Blog

Fukushima: Ten years on

Tom Greatrex

12 March 2021

Minister of Economic Revitalization, Yasutoshi Nishimura’s visit to the Fukushima Daiichi Power Station (October 18, 2020). Image: TEPCO

Ten years ago, an earthquake the like of which Japan had never seen before, caused a tsunami which was to tragically claim more than 19,000 lives. Such was the might of the quake that its tremors shifted the world on its axis, destroying or partially collapsing a million buildings. Escaping the ferocity of the 15-metre wave, which inundated 560 km², was an almost impossible task for anyone or anything in its path, and the devastation caused to communities and infrastructure was immense.

The lessons learned in the aftermath of the earthquake, and the resultant failure of the back up power supply to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, will be discussed and analysed for years to come. As we mark a decade since the event we must ensure it is accurately reported, so that we can fully appreciate its effects, which were felt not only in Japan, but around the world.

News headlines have the power to shape how we think and behave, and we all have a duty to treat stories of this magnitude with great care. In many cases, this week has seen a reflective and balanced tone in much of the coverage. The benefit of time has enabled a more thorough assessment of the psychological impact of the evacuation, the unintended but remarkable rewilding in the exclusion zone, and how far a regulatory failure can be prevented in the future. Above all, the impact of close to 20,000 people losing their lives as a result of a tsunami is something that will remain with those who survived forever.

There have, though, been unsurprising but nevertheless disappointing examples of others seeking to intentionally misrepresent events to suit their prejudice. Much less quoted – but inconveniently true for some – were the facts we now know; that there was no abnormal spike in thyroid cancers, that the one person who died in 2018 from illness might have been impacted by radiation exposure, and that the impact of a return to burning fossil fuels since the accident has been detrimental to the environment.

It is also important to understand that the Fukushima accident was not only completely preventable, but could not happen in the UK. That is testament to our strict and independent model of regulatory oversight and the significantly lower risk of natural disasters. An independent review in the aftermath of the accident found no shortfalls in UK operational reactor safety. Nonetheless, huge efforts were made to add further layers of safety to UK nuclear sites and their supporting systems.

The relationship between the industry in the UK and Japan goes back to when its first reactor opened, but has deepened since the earthquake and tsunami. Since then, the capability and expertise developed in the UK has been used to support the efforts of TEPCO at Fukushima Daiichi. That includes a £12m UK-Japanese robotics project agreed in January which will support faster and safer decommissioning at the plant.

The UK Government, in its energy white paper, made it clear that nuclear power will be indispensable in cutting carbon emissions, but so too has its Japanese counterparts. Turning off the country’s reactors after the accident led to alarming spikes in both the use of coal and gas, as well as the price of energy. The Japanese Government has itself recognised that to reach its climate goals it will have to turn its reactors back on.

An ill-informed political reaction in Germany has led to more burning of dirty lignite for industrial power, completely negating any emissions reduction from an expansion of wind and solar power there. It threatens to skew the European Union’s approach to reaching climate targets to the absurd extent that gas capacity is counted as green and nuclear is excluded. It is that chain reaction which has had, and will continue to have, a much more significant and long-lasting impact on our collective failure to reduce carbon emissions and minimise the worst effects of global warming.

Those are the realities, the consequences and the lessons learned from the events of a decade ago. It is incumbent on the global community, who in many cases know better, to recognise and state what is needed to reduce emissions, increase sustainability and provide a sound basis for generations to come. COP26 would be a good place to start.