GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 877, 18 April 2024

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, 13 Years Later: Energy Debate, Safety Concerns and Global Fallouts
Sayaka Gosh

On 11 March 2011, the Tohoku region of Japan was struck by a huge earthquake of 9.0 magnitude leaving regions like Sendai, Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi devastated. The systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant detected the earthquake to automatically shut down the reactors. The coolant was kept pumping around the cores that remained very hot even after a shutdown with the help of emergency diesel generators. A tsunami wave of 14 meters in height struck Fukushima and broke through the sea wall protecting the plant, resulting in the flooding of the plant and incapacitating the emergency generators. More than 15,000 people died, and an estimated 230,000 people were evacuated due to the disaster. The government spent around 300 billion USD for the reconstruction and revitalization of the Tohoku region.

The Nuclear Energy Debate in Japan 
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011 was a turning point for Japan’s nuclear energy and overall energy policy. Post Fukushima nuclear disaster, an NHK public survey showed that 85 per cent of the public worries about nuclear accidents in choosing the role of nuclear power in the energy mix to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050. Out of the 33 remaining commercial reactors, only nine have been approved for restarts under the post-Fukushima nuclear safety standards with only four operating compared to the 54 reactors working before the nuclear disaster. The restart of these reactors led to stricter safety standards. As part of the new safety procedure and the energy policy, the Economy and Industry Ministry drafted a plan to allow extensions every ten years for the reactors after 30 years of operation while at the same time permitting the subtraction of offline periods for calculating the reactors’ operational life. This plan was endorsed by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), however, new safety inspection rules are yet to be put into law and approved by the Parliament.

The Question of Nuclear Safety
Loss of public trust in nuclear safety is the biggest impact of the Fukushima accident. The government had to ensure that the trust was rebuilt over the question of safety. Based on such a shift in public opinion, the government under the Democratic Party of Japan in 2012 issued a new energy policy to phase out nuclear power by the end of 2030. However, the new government under the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) reversed its policy and still maintains nuclear power as an important power source. However, the loss of public trust has not been restored, and the majority of the public still believes that severe nuclear accidents could happen despite the new and much tougher nuclear safety regulation standards and establishment by the newly established, independent Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in 2012. The then newly elected Shinzo Abe government in the year 2014 adopted the new Strategy Energy Plan to reflect public opinions in energy policy decision-making where this plan would reduce dependence on nuclear power as well as still maintain its base power as a nuclear power.

As a result, displacement remains a concern. Around 40,000 people are still displaced by the disaster, and unable to return home to areas near the disaster-struck plants that are still off-limits due to radioactive contamination. 

The removal of melted nuclear fuel remains has become the top priority for the Japanese government as about 880 tonnes of highly radioactive melted nuclear fuel remains inside the three damaged reactors. TEPCO finalized the removal of the spent fuel rods from the cooling pool at the No. 4 reactor in 2014 and from the No. 3 reactor pool in 2021. It has planned to complete the removal of the rods from Fukushima Daiichi and Daiini pools by 2031, however, critics have stated that the 30-40-year cleanup target set by the government and the TEPCO is “overly optimistic”. 

IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) in 2023 approved the safety of the newly constructed release facility against the IAEA safety standards after publicly sharing the scientific findings on the removal process through the ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System) treatment. TEPCO also reported that the amount of tritium remained below the detection limit of 10 becquerels per litre. However, China disagrees with the IAEA’s accuracy of data on the contaminated water and the proper monitoring of this program.

Global Fallouts
Since 2011 the adverse effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster can be observed in many countries worldwide. Germany, less than three months after the accident, decided to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2022, where only six of the country’s 17 reactors are still working. Spain and Switzerland decided not to build any new nuclear plants post the Fukushima accident. However, several countries like China, and Russia improved their progress in the deployment of large-scale advanced reactors. Since 2013 many new countries have started working with the IAEA to explore nuclear energy for the first time to not only address climate change but also improve energy security and reduce the impact of volatile fuel prices in their countries. To achieve the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 many countries have turned towards nuclear energy even more so after the Fukushima accident.

IAEA predicted that nuclear power usage and capacity might double by 2050 or decline slightly below the present levels. The development of new energy policies and support through agreements like the Paris Agreement is required to facilitate nuclear power development. However, the fate of nuclear power plants in the US, Japan, and China remains unclear. Nuclear energy is not just a promise, but it is already helping to achieve a low-carbon economy. As further stated by Mr. Grossi, the Director-General of IAEA in 2020 “Nuclear power has a great deal to contribute as a part of clean, resilient, inclusive energy systems.”

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