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View from Washington: The political legacy of Fukushima

With the Fukushima disaster's tenth anniversary looming, the Japanese public still has little faith in nuclear energy.

March 11 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, known locally as the Tōhoku quake, and the resulting tsunami which engulfed the country's Fukushima Prefecture.

The 9.0 cataclysm led to tidal waves, causing massive destruction spreading far inland, and one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters - the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant complex. The death toll has been estimated at between 15,000 and 22,000. Many thousands of people are still officially missing.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was not brought under something resembling control until December 2011 and reconstruction across the identically named and neighbouring prefectures in the Tōhoku region has borne fruit only gradually since, despite a government investment of more than £200bn.

So far, less than half of the evacuated families have returned home, although some communities have taken great strides towards recovery where distance, time or eventual decontamination have made it possible.

In much of the energy community, Fukushima - and now chiefly Japan’s ongoing handling of the issue - continue to be a source of frustration. Nuclear power is widely considered an important component in the struggle to reduce global carbon emissions, but the 2011 disaster is seen as continuing to hobble this argument.

In Japan itself, only four out of 33 commercial nuclear reactors are operating and just nine have met safety standards set as a result of the disaster. Along with those who have opted not to return to Fukushima, only 16 per cent have said they were in favour of any further restarts, according to an Asahi Newspaper poll. Across the Japanese population as a whole, opposition to restarts stands at 53 per cent.

Active anti-nuclear demonstrations have declined but a persistent factor is that the public does not think that either the plant’s operator, Tepco, or the government is being straight with them.

This was a big problem at the time of the disaster. The perception of a sluggish overall response effectively cost then Prime Minister Naoto Kan his job, thus opening the way for Shinzo Abe. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), whose president was also forced to resign, did not officially confirm that the meltdowns had occurred until two months after the disaster.

The 2012 inquiry found that ignoring warnings about the risks a tsunami could pose to the plant was among a raft of failings that had led to a “profoundly man-made disaster” - one that was also largely due to far too close a relationship between regulator and regulated.  

There have been further ‘revelations’ since. For example, the fact that radiation exposure killed one of the workers who stayed on during the crisis was only recognised formally as late as 2018. Around the same time, Tepco acknowledged that 1.1m tonnes of water still stored at the site contained radioactive contaminants such as strontium-90, rather than just the tritium it had originally indicated.

More recently, this water has again put the power company at loggerheads with many in the region’s recuperating fishing industry over its plans to ultimately release it into the sea. It now says it will follow a decontamination process known as multi-nuclide removal (or ALPS). Even if the International Atomic Energy Authority has said the approach could work and offered to oversee the rounds of treatment, Team Trawlers message to Tepco is basically, ‘Sling yer hook.’

Coming up to date, among the many documentaries and events marking the anniversary of the tragedy, you can now stream Fukushima 50 (YouTube, Amazon), a dramatic reconstruction of the desperate response from workers at the plant immediately after the earthquake.

It has an interesting history in that it serves largely to mark the courage of the several hundred men and women who stayed on at the plant and fought to mitigate even greater disaster – something that almost certainly would have occurred had the plant manager not ignored his superiors and used sea water to cool the reactors. Heroes, you would think. Yet this group has been largely stigmatised and blamed for the catastrophe – to such a degree that only Prime Minister Kan and the plant manager, the late Masao Yoshida, are referred to in the film by their real names. Others who were there continue to guard their anonymity.

For international audiences, Fukushima 50 is a quietly powerful companion piece to Sky’s Chernobyl, even if it focuses attention on just one part of the tale. Its attempts to set the record straight do at least show that suspicions in Japan continue to run deep ten years on.

All this has implications beyond the Tokyo Diet. For as long as Fukushima remains a thorny domestic issue for Japan, it will remain the global poster child for the anti-nuclear lobby.

Significantly, there are signs that Tokyo’s tendency to let the nuclear issue lie is coming to an end, with Abe’s recently-installed successor, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, committing his country to carbon neutrality by 2050. Even allowing for a renewable energy sector (currently almost at a targeted 24 per cent of supply), the government has previously calculated that nuclear’s contribution will need to rise to 20 per cent from its current 6 per cent within a decade.

That raises the need to rebuild public trust in nuclear energy. Doing as much, finally, is going to require some straight talking and, for Japanese politics, blunt thinking around the government-business relationship.

On that last point, let’s end with these up-to-date thoughts on Fukushima from one of the UK’s preeminent experts on nuclear safety, Professor Laurence Williams of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College, London:

“The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was an accident made in Japan. The fact that the nuclear safety regulator at the time (NISA) was not independent was a major contributor to the accident. Had there been a strong, effective and independent nuclear safety regulator, the nuclear reactors at the site would have survived the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami.

“Ten years on, it is important to remember that independence is the cornerstone of effective nuclear safety regulation and we forget this at our peril.”

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