by Tom Chivers
Friday, 12
March 2021
Debate
16:46

The Fukushima ‘disaster’ was hardly worth the name

The reaction to it was the real catastrophe
by Tom Chivers
Satellite view of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power plant, 14 March 2011. Credit: Getty

The actual “disaster” part of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear “disaster” was not worthy of the name. It is absolutely astonishing to me that 10 years later, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which devastated coastal Japan is largely forgotten in the West. It killed more than 15,000 people, ruined whole cities, and rendered hundreds of thousands of people homeless. But I bet if you said the word “Tōhoku”, only a fraction of people would know what you’re talking about.

If you say “Fukushima”, on the other hand, everyone will know exactly what you meant. What they might not know, of course, is that there were no deaths directly attributable to Fukushima; it may have led to some detectable rise in cases of thyroid cancer, and the Japanese government attributed one lung cancer death to it later on, plus about 500 people died from the stress of the evacuation. Certainly it was nothing compared to the tsunami that caused it. 

The Fukushima “disaster” was hardly worth the name, at the time. But the reaction to it was a real disaster. Global use of nuclear power fell by about 200 terawatt-hours; about 15% of the world’s total. This had an immediate impact — the increased use of coal in Germany alone is estimated to have contributed to an extra 1,100 deaths from air pollution a year. Nuclear is astonishingly safe; if you used it to power a medium-sized city for 14 years, on average one person would die prematurely as a result. If you used coal instead, it would be more like 350; oil, around 280. If the 200 terawatt-hours lost after Fukushima were replaced solely with coal, it would mean about 6,000 extra deaths a year worldwide.

And climate change is predicted to kill about 1.5 million people a year per year by 2100. Higher-emissions forecasts have higher predicted death rates. If the post-Fukushima panic caused a permanent reduction that might have saved 1% of those deaths, that’s 15,000 a year, worldwide; five 9/11s, or whatever your preferred unit of measurement.

Nuclear power is scary; it seems unnatural somehow, in a way that burning the compressed remains of ancient plants in huge combustion engines apparently isn’t. But it is orders of magnitude safer, and contributes far less to global warming.

The use of nuclear power only got back to its 2010 peak in 2019. Fukushima panic put us years back in our battle against climate change. Even though in itself it hardly mattered at all, it may end up being the single most ruinous disaster of the 21st century.

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John Wilkes
John Wilkes
1 year ago

Couldn’t agree more. A few years ago there was a release of what was described as ‘dangerous nuclear material’ at Sellafield. The surrounding fields were described as being badly contaminated and lots of people were seen in hazmat suits on the news. It is true that levels were about twice the normal ‘safe levels’ for the area.
However, in places like Cornwall, Northumberland and Aberdeenshire the background levels experienced every day are higher than these ‘dangerous’ values.
Even the worst disaster seen at Chernobyl has caused deaths much lower than those at many coal mine disasters.
France has been generating around 75% of its power from nuclear for many years. We should be doing the same, with the balance being wind power.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  John Wilkes

I am buying uranium stock, my IRA (individual retirement account) is just now self directing as I believe the end of the fiat currency world is ending and my list I just drew up is KHC (heinz) 10%, WFC (Wells Fargo) 10%, DHT (oil, gas) 10%, DNN, CCJ, URG, (Uranium) each 10%, GDXJ (gold mine) 10%, Pall, (Pallidun ETF) 10%, SLV (Silver ETF) 10%, and the last 10% some odd thing as a gamble I will try to think of, maybe some Developing country ETF.

With 10% world electricity coming from uranium, 20% USA electricity, and every one building them (Arabia, India, China….) and the clean energy thing and carbon thing, and a 60% crash in the equities coming, well it all makes sense to me. Any advice?

David Bell
David Bell
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I’ve been waiting patiently for my Denison (DNN) and Cameco uranium stocks to recover since 2010. Looks like patience will be rewarded as they have at last begun to move upwards.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  John Wilkes

Correct, well done!

As the former High Guru of Green and author of the revered Gaia Hypothesis, but now Arch-Heretic, James Lovelock (101) said, the future is nuclear.

Last edited 1 year ago by Charles Stanhope
Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
1 year ago

As a result of a catastrophic triple reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on 11 March 2011, several tens of thousands of square kilometres in Fukushima Prefecture and wider Japan were contaminated with significant amounts of radioactive caesium and other radionuclides. 
Fukushima Nuclear Cleanup Is Just Beginning a Decade After Disaster Decommissioning target of 2051 in doubt because of difficulties removing molten reactor fuel—the technology does not exist currently to do so.

Ian Gribbin
Ian Gribbin
1 year ago

I was here in Tokyo when it happened. Most of the expat community here freaked out and jumped on planes at the first sign of trouble.
Yet, as we discovered from Chernobyl, the associated cancer and death rates are almost 1/100 of what our experts told us at the time. Indeed, even Panorama had done an expose several years before the disaster on how our forecasting of cancers from radiation is woeful.
As an example, counterintuitively, there are LESS cancers in US states where background radiation is 5-10x higher than the average. Same around the Black Sea as well where the background radiation is the highest in the world. It seems up to a certain threshold level some background radiation is actually good for you, in that your body builds up a resistance like it does to disease.
I’m a big supporter of nuclear energy, and have been waiting for an article like this to point out the benefits. There’s no way you can have EVs on the road without nuclear, or dozens of fossil fuel power stations.
Thanks to Tom for reminding the west of Fukushima – it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Gribbin
James Rowlands
James Rowlands
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

“ There’s no way you can have EVs on the road without nuclear, or dozens of fossil fuel power stations.”
Dozens of big ones in the UK. Tens of thousands minimum worldwide

David Bell
David Bell
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

I hadn’t seen your post before writing mine (above) but it seems we had similar experiences. Seeing so many gaijin panicking from the foreign media doomsday reports and heading lemming-like for the exits made me loath the foreign press and the way they manipulate public opinion. The feeling hasn’t gone away but nowadays it social media that is most manipulative.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Bell
Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 year ago

Good article. It’s frightening how an unholy alliance between “green” activists, who had a pathological hatred of nuclear power because they associated it with nuclear weapons and big oil, who were keen to eliminate a competitor, conspired to use junk science and scare stories to block new plants and close old ones even before Fukushima.

Even the most pessimistic estimates of the death toll from the much larger Chernobyl meltdown, which are highly likely to be incorrect, don’t even reach the level of statistical significance and so are undetectable. Verified deaths from the accident are less than 50 and yet the accident is viewed as an apocalyptic event in people’s psyche.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Yes, agree 100%. And the reaction, particularly that of Merkel, was indeed disastrous. It was at that point that I realised she was clueless.

Last edited 1 year ago by Fraser Bailey
Ian Gribbin
Ian Gribbin
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I dunno how she got a Physic PhD Fraser…….Germany’s dirty secret of which I am sure you are aware, is that has built more coal fired power stations in the last decade than the preceding 30 years….

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

She earned her PhD in the DDR (East Germany ).
Once a Communist, always a Communist.

William Murphy
William Murphy
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

Another dirty secret in East Germany is the contaminated land still existing after the careless disposal of nuclear waste in Communist days. It is still costing a small fortune to clean up.

David Bell
David Bell
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

And irony of ironies, Germany now relies on French nuclear power and insecure gas from Russia for its energy needs.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

She’s been elected for years, shaped Germany and the EU. Politicians of that level are rarely clueless (I’ll make an exception for the planted Teresa May). They’ll do what’s popular and good for them in the short term, or might be as simple as a bribe financial incentive.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

I don’t mean ‘clueless’ politically, I mean ‘clueless’ in terms of behaving or governing in a way that conforms with objective, scientific or historical reality. Of course these people will do whatever they will think will help in the next election or opinion poll. This is why everything they do is such a disaster.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago

A good article apart from the 1.5 million climate change deaths a year by 2100 gibberish.

Such an utterly pointless bit of data, 80 years away. I’m reminded not of the dire Covid modelling, but of the economists who in Jan 2020 confidently predicted GDP growth for 5 years and inflation in 2027 of 1.3%. Its pointless, there’s too many massive factors that will alter everything.

By 2100 I hope we’ll have fusion power, good factory produced food including meat, fusion power and advanced AI. Sure we might also have a nuclear war or political meltdown. Who knows, but drawing a line on a graph based on the current world is a funny mix of nieve depression and optimistic.

Last edited 1 year ago by LUKE LOZE
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

By 2100, by your wish list, you mean the ‘Matrix’ will be the reality with each hooked to their ecstasy generators and in a heightened sense of euphoria from birth to death. There could be 10 Trillion of us with the ideal you wish for.

Do you remember the dystopia SF story of a IT guy in a paperclip factory developing a super program to more efficiently make paperclips, a simple AI program? And a couple hundred years later, when every bit of matter in the solar system has been made into paperclips, the great machines and program head off to new solar systems to make them into paperclips?

William Murphy
William Murphy
1 year ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

These “scientific” predictions for what might be happening in 2100 have about as much credibility as the old Jehovah’s Witness forecasts. Can you imagine anyone on 1940 predicting what our problems might be in 2020?

n a
n a
1 year ago

Advocates of Nuclear rarely consider the energy it takes to get the stuff out of difficult to reach places (mining Uranium), or the fact that the radioactive metals needed are very scare. Coal is much more abundant.

Nor do we really consider the costs of rare earth metals in photovoltaic cells, or the huge amounts of concrete, steel, access roads, trucks etc needed to mantain wind farms.

And the industrial processing all these require. – Get rid of heavy industry in one country and it will simply be produced somewhere else. The demand stays the same.

I provide no solutions, just difficult questions.

Thank you.

Last edited 1 year ago by n a
LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago
Reply to  n a

With current mediocre nuclear energy Uranium gives roughly 16,000 times more energy per kg than coal. The issue is the potential danger in operation and handling of waste – not getting the material in the 1st place.

The solution is fusion power, which depending on who you ask is alchemy or just around the corner.

n a
n a
1 year ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

In terms of carbon emissions – getting the material in the first place isn’t ‘zero-carbon’. Especially from difficult-to-reach places.
Building power plants etc etc is not factored in either.

It is never factored into the equation as far as I know

You are right though – the handling of waste etc is an issue

I suspect nuclear fusion power is alchemy. What about cold-fusion, perhaps?

David Bell
David Bell
1 year ago

I was in Tokyo at the time of the Tohoku earthquake. The experience was unsettling to say the least but what was most astonishing was the scaremongering, mostly from foreign media (CNN and the like) that the capital was going to be enveloped in a radioactive cloud from Fukushima, around 180km to the northwest. Some internet research from reliable sources such as MIT put my mind at rest on that score and I stayed put but over 550,000 gaijin (foreigners) panicked and left the country, ironically most via Narita which is considerably closer to the stricken nuclear plant than central Tokyo. Of course, life carried on as normal in Japan with people going to work, shopping, etc. Never believe the media who revel in sensationalism and like nothing better than to stir up hysteria.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Bell
Pierre Pendre
Pierre Pendre
1 year ago

The only fatal failure of a nuclear plant was at Chernobyl which was built by the Soviets and maintained according to Soviet standards by the diligence of workers with a Soviet mentality. This was the system that built the supersonic Concordski that blew up at the Paris air show. The only failure at a nuclear plant in a proper country was at Three Mile Island in the United States which was contained. The accident at Fukushima was unforeseeable.

Jason Smith
Jason Smith
1 year ago

“The chance of the whole thing blowing up is tiny” actually begs the question “You mean there is any chance at all that it can blow up?” Surely we could make reactors which can’t explode?! In fact we can, but we have chosen not to. Even the latest UK power stations are not capable of surviving a so-called Total Loss of Coolant event.

Jimbob Jaimeson
Jimbob Jaimeson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jason Smith

Yet the waste issue is always an issue and is just growing https://ensia.com/features/radioactive-nuclear-waste-disposal/

Cynthia Neville
Cynthia Neville
1 year ago

A voice of calm reason.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago

Good point about relative risks from Nuclear vs Fossil fuels. But is there still the possibility we are discounting the (presumably very low) risk of a really catastrophic and widespread accident with massive release of radioactive materials, from a reactor or from containment of long term radioactive “spent” fuel? And the risks of potential military use of products of the fission reactions?

Is Chernobyl a worst case, or is this like the financial crisis where the worst risks are left out of the equation?

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul N
Danny K
Danny K
1 year ago

It seems callous to say a disaster which created a 311 square mile exclusion zone and forced the abandonment of whole cities was nothing much.

Jimbob Jaimeson
Jimbob Jaimeson
1 year ago
Reply to  Danny K

Yes. And although technically wrong, most of the world includes the tsunami in the “fukushima disaster”

David Bell
David Bell
1 year ago
Reply to  Danny K

Not cities, villages. Sendai to the north and Fukushima city itself were not evacuated.

Michael Hobson
Michael Hobson
1 year ago

A riveting, well written and moving account of the disaster is ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’ by Times journalist Richard Lloyd Parry.

Jeffrey Chongsathien
Jeffrey Chongsathien
1 year ago

A shame Tom failed to apply the same level of reason and insight to COVD19 during 2020.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeffrey Chongsathien
J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

I’m not convinced by this article, or maybe it’s that the title overstates the author’s argument.
It’s likely true that most people don’t remember the destruction caused by the tsunami that damaged the Fukushima power plant, and that relatively few people died as a direct result of the Fukushima explosion. But the site remains contaminated and there are on-going arguments in Japan about what to do with contaminated waste water at the plant (some favor dumping it into the ocean).
When a nuclear reactor explodes the resulting contamination is a problem for centuries to come. Fukushima was a limited example of that problem. Chernobyl was the more serious example and there’s now an elaborate ‘sarcophagus’ over the destroyed Chernobyl reactor designed to last at least a century (when a new one will have to be built).
Nuclear power plants don’t fail often, but when they do fail the results can be catastrophic and long-lasting.

Z
Z
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Those are good points, but we have to keep perspective. The degree to which our species or our industrialized economies are in danger from Chernobyl type accidents is pretty minimal – in the worst case, there could be a tiny fraction of total human occupied land made unusual for an extended period; that’s bad, but it’s unlikely to threaten our global civilization.
By contrast, climate change is promoted as an near certain existential threat, modern nuclear power is not comparable. It undermines the cause when some activist portrays climate change as so threatening that we need to turn society upside down for the sake of species survival – but it’s not bad enough to make use of nuclear power, which is one of the best tools in our kit.
Or we should not put solar arrays in the desert if it will harm the habitat of some threatened species. I’m 100% sympathetic to the concern, but if the climate change threat it taken as seriously as is being advocated, we cannot afford to as meticulous as we thought we could when everything seemed under control.
It may be laudable to protect a bird’s nest in the lifeboat from disruption when the ship is sailing along fine, but if the ship is starting to sink we need the flexibility of mind to reassess priorities and ready the lifeboat.
Nuclear power plus electric vehicles (and solar/wind), even taking into account all of the acknowledged downsides and risks, are perhaps our biggest ace in the hole – which a rational civilization would make use of in the face of that big a threat. We don’t have any harm-free options on the table, so we need to look to minimize *overall* global harm and risk, rather than making local harm elimination sacrosanct.

Todd Kreider
Todd Kreider
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Nobody died from the explosion at Fukushima. Two workers died when the tsunami rushed in and a third was killed when a crane toppled over him. There is no dangerous level of radiation except inside the sealed off plants and the water is completely harmless..

Mike H
Mike H
1 year ago
Reply to  Todd Kreider

Is the water harmless? I recall reading about them building frozen ice walls underground to stop the water leaking out.
Anyway, great article. Thanks to Tom. I had indeed forgotten about the tsunami and internalised the notion that Fukushima was a disaster. It is good to be corrected.

David Bell
David Bell
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The disposal of the Fukushima waste is a huge problem in terms of the massive cost involved. There was no danger to towns and cities, least of all Tokyo as the plant was by the sea and the prevailing wind at time (Spring) was towards the Pacific. In the event, the amount of airborne radiation leakage was minimal but residents of nearby towns and villages were evacuated and a huge cleanup operation carried out to remove contaminated soil.

Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
1 year ago

from the WSJ…
Fukushima Nuclear Cleanup Is Just Beginning a Decade After Disaster 
Decommissioning target of 2051 in doubt because of difficulties removing molten reactor fuel
As a result of a catastrophic triple reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on 11 March 2011, several tens of thousands of square kilometres in Fukushima Prefecture and wider Japan were contaminated with significant amounts of radioactive caesium and other radionuclides.1 The first Greenpeace radiation expert team arrived in Fukushima on 26 March 2011, and Greenpeace experts have since conducted 32 investigations into the radiological consequences of the disaster, the most recent in November 2020.

Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell
1 year ago
Reply to  Nun Yerbizness

The words Greenpeace and expert are mutually exclusive. Particularly where nuclear power is concerned

Simon Latham
Simon Latham
1 year ago

I was talking about just this with an educated environmentalist friend who had not revisited the subject since the original scare. It is good to hear this from Chivers, though he is sadly conformist when it comes to the IPCC’s pronouncements. Recent extreme winter weather, resulting from the Grand Solar Minimum, highlight the limitations of wind & solar power, as well as the nonsense of presuming that our modest CO2 emissions have anything more than a beneficial effect on our environment. Sun cycles are far more influential.