Could Scientists Have Prevented the Fukushima Meltdown?
Understanding risk and responsibility after a nuclear disaster.
Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/AFP/Getty Images
Three-Eleven is what they call the disaster. On March 11, 2011, all hell broke loose when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the eastern coast of Japan. As if that weren’t enough, a massive tsunami followed about an hour later, churning over everything in its path for some 200 square miles.
Entire cities were lost. Some 16,000 people died. But it wasn’t over yet. The disaster would further its assault on locals and send chills down spines worldwide once the floodwaters receded and people realized the disaster that was unfolding in the seaside prefecture of Fukushima.
The tsunami topped a seawall and knocked out the power and backup generators at Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. That killed the pumps that bathed radioactive fuel rods in water and kept them from melting. The cores in three reactors melted down. Seawater was used for emergency cooling and was highly contaminated; unknown amounts escaped into the environment. The promise of safe, limitless power flickered around the world.
Before the disaster, about 600,000 people lived within 30 kilometers of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. By the end of March 2011, more than half of that population had been evacuated. Many will never return to their homes.
In October 2011, the Science Council of Japan organized a committee to rethink reconstruction with an eye toward the social responsibility of science and scientists. Little more than a year later, I visited Tokyo for a conference on the impact of Fukushima on the ocean and the future of nuclear power in Japan.
“Science and technology enable us to make more use of the natural environment,” said Takashi Onishi, a professor of engineering and current president of the Science Council of Japan. “Then, we have been bringing people closer to the danger that a natural disaster may cause.”
Standing before a conference room filled with jet-lagged international scientists and reporters, Onishi explained that seawalls intended to protect against tsunamis gave residents a false sense of security. In another time, would people have lived so close?
Some people have said that Japan should have known better. The earthquake and tsunami were unprecedented, but they weren’t out of the question. Others have accused the nuclear industry of being too friendly with their regulators.
There is a myth in Japan that nuclear power plants are so safe that to suggest safety improvements would be illogical, said Onishi. “[The accident] showed that nuclear power plants are not safe, although the myth of absolute safety of nuclear power plants has been dominating the policies of this country.”
Japan has a complicated history with the split atom. Forever scarred by the sinister side of nuclear fission, the island nation has also relied on nuclear power to build its economy.
The Fukushima accident caused political fallout. First came reports that Japan would try to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2040, the New York Times reported in September 2012. Similar talk of nuclear phase out took place in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. By December, the tide seemed to turn as Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, hinted at nuclear growth. Even after one of the worst accidents in nuclear history, Japan cannot give up nuclear power.
What is the responsibility of Japan’s scientists? To overcome the safety myth, scientists and policymakers need to strike a delicate balance of proximity and distance. This balance was lost in the case of Fukushima, said John Crowley, leader of UNESCO’s Social Dimensions of Global Environmental Change team.
“The experts were far too close to the decision makers … the expertise was not independent enough,” said Crowley. “If scientists are too far from the policy process, then science cannot meaningfully contribute to it, but if they are too close, then it distorts and perverts the science.”
Jessica Morrison is a Ph.D. candidate in civil and environmental engineering and earth sciences at the University of Notre Dame. She has written for the Chicago Tribune, Nature, and Scientific American.