Five years after Fukushima, unlearned lessons spell ongoing catastrophes

Prayer markers on a beach in Fukushima Prefecture commemorating the dead.
Prayer markers on a beach in Fukushima Prefecture commemorating the dead.
Nils Bøhmer/Bellona)
Nils Bøhmer

Publish date: March 10, 2016

On the morning of March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake in the Pacific sent a massive wall of water rolling towards Japan’s Northeast coastline and the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The reactors at the plant shut down automatically moments after the quake at sea. But 41 minutes later the tsunami it generated burst through the plant’s defenses – including a sea wall that was too low – and inundated the reactor buildings.

On the morning of March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake in the Pacific sent a massive wall of water rolling towards Japan’s Northeast coastline and the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The reactors at the plant shut down automatically moments after the quake at sea. But 41 minutes later the tsunami it generated burst through the plant’s defenses – including a sea wall that was too low – and inundated the reactor buildings.

Water flooded emergency generators leaving the plant without power for cooling systems. With no cooling, radioactive decay continued to heat the reactor cores. In the control room, workers struggled to run crucial instruments, using flashlights and car batteries scavenged from nearby vehicles and to search for emergency procedure manuals.

Over the next three days, the last line of emergency systems failed. Uranium fuel in three of the six reactors melted down, and explosions blew holes in the roofs of three reactor buildings, belching radioactive iodine, cesium and other fission products  into the environment. Emergency managers on site, desperately trying to cool the molten cores, poured sea water into the damaged reactor buildings with fire hoses. As a result, highly contaminated water flowed directly into the Pacific Ocean.

fukushima fire hoses Fire hoses filled with sea water inundating the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the aftermath of the tsunami. (Photo:

In the coming days, Japan shut down its 42 remaining nuclear reactors and 160,000 people were forced to evacuate homes that housed generations of their families in agricultural Fukushima, some never to return.

This was the opening chapter of the worst nuclear power nightmare since Chernobyl in 1986.

Five years on, gaping questions about the plant’s condition remain. Part of that owes to the damaged reactors that are still too dangerous to enter. Another reason is plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), is still tight-lipped with information. Yet another is the vastness of the cleanup operation. At the plant alone, it’s estimated to take another 50 years remain before clean up is complete. Its reactors will never work again.

The rush to restart reactors

Now, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is fighting public jitters to restart two reactors at the Sendai nuclear power plant last year. Two others that were restarted this year at the Takahama plant and were again shutdown by a court injunction filed by a nervous local populace. Up to 70 percent of the public is worried about Fukushima Act II and oppose the restarts, according to The Washington Post.

Hiccups plaguing the restarts justify those fears and suggest the government might be rushing things: Takahama’s most recent restart was a failure. It went back online on Feb 29 only to be switched off again by an emergency shutdown on March 4. The incident was blamed on an abnormally strong electric current. The reactor also leaked 34 liters of radioactive water from a cooling system. The Sendai No 1 reactor had a problem with equipment that caused a seawater leak from a cooling system before it was shifted to commercial operation mode.

sendai-protest-banner-320x102 An activist poster urging Japan to protest the restart of Sendai's No 1 reactor. (Photo:

This can’t inspire much confidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, a newly-minted post Fukushima body that developed Japan’s stringent regimen of stress tests and upgrades that another 21 reactors must pass before they’re allowed to operate. Several of Japan’s oldest reactors, said the regulator, will be decommissioned. Still, the agency is overwhelmed with restart applications and industry wants its rubber stamp.


Further fueling suspicions that Tepco is soft-pedaling the catastrophe was its announcement in February that it delayed reporting meltdowns at Fukushima by two months – possibly hindering wider evacuations and endangering lives.

That the Japanese public isn’t taking to the streets the way they did as recently as 2013 doesn’t mean public trust – and wounds in the Japanese psyche and environment – have started to heal, said Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

“Dealing with these extreme uncertainties is part of living in a society where the support for nuclear power is expected, even when it goes against common sense,” he told Bellona by email.

One anecdotal piece of evidence that the government is still cooking data, said Ban, is reports he’s received from independent scientists. Many, he says, suspect authorities are discouraging certain kinds of scientific research for fear the findings could further alarm a beleaguered public.

“They want this to go away and say things are back to normal,” wrote Ban.

2013_Fukushima_NB-1 Hajime Matsukubo (left) and Hideyuki Ban of the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center. (Photo: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona) Photo:

Reluctant repatriation to excessive exposure levels

Meanwhile tens of thousands of people are still waiting to return to their homes near Fukushima Daiichi after fleeing them five years ago in terror – and not all are happy to go back.

Last year the Japanese government announced it would eventually lift evacuation orders for regions where a person would receive an annual radiation dose of 20 millisieverts or less – the dosage level the Japanese government declared safe for its nuclear workers in the heat of the crisis.

To compare Fukushima repatriation to its older brother Chernobyl, even the Soviet Republic of Ukrainian set safe exposure levels for returning to areas around the exploded plant at 1 millisievert per year. From a government that thought nothing of chucking entire nuclear subs at sea, such stringent exposure requirements leave the only country ever hit by a nuclear bomb looking a bit shame-faced.

Eiko Kanno Fukushima 76-year-old Eiko Kanno, a refugee from the Fukushima contaminated zone in supposedly temporary housing who will never return home. Credit: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

“There has been no education regarding radiation,” Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma, recently told Science magazine. Some 14,000 people were evacuated from his area after the accident.

“It’s difficult for many people to make the decision to return without knowing what these radiation levels mean and what is safe,” he said.

Tepco is driving repatriation by vowing to cut off compensation to 32,000 Fukushima refugees, Scientific American reported, effectively blackmailing them into accepting unsafe conditions, Scientific American reported

“There are several tens of thousands who were relocated because of radioactive contamination in areas surrounding the plant,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona executive director and nuclear physicist, who with other Bellona staff has visited Fukushima. “Most likely most of the will remain exiled from their homes for the rest of their lives.”

Mortal battles over forecasted mortality rates

What effects the disaster will have on the future health of those exposed is hotly debated.

The 2015 World Nuclear Industry Status Report that attributed 3,200 deaths to Fukushima, caused by a variety of ailments, suicides and trauma arising from the evacuation. The magazine also cited a 2013 study published in Energy and Environmental Science that estimated roughly 1,000 future cancer deaths would come of exposure to radioactive cesium, which is too little to be attributed to other factors.

2013_Fukushima_NB-9 Exhausted Tepco workers in 2013 returning to decontamination after their cleanup shifts. Photo: - Credit: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

Yet another earlier report from 2011, leaked to Bellona by Japan’s now-defunct watchdog, the Nuclear Safety Commission, indicated those figures fell short. The report said that half the children evacuated from the Fukushima area showed traces of radioactivity absorbed by their systems, which could result in future cancers. The report was stripped from a government website only hours after it was posted, citing patient confidentiality.

But last year, an ultrasound screening project was conducted on 300,476 people who were under 18 at the time the Fukushima disaster occurred.. Half of the subjects examined presented with solid nodules or fluid-filled cysts on their thyroids. The test further revealed 110 confirmed cases of thyroid cancer, a 30-fold increase from the norm, allegedly caused by exposure to radioactive iodine.

Both the Energy and Environmental Science study and the government thyroid screening results hover high above cancer mortality from Fukushima projected in a 2013 study by the World Health Organization. Richard Wakeford of the University of Manchester, and co-author of the WHO report, told Time magazine that, “The additional risk is quite small and will probably be hidden by the noise of other (cancer) risks like people’s lifestyle choices and statistical fluctuations.”

“It’s more important not to start smoking than having been in Fukushima,” he said.

Edwin Lyman, a nuclear physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who co-authored the 2013 study projecting 1000 deaths told Bellona he didn’t buy the WHO’s report because its focus on the risk to each person “tends to dilute the impact” of the disaster.

ingressimage_nuclear_children_japan1 A child from Fukushima Prefecture undergoing a thyroid exam. (Photo: Photo: )

Sussing out the extremely conservative data presented by the UN’s WHO is always complicated business. In a 2005 study, the group forecasted “4000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,” though said at the time only 50 deaths could be attributed to radiation exposure.

In 2015, the WHO sharply revised its Chernobyl death toll predictions upward by four times, predicting 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer, 25,000 cases of other cancers, and an expected death toll of 16,000 taken together. Only time will tell what their final estimates on Fukushima could be.

Environmental containment and water hazards at the plant

For all of its documented faults, Tepco has managed from about 2013 to make a dent in cleaning up the plant, and this year opened the site to reporters somewhat more widely than previously.

Among the company’s credits, reported in world media, are capping shredded roofs, removing 1,535 fuel rods stored in the Unit 4’s spent fuel pool, and constructing ice walls to stanch the flow of groundwater that washed contaminants from the site into the ocean. These walls are like an underground picket fence around the plant, freezing brine to –30°C with the goal of keeping groundwater out and contaminated water in.

2013_Fukushima_NB-2 A waterlogged radiation and tsunami warning sign found on Fukushima beaches in 2013. Photo: - Credit: Nils Bøhmer

Because the molten fuel in the melted down No 1 reactor still generates heat by radioactive decay, Tepco must keep pumping water through the reactor buildings and collecting as much as possible—some 400 cubic meters a day, and  the water is stored in on-site tanks. These tanks were initially held together by rivets in the disaster’s immediate aftermath, and have leaked this highly contaminated water into the sea at alarming rates.

Tepco currently said it’s building more-secure welded tanks to hold the water, theoretically for up to 20 years. There are now about 1,000 tanks holding 750,000 tons of contaminated water, with space for 100,000 tons more. The company says it hopes to increase capacity to 950,000 tons within a year or two.

Bagging radioactive trash – and leaving it to the elements

Meanwhile, there’s still more than 9,000,000 tons of radioactive waste stored without shelter in one-ton black bags throughout Fukushima Prefecture. The irradiated soil and brush they contain is roughly enough to fill 207 million square meter cardboard book boxes that placed end to end would circumnavigate Earth, reported Counterpunch.

Another 13,000,000 cubic meters of this soil has yet to be collected.  All of this will need to be stored somewhere, but where no one really knows. If they did, 800 bags of the stuff wouldn’t have been carried away and deposited kilometers away by typhoon Etau last year.

2013_Fukushima_NB-12 Black bags of radioactive debris through Fukushima Prefecture. Photo: - Credit: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

Mapping the meltdown

But none of this compares to the puzzle of trying to locate, extract and store the molten fuel that melted through the worst stricken reactors’ steel vessels, all of which remain so radioactive that human workers cannot enter them. In point of fact, says nuclear engineer Tadahiro Katsuta of Meiji University, Tepco has “no idea where and how much fuel debris is in the reactor now.”

Robots have been sent in to gain some perspective, but offered nothing conclusive.  Tepco also expects robots will eventually remove the agglomerated uranium, steel and other stuff caught up in the mix by 2021, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has advertised.

A possible method of locating the fuel it is being attempted by charting muons – or elementary particles similar to the electron of the melted fuel – promises a more precise picture of reactor interiors.  But at the moment that’s guesswork and hope. Even if the lethal metallic candle wax can be extracted, there remains a critical problem of where to store this heavy-duty, high-level nuclear waste, as Japan has no storage of its own.

Where to the costs end?

Japan only recently recorded a trade surplus, in 2015, its first since the Fukushima crisis began. Previous that, the country had been sinking in international debt to secure liquefied natural gas, coal and oil to fuel its hobbled power sector, which depended on nuclear power for 30 percent of its electricity. The deficit was a major blow, and something the country had not encountered for 30 years prior to Fukushima.

But the costs and timeframes around continually combating what Fukushima Daiichi and its twisted octopi of ruined structures are dishing out are not encouraging.

The projected dates for when the plant would fully be rid of nuclear fuel debris isn’t until 2020-2021, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. Other discouraging figures from the report say the plant won’t be fully decommissioned until 2051 to 2061. There are no reliable estimates for how much all of that will cost, but money poured down the sluices for what’s been accomplished so far amounts to $100 billion.

Added to that is the health cost, amounting to 3,200 deaths from ailments contracted during the evacuation and suicides, plus another conservative estimate of 1,000 possible deaths due to cancers contracted from radiation exposure.

But the science, thanks to Tepco and Japanese government agencies, is only hardly being brought to bear. As more than 437 nuclear power plants are operating worldwide, many of them upon coastlines in countries with current regulations far weaker than Japan’s (see the United States and Russia), it would be naïve to not to expect another equivalent calamity, if not worse.

2013_Fukushima_NB-1 A clock, found in debris on a beach in Fukushima, stopped at the exact time the March 11, 2011 tsunami hit. Photo: - Credit: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

Such disasters, since nuclear power use became widespread, seem to rear their heads with every new generation – or even less when we account for the near meltdown at the US’s Three Mile Island Plant in 1979.

“Both Fukushima and Chernobyl have shown us that the consequences of any large scale nuclear accident last for decades, if not longer,” said Bellona’s Bøhmer.

The Japanese method of saving face – which is writ large across the nuclear industry as a whole – is preventing the critical information on Fukushima from being disseminated to save lives.