Exactly twenty years ago, the east coast of Japan was struck by the most powerful earthquake in the history of Japan with a magnitude of 9 on the scale. Within minutes, a tsunami struck coastal cities, and a short time later a nuclear disaster occurred at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant, recognized as one of the most terrible nuclear disasters in the world.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant’s systems picked up the earthquake signal, automatically shut down the nuclear reactors and started emergency cooling systems. But a giant, nearly 15-meter-high wave breached the barrier, flooding the plant and damaging the cooling systems, resulting in a release of radioactive materials.
Authorities immediately delineated the boundaries of the contaminated and dangerous area, but they rapidly moved apart as the radiation leak escalated. As a result, within 2 to 3 days, more than 150,000 people had to leave their homes in an emergency.
Two decades later, the disaster zone is still in disrepair, people are afraid to go back, and the elimination of the consequences, on which trillions of yen have been spent, is far from complete.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is located in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture on Japan’s east coast. The distance to Tokyo is approximately 220 kilometers.
On March 11, 2011, at 14:46 local time a powerful earthquake struck Sendai city 95 kilometers from the plant. Residents of coastal areas had only 10 minutes after the emergency warning of an approaching tsunami to escape the disaster and stay alive. The flooding of the Fukushima basement, where the switchgear, backup generators and batteries were located, happened quickly. The plant was de-energized, resulting in the failure of the emergency cooling system.
Up until March 15, cleanup crews tried to take shifts to prevent explosions in the reactors. At 3 a.m. on March 15, the plant management was told that the situation had become critical, and all rescuers had to be evacuated from the site, but at 6:10 a.m. a huge explosion rocked Unit 3.
The first order for the emergency evacuation of the population from the three-kilometer zone was issued on March 11, and by March 15, the evacuation zone was already 20 kilometers away.
Earthquakes and tsunamis are far from uncommon in Japan. Moreover, natural disasters comparable in scale to the events of 2011 have occurred on the archipelago many times over the past millennia. Scientists now agree that the disaster at the nuclear power plant could well have been prevented.
The Japan nuclear power plant “Fukushima-1” was built by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). This project was its first nuclear power plant. There was a fatal mistake made at the very beginning: the facility simply should not have been built so close to the ocean. Moreover, the security measures included an earthquake with a magnitude of about 7 and a tsunami 3.1 meters above sea level as the maximum load the plant was designed to withstand.
When the 2011 tsunami reached the hill, where the main buildings of the nuclear power plant were located, the wave height reached 14-15 meters and even 17 meters in some places. Seismologists warned about the risk of a powerful tsunami in the area of the nuclear power plant already in 2002 and explained how dangerous is it to use this power plant. In 2008 TEPCO prepared its own computer simulation, which showed the risk of tsunami during the design of the plant was underestimated. The new calculations excluded the possibility of a magnitude 8 or higher earthquake, but even they indicated the need to take measures to strengthen the plant.
But the company took no action and did not notify the regulator of its findings until March 7, 2011 – coincidentally only four days before the disaster. The owners of the plant were slow to act, as they believed that measures to prepare for a major accident could provoke “unnecessary concern and misunderstanding” on the part of local residents. TEPCO did not even consider the risk of a total power outage, and regulators did not include such a scenario in their emergency plans.
The unpreparedness of the Japanese people for an accident at a nuclear power plant is explained by the myth of the absolute safety of nuke power. In the 1950s, when the authorities first considered building nuclear power plants, the memories of the horrors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in the minds of the country’s citizens, so the use of nuclear technology, even for peaceful purposes, would inevitably have faced a barrage of criticism and caused panic among the population. At that time, supporters of nuclear power from the political and business elites set out to convince the public that nuclear power plants were completely safe.
In pursuit of a new source of energy, Japanese authorities “imported” American nuclear power plant projects. However, they did this without taking into account their own natural and seismic conditions. The accident at Fukushima was a direct result of this irresponsible approach.
The point is that the original design of the power plant from the American company General Electric took into account the tornadoes that frequently occur in the United States. Because of this, emergency generators were located in the basement. In Japan, however, tsunamis are much more common and as a result they flooded the basements. And the generators that could have prevented the catastrophe were out of order.
By happy coincidence, the worst scenario was avoided, in which the disaster would have reached the scale of Chernobyl, and radioactive emissions would have continued for a whole year. Otherwise, the Fukushima today exclusion zone would have stretched not for 20-30 kilometers, but 170 kilometers. The entire population of Tokyo, which is only 220 kilometers from the nuclear power plant, would have had to be evacuated.
There were no direct human casualties due to the Fukushima accident. Sixteen workers were injured in the explosions and dozens were exposed to radiation. On the day of the accident, three nuclear power plant employees were hospitalized.
However, as a result of the evacuation of the population, including hospitals, about 50 seriously ill patients died. Also, according to medical estimates, there were more than 2,300 premature deaths over the next few years, mostly among the elderly, due to physical and psychological stress. But there is no official link between these deaths and the Fukushima accident.
In 2018, Japan acknowledged a human death due to radiation from the accident for the first time after one of the emergency responders died. He was over 50 years old and had been diagnosed with lung cancer two years before his death. The name of the deceased person has not yet been released. His family has been compensated. Also four more people were recognized as victims of the accident, who were diagnosed with various health problems. Fortunately, all of them are still alive.
How dangerous is it to live near Fukushima today? A World Health Organization report released in 2013 said the nuclear accident is unlikely to lead to a spike in cancer rates in the region. Japanese and foreign scientists are convinced that, except the area immediately around the plant, radiation risks have been and remain low.
The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident has been given the highest rating on the international scale of nuclear disasters. The Chernobyl accident has the same rating. Both tragedies are recognized as the most serious civilian nuclear incidents in history. As a result of the earthquake and tsunami that led to the disaster in Japan, about 18,500 people were killed and missing. Nearly half a million Japanese lost their homes. And for now one thing is clear: it will be almost impossible to resume normal life within the radius of the disaster.
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