by Tom Chivers
Friday, 12
March 2021

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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