Fukushima

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and releases of radioactive materials at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 201. It was the largest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

Almost 12 months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster began Greenpeace published a report called Lessons from Fukushima. The report is written by three independent experts (a nuclear physicist, a correspondent for a health publication and a nuclear engineer). It documents how the government, regulators and the nuclear industry enabled the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and then failed to protect the people from its impacts. Given that these failures are repeated wherever nuclear power is generated, means that millions who are in the shadow of reactors live with the risks of the next nuclear disaster.

The report argues that although the Great East Japan earthquake and the following tsunami triggered it, the key causes of the nuclear accident lie in the institutional failures of political influence and industry-led regulation. It was a failure of human institutions to acknowledge real reactor risks, a failure to establish and enforce appropriate nuclear safety standards and a failure to ultimately protect the public and the environment.

The accident has exposed the deep and systemic failure of the very institutions that are supposed to control nuclear power and protect people from its accidents. An unforeseen combination of technological failures, human errors or natural disasters at any one of the world’s reactors could lead to a reactor quickly getting out of control. In Fukushima, the multiple barriers that were engineered to keep radiation away from the environment and people failed rapidly. In less than 24 hours following the loss of cooling at the first Fukushima reactor, a major hydrogen explosion blew apart the last remaining barrier between massive amounts of radiation and the open air.

The nuclear industry kept saying that the probability of a major accident like Fukushima was very low. With more than 400 reactors operating worldwide, the probability of a reactor core meltdown would be in the order of one in 250 years. This assumption proves to be wrong. In fact, an observed frequency based on experience is higher: a significant nuclear accident has occurred approximately once every decade.

The “stress tests” carried out on reactors around the globe since the Fukushima disaster are evidence that nothing was learned from past failures. These tests just rubber-stamped existing reactors and justified continued operation. Only Germany decided for safety reasons, to promptly close eight of its 17 reactors. No other reactor in the world was declared unsafe and closed as a result of review following the Fukushima disaster.

Greenpeace published a report entitled Nuclear Stress Tests: Flaws, Blind Spots and Nuclear Complacency in June 2012. This found that:

“Little attention has been paid to multiple-reactor failure like that at Fukushima, or multi-installation failure, such as a communication breakdown likely in the chaos of a nuclear disaster. Multiple disaster scenarios that gave birth to the tests were omitted and most member states refused to analyse the consequences of airplane crashes leading either directly, or indirectly (planes crashing nearby) to nuclear disaster.”

Emergency Planning 

In Lessons from Fukushima, Professor David Boilley, chairman of the French Association ACRO, documents how even Japan, one of the most experienced and equipped countries when it comes to handling large-scale disasters, found that its emergency planning for a nuclear accident was not functional, and its evacuation process became chaotic, which lead to many people being unnecessarily exposed to radiation.

In the UK, following the publication and detailed recommendations made in the interim and final reports of the Office for Nuclear Regulation’s (ONR) analysis of the Fukushima incident, and its potential impact on the UK nuclear industry; the UK Government, the Nuclear Emergency Planning Liaison Group (NEPLG) and the ONR have been undertaking an extensive national nuclear emergency planning review. It is not clear when all these reviews will be finally completed.

See Nuclear Free Local Authorities Policy Briefing No.100 14th September 2012. The Fukushima disaster and UK nuclear emergency planning – the need for a fundamental change?

A detailed analysis of the Fukushima disaster can be found in NFLA Policy Briefing 83, Fukushima nuclear incident and the UK nuclear safety review, 1st June 2011

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Published: 26 October 2012
Last updated: 8 December 2012