It’s five years since Japan’s Fukushima disaster, when the worst earthquake in the country’s history created an enormous tsunami which then impacted three active nuclear plants (and the spent, radioactive fuel from three other plants) located on the coast. This disaster led to Japan discontinuing its use of nuclear power to generate electricity, where previously it was getting about a third of its power that way. For the mineral-poor island nation, this has led to a huge hike in imported power, with skyrocketing electricity bills to match.
It’s strange to think about a country known for its electronics, its neon lights, its vibrant relationship with electricity, as having trouble generating enough electricity, but this is the sad reality. The real tragedy is that the disaster that led to this reality was completely avoidable. You’ll note that I mentioned how the nuclear plants were located on the coast during the biggest earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s history. In other words, those plants were simply in the wrong place, with their backup generators also in the wrong place (in the basement, first in line for flooding). It is a shame that Japan, and many countries beyond, have seen the reputation of nuclear suffer so much as a result of this accident.
You may have seen various bleak reports about radioactive ocean water and land around Fukushima, and you may have been misled that some of the deaths in 2011 were due to the nuclear reactor meltdowns. Let’s set the record straight. No one died as a result of the nuclear meltdowns. Two firefighters suffered second-degree radiation burns that healed quickly and are unlikely to cause them further trouble.
Serious efforts are underway to contain contaminated/radioactive water so it can be treated before being released back into the water cycle, and the area around the reactors has been evacuated indefinitely, forcing relocation of thousands. Treating radioactive water is obviously common sense, and evacuating the surrounding area is a prudent precaution. However, as these photos of Fukushima five years on show, plants and weeds are continuing to grow in the area; it’s nothing close to the wasteland that the media may have led you to believe.
As an aside, you might also notice solar panels in several of the photos; apparently, pre-Fukushima Japan boasted a diversified clean-energy portfolio, and solar panels were at best auxiliary to the more powerful and reliable nuclear. Advocacy groups like Greenpeace, who are encouraging Japan to focus entirely on wind and solar, should be aware of this.
Back to the wasteland concept. We shouldn’t expect the area around Fukushima to become a wasteland—not remotely so, given that peak radiation levels at Fukushima were less than a sixth of what was released at Chernobyl. Radiation scientist Andrew Karam, citing this report on Chernobyl in 2006 (20 years after their disaster), states that in fact the exclusion zone around Chernobyl is one of the richest ecosystems in Europe, partly because there are no humans present. If the animals are thriving, without the benefit of any kinds of protective technologies, if the weeds are growing in the abandoned Fukushima villages, “wasteland” doesn’t seem like an accurate description.
Karam’s article is worth a read for its clear-eyed and expert busting of prevailing myths about Fukushima’s aftermath. This is a professional scientist and expert in radiation who traveled to the area both soon after the disaster and more recently. To underscore his point that the levels of radioactivity are generally not a cause for concern, see also this press release regarding a marine scientist’s findings that marine life have been far less affected than was initially predicted.
Nuclear is still a young technology, and the rest of the world benefits from Japan’s experiences with it. Apparently, even a severe event like the one five years ago caused little more than superficial damage. Even Hiroshima is back to normal these days. Japan is also supremely well-placed to benefit from the technology. Instead of shying away from nuclear power, Japan should be carefully examining its geographical potentials and looking at where to situate its nuclear plants so that they are not in known earthquake/tsunami zones, and not too close to active volcanoes (like their Sendai plant is said to be) either.