The Fallout from Fukushima

Today we know more about the scale of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. The accident was worse than either the plant owner or the Japanese government admitted. The risk of further release of radioactive material into the environment remains significant, and cleanup of the plant itself will take years. The details provide a clearer glimpse at the many ways in which nuclear power is unsafe.

News reports in the last several weeks give a much clearer picture of what actually happened at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility in Japan after the March earthquake and tsunami. The damage to the reactors and the amount of radiation released were more severe than the operator of the plant or the Japanese government knew or admitted during the early weeks of the crisis.

Today we know that three of the plant’s four active reactors suffered full meltdowns. The pressure vessel of one of the reactors likely failed within 5 hours of the earthquake. Only one diesel generator survived the tsunami. Had this generator failed, meltdowns could have occurred at the plants’ other reactors. The utility and the governmentunderestimated the threat and struggled to assemble an effective response to the crisis.

The owner of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power, only publicly admitted that reactors had melted down 2 months after the disaster began.

Workers are still trying to cool the radioactive nuclear fuel enough to bring it to a stable state, a process likely to continue for months or years. The utility has built a filtration plant to prevent the release of more contaminated cooling water to the ocean, but if the plant doesn’t begin operating quickly, existing storage chambers could overflow. And the utility will still face the problem of what to do with the toxic, radioactive mess it filters out of the water.

The Japanese government underestimated the amount of radiation released in the aftermath of the accident. At first, the government reported that emissions within the first month totaled 10 percent of the radiation emitted by Chernobyl, as officially reported by the Soviet government. However, revised estimates put the release at 40 percent of Chernobyl within the first week alone

Much of the radioactive material leaked into the ocean, with some thrown into the atmosphere. Fish were found with elevated levels of radioactivity, and the government banned the harvest and sale of fish from parts of Japan’s Pacific Coast.

Tokyo Electric Power, the owner of the Fukushima plant, faces the risk of bankruptcy in the wake of the disaster. Some estimates place damage claims higher than $100 billion – compared to the fund that BP established for victims of last year’s oil disaster in the gulf amounted to $20 billion. The company has been punished in the stock market, with losses larger than any ever suffered by a non-financial institution in Japan. Ratings agencies have downgraded the utility to junk status.

In June, Japanese citizens staged protests against the nation’s dependence on nuclear power in multiple cities. In coverage of the events, the New York Times quoted participants:

“I’m here for my children,” said Aki Ishii, who had her 3-year-old daughter in tow. “We just want our old life back, where the water is safe and the air is clean.” Her daughter wore a sign that said “Please let me play outside again.”