March 11th marks the 10th anniversary of the Tōhoku tsunami and consequent Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear meltdowns. It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade already.
My memories of that time include the quake itself rocking our Tokyo apartment – the strongest one I have ever experienced, a 5.8 on the Richter scale, as household goods came crashing down around me. Of the many images broadcast on Japanese TV in the hours after the tsunami hit, the one that really stayed with me was an image of an entire house on fire being carried inland, across rice fields, by the tsunami.
It seemed surreal, yet it was happening in sedate rural Japan, not far north of my wife’s hometown. Soon after, the focus shifted to the worsening situation at the Dai-ichi power plant, as meltdowns and then explosions occurred over the following 10 days, and the situation at the plant veered further and further out of control.
In Tokyo we relied on foreign sources of information, as both TEPCO and the government reassured us that things at the Dai-ichi plant were under control. They lied blatantly. Gradually it became clear that not only was radiation escaping in prodigious amounts, it had reached as far south as Tokyo, and further south to tea growing areas on the slopes of Mount Fuji. It took a full two months for the Japanese Government to admit that radiation had been released from four of the six nuclear reactors.
As most of the electricity generated at the Dai-ichi plant had been routed to Tokyo we experienced power cuts, or the threat of staggered power cuts, for weeks on end. There were shortages of some household goods and food in shops, reduced numbers of trains running, together with general fear and uncertainty. There were broadcast announcements from each Ward Office beamed over the rooftops in a slow voice (for clarity), that actually made the situation more unnerving. Slow but distorted and semi-clear, bouncing off the rooftops, and altogether surreal.
My wife and I tried to avoid going out unless absolutely necessary, dried washing indoors, and brushed off, then left shoes outside the front door (“don’t bring radiation into the house dear”).
There were large aftershocks each day, and once you have experienced one large quake, any further shocks trigger immediate alertness, via adrenaline and the autonomic nervous system. Of course there were aftershocks at night too, so the end result was that most felt exhausted. These aftershocks continued for months afterwards, some over Magnitude 5. Crazy days, never to be forgotten by those who lived through them.
Fukushima ended up being the world news story of the year in 2011.
March 2021: Ten years later: There are 373 people still living in temporary accommodation, and about 340,000 people have permanently moved out of the three prefectures most badly affected by the twin disasters. There are many who still feel depressed and rootless, and suicides in the post-quake years have been common. As one aid worker said “That’s what the radiation accident caused. A loss of purpose. The loss of feeling at home, the feeling of being connected. There are many people who suffered from that. And a lot of people suffered from the perception that they or their products were contaminated.”
Some 30 per cent of people in Fukushima believe the effects of radiation exposure are hereditary, with 15 per cent of people thinking it is “very likely” – in spite of a study tracking 86,000 survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki finding no evidence of this.
“Many people believe that these women should not get married or reproduce. That’s really worrying,” says Masaharu Maeda, a professor at Fukushima MedicalUniversity’s (FMU) Department of Disaster Psychiatry. A survey in Fukushima Prefecture found a small group of people – 15 per cent – who still believe that they or their peers are genetically contaminated, despite official reassurances to the contrary. In a survey of evacuees, Maeda and his colleagues were shocked to find that the biggest risk factor for “severe distress” was increased perception of risk from radiation exposure and the belief that it would affect one’s children or grandchildren.
Corona Virus affecting Fukushima remembrance: The government called off a memorial event that was scheduled in 2020 as Japan sought to contain a widening outbreak of the corona virus. The country closed schools, theme parks and zoos, as part of its wider effort to scale back public events and mass gatherings to slow the transmission of the virus. As virus numbers are now higher than then, though have dropped well back from a peak in early January, the 10th anniversary remembrances are again likely to be low key and socially distanced.
Cancer cases expected in Fukushima: Japan got really lucky in March of 2011– not with the tsunami of course but with the aftermath of the meltdowns. Eighty percent of the radiation blew out to sea, as wind direction on all but two days of the largest radiation releases was towards the Pacific. Had the wind been to the north, west or south the area irradiated, and presumably eventual numbers of cancer cases, would have been much greater.
According to one study of those exposed to radiation in Fukushima, 730–1700 excess cancer incidents are expected, of which around 65% may be fatal. These estimates are very close to what has been already published. This is also pretty close to the estimate in my book of approximately 1,034 cancer cases over a 50 year period. Among workers at the Dai-ichi plant six cases of workers who developed cancer or leukemia due to radiation exposure have been recognised by TEPCO.
Plant de-contamination and fuel removal: The overall decommissioning of the Dai-ichi nuclear plant is still expected to take at least 30 to 40 years. Although used fuel has been removed from the fuel pool of Reactor 4 building, and TEPCO have succeeded in guiding small robots to the heart of the heavily damaged Reactor 3 reactor, and located and begun mapping the fuel which melted onto the floor of the reactor building, progress at decontamination and fuel removal is painfully slow and well behind schedule.
High radiation levels on the top floors of the Reactor buildings 2 and 3, is delaying fuel removal slated to begin sometime between 2024 to 2026. If water were not poured daily on the cores of Units 1, 2 and 3 they would begin to heat up again. Radiation levels are still incredibly high. Radiation in Unit 1 has been measured at 4.1 to 9.7 Sieverts per hour. In 2018, a reading taken at the deepest level of Unit 2 was an “unimaginable” 530 Sieverts. Readings elsewhere in Unit 2 are typically closer to 70 Sieverts an hour, making it the hottest of Daiichi’s hotspots.
Release of irradiated water into the Pacific: Japan plans to release 1 million tonnes of contaminated water into the sea. Pressure to decide the water’s fate, stored onsite in 1,000 tanks, has been building as storage space on the plant site runs out, with the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, estimating that all of the available tanks will be full by the summer of 2022. There is major opposition to this move from South Korea, from Greenpeace, and also from Fukushimafishermen, who fear that consumers will shun their seafood once the water is released.
Tepco’s Advanced Liquid Processing System removes highly radioactive substances from the water but the system is unable to filter out tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that nuclear power plants routinely dilute and dump along with water into the ocean. Experts say tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, is only harmful to humans in very large doses.
Changes in renewable energy since 2011: There are two chapters in my book about the need to find new sources of energy to replace fossil fuels in a world where global warming is causing many types of disasters, including storms, heat waves, floods, and droughts. Peak oil has already been reached.
There have been changes since I researched and wrote that section: on the negative side, global warning is worsening, and no signatory to COP 21 has been living up to its commitments to keep global warming at or below 1.5C. On the other hand, nuclear power is in decline, except in China and Russia. Coal power worldwide is also in decline because renewables are now cheaper as a source of electricity.
When I began research in 2012 it was estimated that solar power would be as cheap a source of energy as coal by about 2020/21. In fact it overtook coal in most countries in 2016. Battery storage and also wind power have also become much cheaper. That is the good news, but there is no way that renewables will be able to provide the amount of energy we now receive from fossil fuels. We are moving to a world that will have less energy, and it will be more expensive than now. This will lead, in the next few decades, to localisation and the end of globalisation.
The possibilities of another nuclear disaster worldwide: I think is very little chance of any future tsunami causing a nuclear meltdown. Japan now has only 9 reactors in 5 nuclear power plants in operation. There used to be 54.
The two nuclear powered countries that are cause for concern are China and the USA, for different reasons. As I wrote regarding China: [The breakneck pace of China’s nuclear plant construction gives ground for concern. Many of the new plants will be constructed inland and, because of a lack of water supply in remote regions, will be located in areas which are densely populated. All of the country’s working reactors have been built since 2000. As was the case in Japan, the nuclear watchdog is not truly independent.
In 2012, a report by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection declared that, “The current [nuclear] safety situation isn’t optimistic”. In 2015 He Zuoxin, a leading Chinese nuclear scientist, stated that the rapid expansion of China’s nuclear power plants is “insane” because his country is not investing sufficiently in safety controls, nor developing sufficient expertise. In an interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper he spoke of, “Corruption, poor management abilities and decision-making capabilities”.[i] In May 2015, significant faults were found in the reactor pressure vessels already installed at Taishan 1 & 2 nuclear reactors, located just 100 miles (160 km) from Hong Kong].
Regarding the United States, in recent decades, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has extended the operating licenses of nuclear power plants from 40 years to 60 years and then 80 years, and is now considering 100 years!!
“It is crazy,” declares Robert Alvarez, a former senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy and now senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of the book Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation. “No reactor in history has lasted that long,” commented Alvarez. The move is “an act of desperation in response to the collapse of the nuclear program in this country and the rest of the world,” he declares.
The coming Tokyo Earthquake: Obviously it hasn’t happened yet, but as big ones usually hit Tokyo every 60-70 years, and the last was in 1923, then the next one is well overdue. I am currently reading the book ‘Low City, High City (Tokyo from Edo to the earthquake; how the shogun’s ancient capital became a great modern city, 1867-1923)’ by Edward Seidensticker. What’s striking in the book is how much open land there was during the Meiji Period in areas that used to belong to the feudal lords: weed-filled areas such as Marunouchi, where racoons, badgers and other wildlife lived, are now prime business districts, with no open land whatsoever.
Despite all that open space [the 1923 earthquake destroyed two-thirds of Tōkyō and four-fifths of Yokohama. At that time, the Tōkyō Metropolitan Area had a population of some 4.4 million, and Yokohama half a million. 142,800 people died. Nearly half of the houses in the two cities were partially or fully destroyed.
The present-day Greater Tōkyō Area has a population of 35.5 million and a density of 2,640 per square kilometre. There are far fewer areas of escape now than in the 1920s] – quote from my book.
Tōkyō of 2021 has the least amount of greenery and park area per head of population of any world city. The Tōkyō Metropolitan Government has recently estimated that 5.17 million will be unable to reach home for some days after a major quake. Its study shows that some 4.75 million commuters would be so tightly packed – perhaps six people to a square metre ̶ that they would fall like dominoes during post-quake aftershocks.
On a personal note, I was due to retire next week and move to France. Because of covid that plan has been put back a year. I just hope the quake doesn’t hit during this year!