Fukushima | David Lochbaum

Summary of: Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster
By: David Lochbaum

Introduction

Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster unravels the harrowing events surrounding the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and its impact on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Prepare to delve into the post-disaster response, the flaws in Japan’s contingency plans, government misinformation, and the resultant economic and social implications. The book raises awareness about the control of the nuclear industry, its conflict of interest with governments, and reveals the possible dangers that the United States might face due to similar conditions.

Unraveling Japan’s 2011 Earthquake

Long ago, the Japanese attributed earthquakes to a mythical giant catfish’s movements. Today, advanced science helps explain these natural disasters. The devastating 2011 earthquake in Japan, one of the largest in its history, was caused by a subduction event that released so much energy it shifted the Earth’s axis. Japan’s sophisticated earthquake warning system, with 1000 motion sensors, initially estimated the quake at 7.9 on the Richter scale. However, later assessments revised it to an astounding 9.0 – making it the largest earthquake detected by Japanese instruments and one of the five biggest globally. The resulting tsunami’s waves wreaked havoc across vast distances, even breaking off an ice-shelf the size of Manhattan in Antarctica. Tragically, over 18,000 lives were claimed in the disaster, now known as Fukushima.

Fukushima’s Catastrophic Unpreparedness

In the aftermath of Japan’s disastrous earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant faced an unprecedented crisis. The tsunami breached the plant’s defenses, cutting off power needed to cool its nuclear reactors and setting off a ticking clock that could lead to a catastrophic meltdown. Making matters worse, the flooding destroyed the emergency power generator and control room instruments, rendering staff blind to the condition of the reactors. To compound this dire situation, the emergency contingency plan failed to effectively address potential reactor pressure and how to manually open valves to safely remove radioactivity. Communication with authorities was similarly disrupted due to power failure, leaving the nuclear facility isolated in a time of grave danger.

Information Hurdles in Fukushima Crisis

When faced with the devastating tsunami in 2011, the Japanese public struggled to get accurate and reliable information about the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. The System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) was rendered ineffective as the power outage left the plant incapable of providing data. Furthermore, the close relationship between government agencies, the nuclear industry, and traditional Japanese media resulted in information suppression and a lack of confrontation. The government was criticized for withholding essential data, causing delays on action to resolve the critical issues related to the catastrophe. In an effort to prevent public panic, the government avoided using the term “meltdown,” opting for a vague term, “fuel pellet melt,” which obscured the extent of the crisis.

Japan’s Nuclear Oversight Dilemma

Since World War II, nuclear power has served as a way for Japan to lessen its reliance on foreign energy resources. The nation built nuclear plants at an unprecedented pace, but regulation and oversight did not keep up. An unfortunate side effect of the close relationship between the nuclear industry and the government is compromised regulation which jeopardizes safety. Cases of suppressed information about nuclear dangers have been documented, such as Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) mishandling of a reactor crack. Misinformation about the risks of nuclear power has also been prevalent, and if risk concerns were properly addressed, catastrophes like the Fukushima disaster might have been avoided.

In Japan, post-World War II, nuclear power emerged as an opportunity for independence from reliance on foreign electricity supplies. As a result, Japan built nuclear plants more quickly than any other nation. However, the speed of expansion outpaced the capacity for proper regulation and oversight.

The entwined relationship between the nuclear industry and the government is a major hurdle in implementing effective oversight. A 2012 report disclosed that a significant portion of members on the government’s Nuclear Safety Commission received substantial donations from the nuclear industry. Additionally, the prospect of lucrative jobs in the nuclear sector after retirement from regulatory positions may also compromise unbiased supervision.

One notable instance of oversight failure occurred when TEPCO’s nuclear inspector discovered a reactor crack at Fukushima. Instead of addressing the issue, TEPCO demanded that the inspector conceal evidence. Although the inspector reported the problem to regulators, they merely instructed TEPCO to handle the issue – which led to the inspector being fired.

Moreover, the actual risks of nuclear power are often downplayed. The Japanese government and media portrayed the Chernobyl disaster as an isolated incident resulting from poor Soviet equipment and inadequately trained operators rather than acknowledging potential risks in Japan. Over a decade later, the New York Times reported numerous unsuccessful lawsuits against the Japanese government over insufficient nuclear reactor safety. Seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi posits that if these safety concerns had been addressed, the Fukushima disaster might have been averted.

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