Fukushima was NOT a Nuclear Disaster; It was an Historic Natural Disaster
This post is directed to those working in the nuclear power industry: in March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami resulted in the fourth largest earthquake  and the most expensive natural disaster in history . For some perspective, the earthquake was so violent that it shifted the earth’s axis by 25 cm and accelerated the planet’s rotation by 1.8 microseconds  — it made the days shorter! The loss of life was staggering. To date, 15,893 people have been killed and 2,565 are still missing  as a result of the earthquake and ensuing tsunami. The causalities associated with the Daiichi nuclear reactors? ZERO . Every single sector of the economy was affected by this disaster. If the expectation is that a nuclear reactor should remain unscathed in the face of such disaster then this is unrealistic and we are not having a serious conversation about how the world works. If the expectation is that a nuclear reactor should withstand such disasters and mitigate and minimize consequences then congratulations: the Daiichi reactors did exactly that. When discussing the natural disaster in Japan in March 11, 2011, I have a suggestion: STOP REFERRING TO IT AS A NUCLEAR DISASTER.
The following is just a snapshot of the damages incurred due to the great eastern Japan earthquake:
Human Life: 15,893 deaths, 2,565 missing to date, and 6,152 injuries to date .
Economic Loss: An estimated total economic loss of $309 billion dollars — Japan’s GDP contracted 3.5 percent , an estimated 23,600 hectares of farmland ruined  — equivalent to more than twice the area of Paris, reduction in domestic car production of more than 60% due to power shortages, damage to factories and lack of parts supply. Many sectors of the economy were forced to suspend production .
Infrastructure Loss: Number of properties affected by the earthquake and tsunami: 905,724 , damage to 3,559 roads and bridges .
Energy Shortage: Mandatory cuts of 15 percent on major electricity users . Because nuclear power represented 27% of the countries power generation, the decision to shut down the reactors led Japan to spend about $270 billion or 58% more, for fossil fuel imports in the three years since the disaster .
Given the devastation that the region suffered because of the one-two earthquake and tsunami punch, a reasonable person would ask, is it any surprise that the nuclear power plants sustained damage? The answer is no. In fact, an argument can be made that this natural disaster demonstrated a nuclear power plant’s resilience and ability to withstand an historic natural disaster. Those in the nuclear profession have a responsibility to place these issues in perspective. The anti-nuclear groups have figured out that they no longer have to scream at the top of their lungs to oppose the technology. Due to the disaster and its impacts on those reactors, many regulatory bodies have moved to adopt several rules to existing nuclear power plants. The rules are intended to mitigate the effects of an historic natural disaster from impacting other plants. Arguably, there are actions that should be taken from the lessons learnt after dealing with the Japanese natural disaster. The concern is that the knee-jerk reaction that has caused countries like Germany to abandon nuclear power completely will influenced the development of such regulatory rules thereby further exacerbating the cumulative effects of regulation on nuclear power plants. Many of the savvy anti-nuclear groups have figured this out. They have figured out that the narrative, which is shaped by fear and irrationality is on their side. Furthermore, they know that the crippling rules will eventually cause the shutdown of these plants. So all they need to do is focus on creating an argument based on the narrative about the need for more “safety”.
Words and context matter. Calling the event a natural disaster does not take away from the fact that improvements are needed to handle historic natural disasters. However, calling it an accident adds to the patently false claim that nuclear is unsafe. Over the last four years, the narrative has been successfully decoupled such that natural disaster and its impact on the Daiichi reactors are referred to as independent events. As nuclear professionals, we are proud of our record on safety. There should not be any hesitation to point out that the Daiichi nuclear reactors functioned as designed and thanks to some of the most dedicated nuclear professionals overcame an historic natural disaster.
Here is the thing: the planet is facing an existential threat due to global warming. Recently, close to 200 nations met in Paris and agreed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2oC, which has been described as an aggressive target. Without equivocation, the only technology that is capable of helping us reach this goal is nuclear power. No other source of electricity — solar, wind, natural gas, will make an impact. Furthermore, the world’s population is growing and our energy demand is not slowing down. To make matters worse, we are currently living in a state of immense inequality. Billions of people live in the dark because they lack affordable and abundant electricity. The only source of energy that can ease this constraint is nuclear power. It is time we behave like we are dealing with most important resource of our time and set the record straight on nuclear power.
- Forbes, “The World’s Most Expensive Disasters”, Forbes.com, August 26, 2011.
- Impact Forecasting, “Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami Event Recap Report”, AON Benfield
- The Heritage Foundation, “One Year Later: Lessons from Recovery after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake”, April 26, 2012.
- National Police Agency of Japan, “Damage Situation and Police Countermeasure Associated with 2011 Tohoku District — off the Pacific Ocean earthquake”, December 10, 2015.
- Norio, Okado, et al, “The 2011 Eastern Japan Great Earthquake Disaster: Overview and Comments”, International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 2011.
- Reuters, “Tsunami Aftermath in Japan”, March 21, 2011.
- U.S. Energy Information Association, “Japan Overview”, January 30, 2015.
- World Nuclear Association, “Fukushima Accident”, October 2015.