Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the most severe nuclear incident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Following a catastrophic magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was heavily damaged, resulting in a plume of radioactive smoke leaking into the sky and surrounding areas. The plant still leaks to this day.
The contamination led to the evacuation of over 100,000 people from their homes and the disaster-linked death toll of 2,313 people. This number would have been much higher if it weren’t for the hundreds of firefighters, contractors, and military personnel that rushed to the scene to restore reactor cooling.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is a vast complex of 6 reactor units that are part of a larger plant involving many more reactors. Commissioned in 1971, the plant was one of the 15 largest nuclear plants in the world, with six boiling water reactors producing a combined 4.69 GW of power.
Despite its size, the Fukushima plant was thought to have significant risks of failure. Built on the East Coast of Japan, the reactors sat in a very seismically active region, with earthquakes being frequent in the area. Furthermore, there are media claims that TEPCO, who operated the reactors, were previously warned that the seawalls defending the plant were not sufficient to protect from a sizeable tsunami – but these warnings were ignored.
On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the shaking earth caused the loss of around 19,500 lives and between $198 billion to $309 billion worth of damage to houses and infrastructure. It is now regarded as the costliest natural disaster on record. The Fukushima plant fared well, but it was not prepared for what was to come.
Following the earthquake, a huge 15-meter (49.2-foot) high tsunami slammed into the East coast of Japan. The towering waves overcame the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant’s seawalls and crashed into the reactors, disabling the power supply (and therefore, the reactor cooling) of three reactor cores. Within a day, all three cores entered meltdown.
As radiation billowed from the reactors, well over 100,000 were forced from their homes in a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius area. An exclusion zone surrounding the plant remains to this day, with only a select few choosing to stay – including Sakae Kato, who continues to save pets left behind in the evacuation and vows to never leave.
Like the disasters before it, Fukushima leaves behind a stark legacy of the danger of ignorance when dealing with nuclear energy. In 2012, TEPCO finally admitted their failure to act on potential risks during their time operating the plant.
The impacts of the disaster are felt in previous residents still, as physician Masaharu Tsubokura points out. Studying the long-term effects of the nuclear incident on Fukushima residents, his work has uncovered harrowing implications, including increased deaths of the elderly from the evacuation, higher rates of disease, and more. Further analysis of the government's response found an increase in suicide in the evacuees, suggesting Fukushima's legacy extends far beyond radiation complications.
However, owing to poor compensation and government nervousness, many victims of the disaster have still never got the justice they deserve.
“In the case of Fukushima, a large amount of money has been paid out to victims, but remains inadequate,” said Annelise Riles, Executive Director of Robereta Buffet Institute for Global Affairs, in a statement.
“Many who suffered tremendous losses, but reside outside of the mandatory evacuation zone, have not been compensated. We need new, and much more inclusive nuclear disaster preparation processes involving careful deliberation over who deserves to be compensated in the wake of a nuclear disaster, and who should bear the costs.”