Exactly 10 years ago, Japan was shocked by three powerful cataclysms one after the other: the strongest earthquake and the tsunami provoked by it led to an accident at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant. Radiation has permanently poisoned the soil and water in nearby cities, and 160,000 people were forced to flee their homes. More recently, a month before the tragic anniversary, strong tremors were again recorded in Fukushima. As a result of the earthquake, radioactive water leaked from the pools for storing spent nuclear fuel, and soon after that, off the coast of the prefecture, for the first time in several years, was caught fish contaminated with radiation. How is it that the station was built in just the wrong place, why the authorities were completely unprepared for the crash, but millions of tons of radioactive water at any time can get into the sea-versed “Lenta.ru”?
On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9 occurred in the waters of the Pacific Ocean northeast of Tokyo. Tremors, later recognized as the most powerful in Japan in the history of modern observations, provoked a tsunami. Waves 30-40 meters high tore down houses, cars, and even planes at local airports.
An earthquake de-energized the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant, and a tsunami flooded the basement where diesel generators were located. The emergency cooling systems at the nuclear power plant failed, and nuclear fuel melted in the reactors of three power units. At the same time, hydrogen accumulated in the first, third and fourth, which led to a series of explosions and emissions of radioactive elements into the atmosphere.
The accident was assigned the maximum level 7. The disaster at Fukushima-1, although it was inferior to Chernobyl in terms of the scale of the consequences, became the worst accident at a nuclear power plant in the 21st century. This chain of tragic events, by analogy with the September 11 attacks in the United States, is commonly called 3/11.
The bitterness of loss and memories of the past do not let the survivors go even after 10 years. I thought that time heals, but now I know that it is not. There are things that you want to forget, but you cannot. Some of the memories only get clearer over time, ” says 70-year-old Yoshihito Sasaki, who lost his wife and youngest son in the crash.
Earthquakes and tsunamis are not uncommon in Japan. Moreover, natural disasters comparable in scale to the events of 2011 have occurred in the archipelago more than once over the past millennia. And now scientists think that the accident at the plant could easily be prevented. Fukushima-1 was built by the Tokyo Power Company (TEPCO), it was its first nuclear power plant. And even at the very initial stage, a fatal mistake was made: the object simply could not be built so close to the ocean. Moreover, during the design, an earthquake with a magnitude of about 7 and a tsunami with a height of 3.1 meters above sea level was laid as the maximum load that the station had to withstand. When the 2011 tsunami reached the hill on which the main buildings of the nuclear power plant were located, the wave height reached 14-15, and in some places even 17 meters
Seismologists warned about the risk of a powerful tsunami in the area of the nuclear power plant back in 2002. In 2008, TEPCO also prepared its own computer simulation, which showed that the tsunami risk in the design of the station was significantly underestimated. New calculations ruled out the possibility of an earthquake with a magnitude of more than 8, but even they indicated the need to take measures to strengthen the station.
However, the company did not take any action and reported to the supervisory authority about its research only on March 7, 2011 – by coincidence, only four days before the disaster. The owners of the plant hesitated because they believed that measures to prepare for a serious accident could provoke “unnecessary concern and misunderstanding” on the part of residents. At the same time, TEPCO did not even consider the risk of a complete blackout of the plant, and the regulators did not include such a scenario in their action plans in the event of an emergency. The Japanese government also did not take note of the warning from seismologists. The authorities even put pressure on experts, demanding that their forecasts be recognized as not entirely accurate and reliable. “If all the necessary countermeasures were taken based on our long-term forecast, many lives would be saved,” one of them, seismologist Kunihiko Shimazaki, lamented seven years after the nuclear power plant accident.
Naoto Kan, who served as the country’s prime minister in 2011, admitted a year after the accident that the disaster exposed a whole bunch of shortcomings and problems in the country’s nuclear energy. We were completely unprepared for 3/11. Not only from the point of view of technical means – our entire system at all levels was not prepared. This was the main problem around the same time a group of independent scientists released a report stating that the response of the authorities and TEPCO to the accident at the nuclear power plant was disastrously disastrous. Discussions of even critical measures like supplying seawater to cool reactors could drag on for hours. Also, normal communication was not established between the government, TEPCO top managers, and the NPP management, and bureaucratic obstacles only created unnecessary tension.
The Myth Of Absolute Security
The lack of preparation of the Japanese for an accident at a nuclear power plant is explained by the myth of the absolute safety of nuclear power. In the 1950s, when the country’s authorities first thought about building nuclear power plants, the memories of the horrors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in the memory of the country’s citizens – and therefore the use of nuclear technology, albeit for peaceful purposes, would inevitably face a barrage of criticism. and caused panic among the population. Then the supporters of nuclear energy from the political and business elite began to convince the public that nuclear power plants are completely safe.
In the end, they managed to persuade public opinion in their direction, but the myth of absolute security played a cruel joke with them – they themselves believed in it.
In pursuit of a new source of energy, the Japanese authorities “imported” American nuclear power plant projects. However, they did it completely without taking into account their own natural and seismic conditions. The accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was a direct consequence of this irresponsible approach.
The fact is that the initial design of the power plant from the American company General Electric took into account tornadoes that often happen in the United States. Because of this, emergency generators were located in basements. In Japan, tsunamis are much more common – as a result, they flooded the basements. And the generators that could have prevented the catastrophe were out of order.
In a sense, humanity was lucky during the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. By a lucky coincidence, a worst-case scenario was avoided, in which the catastrophe would reach the scale of Chernobyl, and radioactive emissions would continue for a whole year. Otherwise, the Fukushima exclusion zone would not stretch for 20-30 kilometers, but all 170 kilometers. The entire multi-million population of Tokyo, located only 220 kilometers from the nuclear power plant, would have to be evacuated.
The Long Road To Recovery
10 years after the disaster, Fukushima is gradually recovering. The authorities allow residents of the abandoned cities to return home, and they are already organizing tourist trips to the local exclusion zone, like the Chernobyl one. On March 25, 2021, the Olympic torch relay starts from the football stadium in Fukushima, where the liquidators of the accident were based until recently. Olympic baseball and softball competitions will take place just 70 kilometers from the emergency station. On Japanese shelves, you can increasingly find products from Fukushima, for example, a beer based on the premium variety of tomatoes for which the prefecture was famous before the disaster there is almost no trace of the former stigma.
Nevertheless, there are still cities in Fukushima, in which you can only be in the daytime and protective suits, and nature has taken its toll grass and trees have sprouted through the asphalt and concrete, and bears literally walk along the streets. I still hope to return to my homeland, although I know the chances are slim, sighs elderly Soichi Saito, who fled his hometown after the disaster. The government has assured us that the nuclear power plant will do us good. And when the accident happened, they didn’t know what to do. I’m sad. I am devastated.
But returning home is not always a joy. A decade of evacuation by residents has completely changed the way of life and the atmosphere in the coastal town of Namie, which was recently completely rebuilt after the tsunami. Masaru Kumakawa says that before the disaster, everyone literally knew each other, could invite a passer-by to dinner, and were not afraid to leave the doors to their houses open. Now people do not even know their neighbors by name.
Emiko Fujioka, who works with the victims of the disaster, says that many of them are still in dire need of financial and psychological help, but every year they are less and less remembered. “Fukushima will never be the same. As well as the people themselves, ”the woman admits.
Difficulties In Liquidation
According to the most conservative estimates, it will take decades to eliminate the consequences of the accident. The biggest challenge will be removing 800 tons of nuclear fuel from molten reactors. Initially, the authorities set a very ambitious goal: they wanted to extract all the fuel and decommission the station just 10 years after the accident – that is, just in 2021. However, high levels of radiation in the damaged power units forced them to reconsider their plans.
The new scheme implied that work on the extraction of fuel will begin by the end of 2021, and will be completed in 2041 or 2051. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, there was an overlap with the development of the necessary equipment in the UK, and the start of the operation had to be postponed for another year, until the end of 2022.
Nevertheless, experts emphasize: even the allocated deadlines may not be enough. The fact is that due to high levels of radiation, robots cannot get close to the fuel in two of the three damaged power units, and the technologies that would allow them to work in conditions of such strong radioactive contamination simply do not exist yet.
Also, specialists will need to remove over 1,500 fuel rods, which are now stored in special cooling pools. They pose the greatest danger: if during the next earthquake the structure is damaged or water splashes out of it, the rods can be exposed and begin to melt, releasing radioactive substances into the atmosphere.
However, there is a more pressing problem: in the summer of 2022, the Fukushima nuclear power plant will run out of storage tanks for radioactive water. The Japanese government proposed a rather ambiguous solution to the problem pours it into the ocean.
The authorities assure that the water will not pose any risk to human life and health. After purification in special ALPS installations, no radioactive elements remain in it, except for the “relatively harmless” isotope of tritium, which cannot be filtered.
The environmental organization Greenpeace disagrees with this. In their latest report, eco-activists warn that after cleaning radioactive water, in addition to tritium, another radioactive isotope, carbon-14, remains in it. It can lead to DNA damage, which in turn can lead to hereditary diseases. The half-life of carbon-14 is 5370 years.
Sean Bernie, author of the report and senior nuclear energy specialist at Greenpeace Germany, accused the Japanese authorities of deliberately covering up the true extent of the 2011 disaster. They deliberately kept the details of the radioactive material in the contaminated water secret for years and did not explain to the people of Fukushima, Japan, and neighboring countries such as South Korea and China that contaminated water discharged into the Pacific Ocean contains dangerous levels of carbon. 14, ”the activist said.
Local farmers and fishermen are also not happy with the state’s plans. After 10 years, they have just begun to move away from the consequences of the disaster, and the dumping of radioactive water into the ocean – even if it really turns out to be safe for humans – will cause such reputational damage to their products, after which many of them will not recover. The liquidation of the consequences of the accident is also complicated by the risk of a mega-earthquake near the station, comparable in power to the natural disaster of 2011
In April 2020, experts from the Japanese government warned of the “inevitability” of a magnitude 9 tremor in the north of the country. According to experts, they will provoke a tsunami, the height of which near the nuclear power plant may exceed 20 meters. In such a scenario, the 11-meter walls that TEPCO erected around the emergency station would not be enough, and the natural disaster would be disastrous.
TEPCO took note of the government’s report and promised to build walls 16 meters high, but only by 2023. But even a year has not passed, as in the area of Fukushima prefecture, there was a new powerful earthquake – with a magnitude of 7.1, more than a hundred people were injured. Fortunately, the tremors were not strong enough to provoke a powerful tsunami.
After the accident, all nuclear reactors in Japan were turned off – for the first time in 40 years, the country found itself without nuclear energy. Over time, most of them were returned to service, although the decisions were accompanied by protests from the population.
Immediately after the accident, a new supervisory authority was established, which introduced the world’s strictest safety rules” at all nuclear power plants in the country. However, discussions around the rejection of nuclear energy are still ongoing. Former prime minister Naoto Kan, once a proponent of nuclear power, found himself on the other side of the barricades after the accident. He calls on the current head of state to abandon the new energy policy, which only implies a further increase in the number of nuclear power plants. The government objected: Japan, poor in natural resources, simply cannot afford it. So the only way is to learn from mistakes.
Kennett Benedict a lecturer at the University of Chicago and a senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Policy believes that the main lesson of the disaster at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant was the realization of the perniciousness of the myth of the absolute safety of nuclear power. Whether it’s airplanes or dental x-rays, when we talk about technologies that shape our lives, there is no such thing as absolute safety the scientist notes. In nuclear power, no one is immune from human error, as happened in Chernobyl. And when a natural disaster is added to it, the consequences are unpredictable.