Fukushima: The legacy of the 2011 Nuclear Meltdown

10 years on from the Great East Japan Earthquake, Fukushima is beginning to reopen. But what was the true cost of the damage caused to the nuclear plant economically, environmentally and socially?

On the 11th of March 2011, at 14:46 local time (05:46 GMT) an earthquake, known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, struck east of the city of Sendai, 97km north of the Fukushima nuclear plant. 

With just 10 minutes warning, the earthquake triggered a tsunami with a 15 metre high wave which hit the coast, overpowering the defensive sea wall. This flooded the Fukushima nuclear plant, knocking out the generators that were helping to keep the reactors in the plant cool, causing what’s known as a ‘nuclear meltdown’ (the melting of the reactor’s cores).

The country was propelled into a nuclear crisis. Initially, the evacuation zone imposed by the government was around 2km. By the following morning, that had been extended to 20km partly due to the devastation caused by the tsunami, but also partly to prevent potential radiation exposure. 

It wasn’t just the release of radioactive material into the atmosphere that was cause for concern. The water passing through the plant would also potentially become contaminated which, when flushed back into the Pacific Ocean, could pose risks to marine life. Indeed, low levels of radioactive caesium from Fukushima were found in tuna as far afield as California. 

Over 150,000 people were forced to evacuate from the area and the overall death toll from the earthquake and tsunami is estimated to be around 20,000. However, no deaths were directly linked to meltdown at the plant at the time, and only onedeath since then has been attributed to radiation exposure.

In fact, initial fears of the levels and effects of radiation exposure due to the accident are now thought to have been over-estimated. A 2020 report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) revealed that the levels of radiation released from the plant were insignificant compared to levels naturally present in the environment.

Despite this evidence, the enduring effect of the disaster 10 years on continues to impact Japan economically, environmentally and socially.

The programme to decontaminate the land is costing hundreds of billions of dollars and, with the clean-up operation expected to last another 30 to 40 years, there are doubts as to whether the area will ever fully recover. Large bags of contaminated soil and around 1 million tons of contaminated water are still being stored at the site and how to dispose of them is an area of contention.

The government is considering slowly discharging the water, which has been treated but still contains small amounts of radiation, back into the ocean. If done correctly, i.e. very slowly over a long period, it is believed that it would have no detrimental impact. But, whilst many official organisations agree this will be safe, local communities are concerned that it will only serve to prolong the devasting impacts on the food and agriculture industry’s reputation.

The negative association between radiation and produce that originates from the Fukushima area has a direct impact on the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen. China, South Korea and Taiwan continue to ban imports of seafood caught off Japan’s east coast, even though the scientific justification for this is weak. Internally, products with Fukushima on their label continue to be shunned by Japanese consumers.

The event has also fuelled public unease of nuclear power plants with research revealing that over half of the Japanese public would like to see nuclear energy production wound down as a result of the 2011 event. 

There is an inherent distrust of nuclear technology globally and, although we are all exposed to radiation daily, the link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons is not unfounded. Most countries outside Europe that use nuclear power have some history of attempting to develop a  nuclear bomb. But with good regulation of power plant safety, security and waste disposal, nuclear power is one of the viable options for reliable, emissions-free energy. 

In 2011 nuclear power accounted for 30% of Japan’s energy supply whereas today it is just 6%, with only 9 of the country’s 54 reactors still running. To fulfil the country’s energy needs, there has been an increase in imports of fossil fuels, resulting in a sharp rise in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is hindering Japan’s commitment to reach its 2050 net-zero emission goals, which were largely dependant upon expanding its nuclear energy programme. 

A project is underway for the Fukushima area to become a renewable energy hub, It plans to build 11 solar and 10 wind farms in abandoned farmland and the surrounding mountains over the next few years, promising to make the region powered 100% by renewables by 2040. The country is also embracing hydrogen as an energy-storage medium, but the current over-reliance on imported oil and gas is a set back for their green targets.

Furthermore, public fear of the health impacts of radiation leaks resulting from the disaster may be unsubstantiated. There is little evidence to suggest that the levels of radiation the population were exposed to will have any long term impact on their physical health. Initially, it was thought that there was an increase in thyroid cancers amongst children, but the UNSCEAR later ruled this out, saying it was due to ultrasensitive screening procedures, rather than being caused by radiation exposure. 

The mental health impacts resulting from the disaster, however, are not inconsequential. The increase in suicide deaths and the high rates of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in those affected were so notable that the World Health Organization released a report in 2020, providing guidance for preparing and responding to future nuclear emergencies. 

The Fukushima disaster led to an estimated 165,000 people being displaced. Although some are beginning to return, around 43,000 residents remain unable to do so, with many more choosing to stay away having built lives elsewhere. Those who are returning face uncertainty about the long term effects of the radiation on themselves and the ecosystem. 

Industry assessments of the event tend to focus on the economic impacts and the lack of human deaths that resulted directly from the accident at the time. But the long term effect on Fukushima, and Japan as a whole, in terms of their economic, environmental and social recovery will persist for years to come. 

The massive clean up operation of the area and the investment into a green recovery is just one aspect. The social cost of the disaster must not be taken lightly. Alongside infrastructure, health, trust and reputation must be incorporated into long term plans to rebuild.