The story of the 2011 catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant unfolds in a new book-length account from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster” (The New Press) was penned by David Lochbaum, head of the UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project (and a nuclear engineer for 17 years); Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in UCS’s Global Security Program; and journalist Susan Stranahan, who led the Philadelphia Inquirer’s coverage of the Three Mile Island Accident in Dauphin, Pennsylvania (which earned the paper the 1980 Pulitzer Prize in local general reporting).
Lochbaum and his coauthors weave a fast-paced, detailed narrative that moves like a thriller -- but with the consequences painfully real, and the potential for a sequel hanging on the horizon.
“Fukushima Daiichi unmasked the weaknesses of nuclear power plant design and the long-standing flaws in operations and regulatory oversight,” the authors write. “Although Japan must share the blame, this was not a Japanese nuclear accident; it was a nuclear accident that just happened to have occurred in Japan. The problems that led to the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi exist wherever reactors operate.”
The book documents the disaster beyond what made it into the papers, with findings and analysis that might be new to you:
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1) The initial shutdown of Fukushima’s reactors after the earthquake went according to plan; the real problem was the tsunami:
The Tohoku earthquake began at 2:46 p.m. (Japan time) on March 11, 2011. By 2:47 p.m., the first of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Unit began to automatically shut down, after sensors registered the earthquake.
The real trouble started about 45 minutes later, when the second wave of the tsunami struck. A first wave, 13 feet high, was deflected by the plant’s seawall; the second one was 50 feet high easily surged over the seawall, destroying seawater pumps, smashing doors, and drowning the plant’s electrical system. Power panels and emergency backup generators were inundated, leading to a station blackout.
Nuclear regulators know that a station blackout is one of the worst things that can happen at a nuclear plant: “Without any power to run the pumps and valves needed to provide a steady flow of cooling water, the radioactive fuel would overheat, the remaining water would boil away, and the core would proceed inexorably toward a meltdown.”
2) Just how powerful was that tsunami? Powerful enough to take a Big Apple-sized bite out of Antarctica:
“By the time the waves hit Antarctica, about eight thousand miles south of the epicenter, they still had enough power to break off more than fifty square miles of ice shelf, twice the area of Manhattan.”
3) Serious communication problems hampered recovery efforts in the early hours after the blackout.
“The paging system [within the plant] was disabled; TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company, operator of the plant] had provided only one-hour batteries for some of the mobile units and there was no way to recharge them. Crew members often had to return to the emergency center to report simple details – a time-consuming and risky procedure.”
4) Part of the problem in the response? Japan’s huge nuclear bureaucracy:
At the time, Japan’s 54 commercial nuclear plants are regulated by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. There was also the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) which promotes nuclear energy while also being charged with radiation monitoring. There’s also the Nuclear Safety Commission, an independent agency within the Japanese government’s executive branch, and the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization. Also, Japan’s prefectures took on their own radiation monitoring and evacuation-coordinating efforts.
“On paper, all these duties and responsibilities may have seemed clear. In practice, however, the system proved unworkable.”
5) Kicked out of your home after a meltdown? Get ready for red tape:
TEPCO said in April 2011 that it would pay 1 million yen (about $12,700) to every household forced to evacuate by the Fukushima disaster.
“If the evacuees needed the money anytime soon, however, they were due for disappointment. TEPCO required them to fill out three forms, one of which contained fifty-six pages and was accompanied by a 156-page instruction booklet. The evacuees, many of whom had been living in crowded shelters, were required to submit receipts for their living expenses. They were expected to provide medical records and proof of lost wages.”
6) TEPCO’s efforts to protect itself from blame and compensation claims soon verged on farce:
After the owners of a golf club about 30 miles from Fukushima Daiichi sued TEPCO for their irradiated links, “the utility countered with a novel defense: the radioactive substances that fell on the course ‘belong to the landowners and not TEPCO’… the utility also argued that radiation levels on the golf course were below allowable levels set for schoolyard, and thus were not a hazard.”
7) The Japanese government was vague about the potential health fallout:
Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and other politicians told the public that the amount of radiation leaking from Fukushima “’does not have immediate effects on health’… that expression could be interpreted in two conflicting ways: that the radiation was harmless, or that it might produce cancer, just not right away.”
8) It could have been even worse, if not for one key thing that Fukushima’s operators did right:
The spent fuel pools -- which store the radioactive fuel rods that have been taken out of reactors -- at many U.S. reactors are crowded, a huge risk should a plant suffer an accident or a terrorist attack. Fukushima’s operators were much more proactive about adopting a system known as “dry storage,” where spent fuel is loaded into sealed metal canisters within concrete and steel casks. The heat from the fuel is removed by passive cooling, meaning workers don’t have to worry about pumping water to keep the fuel from releasing radiation.
The 408 spent fuel assemblies in dry storage at Fukushima were jostled around by the earthquake and temporarily submerged by the inundation of the tsunami wave, but were otherwise unharmed. Unlike the spent fuel in the pools, the fuel in dry storage wasn’t an immediate threat: it didn’t need to be sprayed with fire hoses or have water dumped on it from helicopters to be kept in check.
“There are lessons to be learned from what went wrong at Fukushima,” Lochbaum, Lyman and Stranahan wrote. “There are equally important lessons to be learned from what went right.”