measures to improve resistance to flooding, a loss of the ultimate heat sink, and a station blackout could have been identified in a straightforward manner and in accordance with internationally recognized methodologies as recommended by the IAEA.”

    “Indeed, immediately after the accident, Japan’s nuclear
    power plant owners announced plans to take steps that experts interviewed for this paper said could have averted a severe accident with significant off-site radiation releases. It would be wrong to conclude that the accident at Fukushima revealed a fatal and uncovered intrinsic risk associated with nuclear power technology and infrastructure.”

    “With appropriate foresight by Japan’s authorities and industry, it appears that the accident could have been avoided or prevented. At the time of the accident, it appears that Japanese industry and government were taking tentative steps toward what might have emerged as a consensus view that Japan’s nuclear power plants were not prepared to cope with an extreme tsunami. But they had not overcome impediments inhibiting TEPCO and NISA from taking effective action sooner.”

    Not so arbitrary after all, is it Brian?

    You might read up on those links, Brian. There is a lot of information there, written by some of the most highly educated and experienced people in the field of nuclear power.

    Cheers, JBS

  13. Joffan

    It is simply not true that “nothing was done to build in the safeguards necessary”. Extensive safeguards were built and back-up facilities were put in place. The tsunami was simply bigger, and more destructive of the general area, than was planned for.

    Of course this event can be used to learn lessons about all sorts of things that could have be done better. Japan was laggardly in putting in countermeasures to hydrogen generation, for example.

    Lessons learned here improve the safety of reactors worldwide. A wholesale change away from a known, well-protected technology to a new, untried technology should not be justified on the basis of this event -instead development of new options should be undertaken in parallel in the spirit of finding out more diverse, effective and efficient ways to use the remarkable power of fission.

  14. Joffan

    These are culttural constructs, not physical reality. There are no nuclear risks remaining that affect the region. The contamination of the most of the area is below levels that have any health effect. Kids would think nothing of radiation monitoring equipment if it was part of their daily routine – they simply don’t worry about normal stuff – but there is no great reason for them to hvae such equipment in any case.

    And of course you’d get excellent health care.

  15. Catherine

    Joffan – I understand your point of view but your assumption does not face reality. Because of both the contamination of the land and because of the remaining nuclear risks on site, the region is not economically viable and won’t be for decades. Sadly, this area will only provide good jobs to utility on-site personnel and vendors clean-up & decommissioning crews. Although I would consider working there, I would not want my kids to grow up with the daily use of radiation monitoring equipment, so I would not relocate there with my family.

  16. Brian Mays

    Well, children do tend to be quite arbitrary.

    As do politicians and people who comment on the Internet.

  17. Atomikrabbit

    @John Brian Shannon
    “Even a child could have envisioned a major earthquake/tsunami occurring during the lifetime of Japan’s reactors.”

    Does that imply that the designers of other pieces of critical coastal infrastructure (apartment buildings, docks, offices, residences, dams and refineries), where thousands were actually killed, should be shamed orders of magnitudes greater by this proverbial child than the designers at Fukushima, where their alleged oversights killed no one?

  18. Joffan

    Essentially, yes, as far as health concerns go.

    I recognize the question – it’s used often enough – and the fuller answer is that, at present, the local economy has been trashed by the government action, so it would be hard to be economically active there. But if that were not the case, I would be as content there as other places.

    More relevantly, if I had been in say Odaka at the time, and my home was there, my community was there and my work was there, I would be furious that the government wrecked those things and stolen my house. The health risks of the cesium that was deposited were negligible; not worth the losses of having your city effectively destroyed, and far lower than other directly comparable effects that get no such response.

    And anyway, why should the government decide whether the risk is worth it?

    And you, Catherine? Would you move there, assuming it was economically viable, and if not why not?

  19. John Brian Shannon

    Nice article and I agree with much of what you say. There are a number of things that I would like to cover with regards to Fukushima.

    It was an accident triggered by a natural disaster. The plant did not ‘fault’ on it’s own. And that is in TEPCO’s favour and in the Japanese regulatory body’s favour.

    However, the probability that a large earthquake and subsequent tsunami might occur anywhere in Japan at anytime during the lifetime of Fukushima (and other nuclear power plants located in Japan) was high (obviously) and remains high to this day.

    For all we know, an 8.0 or 9.0 earthquake/tsunami combination might be occurring near Japan as we speak, or one may not happen for another 20 years when many of these plants will still be operating — or at the very least, storing and cooling hundreds of tons of partially spent fuel rods (or ‘pellets’ at some Japanese sites). One thing we do know, is that a major earthquake/tsunami WILL happen in Japan during the remaining balance of the nuclear power age.

    Japan has been well-known as a seismologically-active zone and an area known for wide-area tsunami damage going back hundreds, if not thousands of years, and this was known by seismologists, TEPCO, other nuclear power plant operators in Japan, by the Japanese government and by the international nuclear regulatory agency.

    Yet, with all of that foreknowledge, nothing was done to build in the safeguards necessary to prevent the problems discussed in the article above — nor was anything done to preempt or mitigate the Fukushima problems which have yet to occur, and almost certainly will be discovered. As the article pointed out, some of the present damage is unknowable at the present time as major parts of the reactors are simply not accessible.

    To summarize, it is inexcusable that international and Japanese nuclear regulatory bodies did not have the authority to compel TEPCO and others to ‘Tsunami-proof” their reactors, (or to decommission them, if such upgrades were cost-prohibitive) when it has been known all along that Japan is susceptible to large earthquakes and tsunami’s, and has been for thousands of years (perhaps even, millions of years) and that major damages, release of radioactive material (airborne and waterborne) and potential for large losses of life existed and still, to this day, exists.

    Aside from that, TEPCO, could have, and should have, acted on it’s own without waiting for regulators to bring Fukushima up to a reasonable standard of safety and precaution against well-known threats, such as major earthquake/tsunami.

    Had it done so, the plant could have continued operation without incident and would not forever be associated with lack of planning and foresight by those humans responsible for ensuring safe operation at Japan’s nuclear power sites. NOT that the plant itself failed — but that the entire nuclear power industry were themselves failed by — TEPCO, Japan’s regulator and the International Atomic Energy Agency and other regulatory organizations.

    Even a child could have envisioned a major earthquake/tsunami occurring during the lifetime of Japan’s reactors. The fact that blatantly obvious upgrades were not done by the operators of the plant, nor were legislated to occur by regulators — proves that we still have a long way to go with regards to the safest and best use of nuclear power for humanity.

    So far, the weakest element in the nuclear power industry, has not been the metallic elements — but the human element!

    Which is why I strongly support switching to passive-safety, multiple redundancy, SMR designs — to replace all existing nuclear power plants which have not been upgraded to a safer and better standard. Not only should designs such as the IRIS and AP1000 with their passive safety features be used to provide ‘new power at new locations’ all across the globe, they should be used to ‘replace aging and costly to upgrade reactors’ — especially those in high risk earthquake/tsunami zones. And, it should be done >> yesterday << if not sooner!

    Thanks for your time.

    John Brian Shannon

  20. The Chuck

    live there with your kids and maybe grand kids for the rest of your life?…

    Talk is cheap so i can’t show it but Sure, if I had a good job waiting for me in that lovely place in a heartbeat. Why not?

  21. Catherine

    Joffan and “the Chuck”,
    Having spent 30 years working in nuclear power, I certainly get your point. My question to you is simply: would you relocate to the Fukushima area to live there with your kids and maybe grand kids for the rest of your life?…

  22. The Chuck

    When you say Leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless for decades I don’t believe that’s UN or IAEA factual. Fossil fuel interests are fanning that myth because the contamination isn’t that severe. Those residents could move back without much health hazard right now.

  23. Joffan

    Great article Will.

    Catherine, leaving thousands of people homeless is unacceptable, especially when there is no rationale for it. That is what the Japanese government has forced on the people in the zone around Fukushima Daiichi. They were given zero autonomy in making their own assessment of the relative risks and benefits of remaining/returning to their communities.

    By contrast the carcinogenic combustion products spread by the refinery fire so prominent in initial post-tsunami reports resulted in no long-term evacuation that I know of. Tokyo’s carcinogenic traffic fumes do not result in evacuation. The double standard is easy to detect once the word “radiation” is treated rationally.

  24. Catherine

    I suggest natural disasters cannot be compared with industrial ones. Leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless for decades because of industrial activity is not acceptable in the 21st century in any advanced society. Nor is a potential bill of $ 100 billions left to the taxpayers to clean-up the mess. We’d better accept these lessons and find solutions if we want nuclear power to have the bright future it deserves with operating plants around the world. I am thankful to Westinghouse passive safety innovation with the AP1000, but for way to long, these reactors will only account for a few % of the nuclear capacity worlwide. It makes a lot of economic sense to extend the life of the remaining 95% if we can upgrade their safety to a point where we can guarantee the absence of land contamination whatever the accident. I believe we can do it!

  25. James Greenidge

    Excellent excellent rundown of a complicated and too much misinterpreted event! I ONLY wish newspapers and reports could glean the gist of your summary! So saying, just how will the media portray the 2nd anniversary of Fukushima’s incident? Will their quiet anti-nuclear sentiments coyly use it stroke more FUD against nuclear energy or truly avail your reasoned and perspective of the event? I regret it will be more the former when you have a media and textbook industry whose mindset regards the “birth” of the atomic age as being the explosion in a desert or a weapon dropping on Hiroshima instead of a quiet chain reaction beneath a Chicago football stadium. Yes, what happened at Fukushima was a kick in the pants for nuclear safety, but what must not be overlooked or unexploited was that it busted the mainstay Doomsday nightmare gun of anti-nukers — some who are actually DISAPPOINTED Fukushima “fizzled” with three fudged chances to deliver them mega-death proof of their fears and agenda. It is time to turn a seeming nuclear PR lemon into lemonade. I think outside the engineering realm of the Fukushima incident, nuclear plant acceptance and damage control in terms of assuaging public fears and confusion lies in aggressive nuclear education. Tech-speak and engineering lingo like Sieverts and minimum threshold units must be translated into layman bit-size chunks for ready digestion and comprehension, as superbly exampled by Ben McGee’s excellent plain-English explanation ( http://atomicinsights.com/2013/03/measuring-natural-gamma-radiation-that-human-bodies-have-evolved-to-handle.html ) of what radioactivity is and does. Like a nuclear Carl Sagan, he would do wonders breaking down Fukushima without bias and asides to the grass-roots on YouTube (perhaps the best fair venue for nuclear advocates) and — wishful thinking — on the mainstream media who avail “nuclear consultants” with incongruous credentials and overt antinuclear biases. Another grossly underused damage control anti-FUD device is to strut the nuclear plant industry’s stunningly low mortality/physical damage score worldwide since its launch, _especially_ when constantly compared with other energy production. The means are there for nuclear power to bounce back on its feet, but unless the findings of Fukushima and the ways and record of nuclear plants are demystified to a largely science illiterate public (and Congress), their power to change hearts and minds toward nuclear energy will languish in the realm of engineers.

    Keep up the great work and features!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  26. donb

    Will Davis wrote:
    This is not to say that the trauma experienced by those evacuated from the prefecture is not real; it is.

    Indeed. But we need to critically examine the source of this trauma. Was it caused by the radiation itself, or was it caused by fear and over-reaction to minor amounts of radiation? Clear, the latter is the case.

    While the economic consequence of the loss of these nuclear power plants is large, the public safety consequences are negligible compared to the direct effects of the tsunami.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>