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Essay: Lessons from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster

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  • Subject area(s): History essays
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  • Published: 19 November 2019*
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  • Words: 1,671 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 7 (approx)
  • Tags: Nuclear energy

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Nuclear energy is considered to be one of the most environmentally friendly forms of energy available today. Nuclear energy emits fewer greenhouse gases than traditional sources of electricity such as coal. While nuclear energy is environmentally friendly, there are many dangers associated with it. Nuclear waste is extremely radioactive and can cause damage to the environment in which it is produced or disposed of. Nuclear accidents have catastrophic effects not only on the area in which they occur, but also on a global scale. On March 11, 2011, the most catastrophic nuclear event since Chernobyl occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Large quantities of radioactive material were released into the environment, making the land uninhabitable and forcing residents to relocate. Following the disaster at Fukushima, public sentiment toward nuclear energy became increasingly negative. Investigations conducted on the events at Fukushima raised ethics and safety concerns of the engineering of the nuclear power plant and of the preparation and handling of such disasters.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Fukushima. Following the earthquake, the electricity producing nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant immediately shut down there sustained fission reactions by inserting control rods into the reactor core, a legally mandated safety procedure known as the “safety control rod axe man” (SCRAM). Emergency diesel generators then activated, as designed, to operate the electronics and cooling systems for the nuclear reactors. However, the Tōhoku earthquake was the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and triggered a tsunami within an hour of the earthquake. The 14 meter tsunami struck the Fukushima Power Plant, flooding the entire area and disabling the emergency diesel generators. In the days following the earthquake and tsunami, the nuclear reactors at the plant were not able to cool down their cores. Without the ability to cool down, water in the reactors’ pressure vessels boiled, uncovering corium, the molten nuclear fuel, and causing the reactors to completely melt down [1]. The meltdown of the reactors allowed the radioactive nuclear fuel to escape into the environment, making the area unsafe and forcing the relocation of hundreds of thousands of residents.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster is considered to be the most significant nuclear event since Chernobyl. Fukushima and Chernobyl are the only two nuclear disasters to receive a level 7 classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), the highest classification attainable [2].

Leading up to the Fukushima Disaster, the nuclear industry was making a comeback and public perception of nuclear energy was becoming more positive since the events at Chernobyl. Many governments and industries were stating that nuclear energy was inevitable for the future. For example, the UK government released a statement proclaiming the multiple benefits of embracing nuclear as an energy source: “Nuclear power is low-carbon, economic, dependable, safe and capable of increasing diversity of energy supply and reducing our dependence on any one technology or country for our energy or fuel supplies” [3]. However, the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant quickly turned the sentiment around.

At first glance, the Fukushima Disaster seems to be different from other nuclear accidents in that the plant was hit by two natural disasters in quick succession, causing a chain of events leading to the meltdown of the reactors and release of radioactive materials. Many could say that this was just a stroke of bad luck and that using nuclear as an energy source is inherently risky. However, investigations conducted following the Fukushima Disaster have brought forth evidence that the disaster could have been prevented. Reports show that the disaster was a result of the engineers of the plant, the Japanese government, and nuclear regulatory agencies failing to uphold international best practices and standards [4].

According to the engineers at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company that designed and maintained the nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi was only designed to withstand tsunamis up to 5.7 meters [5]. However, the region of Japan in which the power plant had a history of being struck by large tsunamis. Given this information, engineers of the plant should have made proper accommodations for natural disasters. The engineers could have moved structures to higher ground or incorporated watertight bunkers to house the emergency generators. By failing to take proper safety precautions, TEPCO violated fundamental canon 1 of the NSPE Code of Ethics, which states that engineers must “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” [6].

During and immediately following the disaster, there were many incidences that violated the code of ethics. The System for Prediction of Environment Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) is a computer-based system that performs real-time assessments during radiological emergencies, which then streams the information to a network. During the Fukushima disaster, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency, and TEPCO sent SPEEDI data to the Japanese prefectural government, but did not share it with anyone else. Investigations done following the disaster showed that these groups did not maintain key documentation during the disaster [7]. Emails between TEPCO, NISA, and the Japanese government that held important information regarding safety protocols were not read and were deleted. Failure to maintain proper documentation or deleting the documentation is a violation of canons 5 and 6 of the NSPE code of ethics. Canons 5 and 6 state that engineers shall “avoid deceptive acts” and “conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession” [6].

While giving press conferences and public statements regarding the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government and TEPCO officials stated that the possibility of large tsunamis in the region was not established knowledge, and they should not be held liable for a 14 meter tsunami [8]. The government also noted that they only gained regulatory power to force TEPCO to update the power plant to international best standards after the disaster had already occurred. The president of TEPCO at the time of Fukushima instructed employees not to use panic-inducing phrases such as “core meltdown” when addressing the public and the government also softened their language regarding the incident [9]. Canon 3 of the NSPE Code of Ethics states that “engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner” [6]. By refraining from using certain phrases and softening their language, those involved in the Fukushima Disaster withheld pertinent and relevant information, therefore violating the third canon.

The effects of the Fukushima Disaster can be seen on a global scale. The disaster not only affected the lives of workers at the plant and the hundreds of thousands of people living in the area, it also affected the natural environment and economic situation in Japan. Globally, Fukushima spurred debates on nuclear energy and related political policies.

Although there were no deaths or casualties directly linked to the nuclear reactor meltdowns, the earthquake and tsunami that preceded the Fukushima disaster took the lives of nearly 15,000 people, and nearly 500,000 people had to be evacuated from the area during the chain of disasters [10]. Even to this day, many of the original residents of the area are fearful to return to their homes. The 30 kilometer zone around the Fukushima Power Plant still poses a radiation hazard, and it has been found that long term exposure to low levels of radiation can be a factor in developing cancer or other health problems [11].

The water that flooded Fukushima Daiichi was contaminated with nuclear materials. Treatment to remove contamination from the water was very expensive and not completely successful. Trace amounts of tritium remained in the water and despite efforts to prevent it, some contaminated water did make it back into the ocean [12]. In April 2014, scientists confirmed the presence of tuna fish with small amounts of radiation from the Fukushima Disaster [13]. The price of agricultural products in Japan decreased by as much as 50%, and citizens from around the world have been shown to avoid Japanese products due to the nuclear disaster [14].

The disaster at Fukushima reignited debates about the future of nuclear energy across the globe. In response to Fukushima, many countries averted their resources from nuclear energy to other sources such as solar or wind [15]. Stricter safety standards and new forms of nuclear regulations were implemented internationally. The Japanese government also began an initiative to further educate its’ citizens on the impacts of radiation and nuclear materials [16].

At the time of the disaster, the Japanese government was pushing a nuclear agenda. TEPCO and the NISA lacked independence from government and felt the need to comply with their agenda. Engineers of the plant and regulatory officials were aware of the risks associated with the design of the plant. They were aware of the possibility of a complete electrical outage and reactor core damage if a large tsunami were to hit the plant, yet none of the parties involved had prepared any safety protocols or precautions in case of a natural disaster [17]. Advancements in nuclear technologies in countries outside of Japan had progressed much faster than developments within Japan. While the Fukushima power plant was up to date in accordance to Japanese nuclear standards, it did not comply with the international standards. Standards in Japan were falling behind because Japanese nuclear regulatory agencies “had a negative attitude toward importation of new advances in knowledge and technology from overseas” [17]. According to TEPCO, updating the plant to international standards would have interfered with plant operations, which they believed to be a good enough reason to delay incorporating new safety regulations [17]. In October 2012, TEPCO officials admitted that they did not take stronger safety precautions or adopt new regulations because they feared potential lawsuits and public backlash against their nuclear plants [18].

The Japanese government, nuclear regulatory agencies, and TEPCO failed to uphold the best interests of the public before, during, and after the Fukushima disaster, violating nearly every canon of the NSPE code of ethics.

While the earthquake and tsunami were the direct causes of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster, the disaster should be considered man-made. The events that caused the disaster were all foreseeable. The groups associated with the plant acted unethically and failed to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

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