10 Years After Fukushima, Safety Is Still Nuclear Power's Greatest Challenge

10 Years After Fukushima, Safety Is Still Nuclear Power's Greatest Challenge

Ten years ago, on March 11, 2011, the biggest recorded earthquake in Japanese history hit the country’s northeast coast. It was followed by a tsunami that traveled up to 6 miles (10 kilometers) inland, reaching heights of over 140 feet (43.3 meters) in some areas and sweeping entire towns away in seconds.

This disaster left nearly 20,000 people dead or missing. It also destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and released radioactive materials over a large area. The accident triggered widespread evacuations, large economic losses and the eventual shutdown of all nuclear power plants in Japan. A decade later, the nuclear industry has yet to fully to address safety concerns that Fukushima exposed.

We are scholars specializing in engineering and medicine and public policy, and have advised our respective governments on nuclear power safety. Kiyoshi Kurokawa chaired an independent national commission, known as the NAIIC, created by the Diet of Japan to investigate the root causes of the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Najmedin Meshkati served as a member and technical adviser to a committee appointed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to identify lessons from this event for making U.S. nuclear plants safer and more secure.

Those reviews and many others concluded that Fukushima was a man-made accident, triggered by natural hazards, that could and should have been avoided. Experts widely agreed that the root causes were lax regulatory oversight in Japan and an ineffective safety culture at the utility that operated the plant.

These problems are far from unique to Japan. As long as commercial nuclear power plants operate anywhere in the world, we believe it is critical for all nations to learn from what happened at Fukushima and continue doubling down on nuclear safety.

How the 2011 earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, filmed one month after the disaster.

Failing to anticipate and plan

The 2011 disaster delivered a devastating one-two punch to the Fukushima plant. First, the magnitude 9.0 earthquake knocked out off-site electric power. Next, the tsunami breached the plant’s protective sea wall and swamped portions of the site.

Flooding disabled monitoring, control and cooling functions in multiple units of the six-reactor complex. Despite heroic efforts by plant workers, three reactors sustained severe damage to their radioactive cores and three reactor buildings were damaged by hydrogen explosions.

Off-site releases of radioactive materials contaminated land in Fukushima and several neighboring prefectures. Some 165,000 people left the area, and the Japanese government established an exclusion zone around the plant that extended over 311 square miles (807 kilometers) in its largest phase.

For the first time in the history of constitutional democratic Japan, the Japanese Parliament passed a law creating an independent national commission to investigate the root causes of this disaster. In its report, the commission concluded that Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission had never been independent from the industry, nor from the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, which promotes nuclear power.

For its part, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, had a history of disregard for safety. The company had recently released an error-prone assessment of tsunami hazards at Fukushima that significantly underestimated the risks.

An International Atomic Energy Agency investigator examines ReactorNuclear power generates about 10% of the world’s electricity (TWh = terawatt-hours). About 50 new plants are under construction, but many operating plants are aging. World Nuclear Association, CC BY-ND

Events at the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station, located 39 miles (64 kilometers) from Fukushima, told a contrasting story. Onogawa, which was owned and operated by the Tohoku Electric Power Company, was closer to the earthquake’s epicenter and was hit by an even larger tsunami. Its three operating reactors were the same type and vintage as those at Fukushima, and were under the same weak regulatory oversight.

But Onogawa shut down safely and was remarkably undamaged. In our view, this was because the Tohoku utility had a deep-seated, proactive safety culture. The company learned from earthquakes and tsunamis elsewhere – including a major disaster in Chile in 2010 – and continuously improved its countermeasures, while TEPCO overlooked and ignored these warnings.

Regulatory capture and safety culture

When a regulated industry manages to cajole, control or manipulate agencies that oversee it, rendering them feckless and subservient, the result is known as regulatory capture. As the NAIIC report concluded, Fukushima was a textbook example. Japanese regulators “did not monitor or supervise nuclear safety….They avoided their direct responsibilities by letting operators apply regulations on a voluntary basis,” the report observed.

Effective regulation is necessary for nuclear safety. Utilities also need to create internal safety cultures – a set of characteristics and attitudes that make safety issues an overriding priority. For an industry, safety culture functions like the human body’s immune system, protecting it against pathogens and fending off diseases.

A plant that fosters a positive safety culture encourages employees to ask questions and to apply a rigorous and prudent approach to all aspects of their jobs. It also fosters open communications between line workers and management. But TEPCO’s culture reflected a Japanese mindset that emphasizes hierarchy and acquiescence and discourages asking questions.

There is ample evidence that human factors such as operator errors and poor safety culture played an instrumental key role in all three major accidents that have occurred at nuclear power plants: Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011. Unless nuclear nations do better on both counts, this list is likely to grow.

Global nuclear safety grade: Incomplete

Today there are some 440 nuclear power reactors operating around the world, with about 50 under construction in countries including China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Many advocates argue that in light of the threat of climate change and the increasing need for carbon-free baseload electricity generation, nuclear power should play a role in the world’s future energy mix. Others call for abolishing nuclear power. But that may not be feasible in the foreseeable future.

In our view, the most urgent priority is developing tough, system-oriented nuclear safety standards, strong safety cultures and much closer cooperation between countries and their independent regulators. We see worrisome indications in the U.S. that independent nuclear regulation is eroding, and that nuclear utilities are resisting pressure to learn and delaying adoption of internationally accepted safety practices, such as adding filters to prevent radioactive releases from reactor containment buildings with the same characteristics as Fukushima Daiichi.

The most crucial lesson we see is the need to counteract nuclear nationalism and isolationism. Ensuring close cooperation between countries developing nuclear projects is essential today as the forces of populism, nationalism and anti-globalism spread.

We also believe the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose mission is promoting safe, secure and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, should urge its member states to find a balance between national sovereignty and international responsibility when it comes to operating nuclear power reactors in their territories. As Chernobyl and Fukushima taught the world, radiation fallout does not stop at national boundaries.

[Over 100,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]

As a start, Persian Gulf countries should set aside political wrangling and recognize that with the startup of a nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates and others planned in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they have a common interest in nuclear safety and collective emergency response. The entire region is vulnerable to radiation fallout and water contamination from a nuclear accident anywhere in the Gulf.

We believe the world remains at the same juncture it faced in 1989, when then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. made this perceptive argument:

“A decade ago, Three Mile Island was the spark that ignited the funeral pyre for a once-promising energy source. As the nuclear industry asks the nation for a second look in the context of global warming, it is fair to watch how its advocates respond to strengthened safety oversight. That will be the measure of whether nuclear energy becomes a phoenix or an extinct species.”The Conversation

About The Author

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo and Najmedin Meshkati, Professor of Engineering and International Relations, University of Southern California

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer
9780143130444In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here—some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. Available On Amazon

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy

by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, Jeffrey Rissman
1610919564With the effects of climate change already upon us, the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions is nothing less than urgent. It’s a daunting challenge, but the technologies and strategies to meet it exist today. A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well. Available On Amazon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

by Naomi Klein
1451697392In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.




follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration


The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
by Super User
The climate crisis is forcing thousands around the world to flee as their homes become increasingly uninhabitable.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
by Toby Tyrrell
It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that…
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
by Brice Rea
The end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, was characterised by a final cold phase called the Younger Dryas.…
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
by Frank Wesselingh and Matteo Lattuada
Imagine you are on the coast, looking out to sea. In front of you lies 100 metres of barren sand that looks like a…
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
by Richard Ernst
We can learn a lot about climate change from Venus, our sister planet. Venus currently has a surface temperature of…
Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
The Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
by John Cook
This video is a crash course in climate misinformation, summarizing the key arguments used to cast doubt on the reality…
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
by Julie Brigham-Grette and Steve Petsch
Every year, sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrinks to a low point in mid-September. This year it measures just 1.44…


3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
by Bart Johnson, Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon
A wildfire burning in hot, dry mountain forest swept through the Gold Rush town of Greenville, California, on Aug. 4,…
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
by Alvin Lin
At the Leader’s Climate Summit in April, Xi Jinping pledged that China will “strictly control coal-fired power…
A plane drops red fire retardant on to a forest fire as firefighters parked along a road look up into the orange sky
Model predicts 10-year burst of wildfire, then gradual decline
by Hannah Hickey-U. Washington
A look at the long-term future of wildfires predicts an initial roughly decade-long burst of wildfire activity,…
Blue water surrounded by dead white grass
Map tracks 30 years of extreme snowmelt across US
by Mikayla Mace-Arizona
A new map of extreme snowmelt events over the last 30 years clarifies the processes that drive rapid melting.
White sea ice in blue water with the sun setting reflected in the water
Earth’s frozen areas are shrinking 33K square miles a year
by Texas A&M University
The Earth’s cryosphere is shrinking by 33,000 square miles (87,000 square kilometers) per year.
A row of male and female speakers at microphones
234 scientists read 14,000+ research papers to write the upcoming IPCC climate report
by Stephanie Spera, Assistant Professor of Geography and the Environment, University of Richmond
This week, hundreds of scientists from around the world are finalizing a report that assesses the state of the global…
A brown weasel with a white belly leans on a rock and looks over its shoulder
Once common weasels are doing a vanishing act
by Laura Oleniacz - NC State
Three species of weasels, once common in North America, are likely in decline, including a species that’s considered…
Flood risk will rise as climate heat intensifies
by Tim Radford
A warmer world will be a wetter one. Ever more people will face a higher flood risk as rivers rise and city streets…

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.