Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis hits Japan
On the 11th March, 2011, an immense earthquake off the coast of northern Japan precipitated a large scale crisis, not only in terms of the ensuing tsunami, but also due to the events which unfolded over the following days in relation to a related nuclear fallout crisis at a series of nuclear plants at Fukushima, north of Tokyo. This third element of the crisis clearly had national, regional and international implications, entailing a rethink of the use of nuclear power around the world. In a report of this length, I can only hope to examine a few of the relevant factors and issues. My focus will be on the nuclear fallout issues, and a particularly ‘Japanese’ or Asian attitude towards these, rather than the impact of the actual tsunami. The debate about nuclear energy continues to rage in relation to a much heralded and already emerging world crisis of energy. The economic implications of NOT using nuclear energy are immense, not least for Japan, which post 2011, has suffered con-currently from economic recession and malaise. Recently, Japan has again opened one of its fifty nuclear reactors (In Ohi, 1st July, 2012).
Nuclear energy has always been controversial and it is, therefore, hard to find a view which is not either strongly for or strongly against the use of this energy source. In Japan, too, the only country in the world where nuclear bombs have been used, this kind of disaster has extreme connotations. The public has rallied strongly against nuclear power use since March 2011.
Soon after the disaster, Takashi Hirose wrote a best seller in Japan, entitled “Fukushima Meltdown” (2011). Hirose is stridently anti-nuclear power, but in a country which also experienced the devastating nuclear ravages of war, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is not surprising that voices such as his have been well regarded. 原発震災Genpatsu shinsai, (literally nuclear power plant earthquake disaster) is a word which a professor at Kobe University has used since the 1970s and Hirose has seized on this to describe what had occurred in Japan in 2011. Hirose is particularly pessimistic about nuclear energy, as can be seen from the following sample short section of his writings:
‘If you ask, “Will Japan still be here in ten years?”, I have the evil foreboding that he answer might be, “There is a very strong chance that it will not”….In the future there awaits an unknowable, vast dark age. I don’t want to contemplate its form, but it is the fear of a genpatsu shinsai syndrome brought about by movements of the earth that no human knowledge can control.
Today this evil foreboding has become a reality and is getting worse day by day…’ (Hirose, 2012, 15).
Despite the reach of voices such as Hirose’s, it seems that nuclear fallout will not prevent Japan from again using nuclear power.
The World Energy Council in March 2012 put out a report in regards to nuclear energy (Holloway, 2012). This report said that a number of Western powers have ceased their nuclear power development, but countries such as China and India are continuing to develop their facilities, though perhaps taking more care.
Unsurprisingly, plants were closed quickly after the disaster for cautionary reasons across China, Korea and Europe. One hundred and forty three nuclear plants are to be found in Europe, and it is not surprising that the news from Japan has had an immediate impact on nuclear development here.[i] As is widely known, Germany quickly decided to shut down its oldest reactors over a three month period, and to phase out all nuclear power by 2022. Germany itself has changed direction significantly, in this sense, with this disaster seen to represent the dangers of reliance on nuclear energy. At the same time, as I will note, other countries have not synonymously followed.
Prior to Fukushima, Japan was the third-largest provider of nuclear energy in the world, with a plan to increase to 53% of the world’s nuclear energy by 2030. This no longer appears to be the case, with a retraction in Japan from development. As already noted, Europe has also reduced development slightly. However, China and India look to continue future significant expansion in nuclear power development. These two nations will continue to add 197 and 64 reactors respectively (Holloway, 2012). Also, previous French president, President Sarkozy of France on 27th June, 2011, announced a 1.43 billion dollar investment of nuclear power, saying, “there is no alternative to nuclear energy today” (‘Fukushima fallout…’, 2011).
Figure 2 Energy Production, Kuo, 2011.
At the centre of the Japanese incident was an economic imperative to provide an energy source, as gas and coal fired energy sources dwindle (figure 2, Energy production). At the same time, risk management, which is a big industry in itself, did not provide a successful management strategy for a disaster such as the tsunami unleashed in March, 2011. To what extent was this the fault of the company, or the fault of government, for not regulating appropriately? Is this something which could only be expected to happen in Japan, or is it a potentiality in other places or in other Asian countries? An apposite question here is how groups involved can ensure that the economics and the safety features of energy production such as nuclear power plants are not mutually exclusive. Firstly then, it is worth considering the interest groups particularly close to this issue, and then to take a look at the evolution of events on the 11th March, 2011, especially in relation to Fukushima.
Representing the pro-nuclear power side of interest groups regarding this issue was the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), who managed the power plant. Tellingly, TEPCO, on the 28th February, prior to the disaster, submitted a report admitting falsified inspection and repair reports including 30 components of the nuclear plants (Kuo, 2011). Other interest groups included the Japanese government and the media, who had an interest in public safety and education. Economic concerns were also most probably also dominant in the government’s attempts to control the development of this issue. In a world where nuclear power is controversial, media interest was, however to prove to be significant to the development of this issue.
Hirose argued that the first piece of spin from TEPCO, the media and the government was the argument that the ongoing effects of nuclear fallout were unable to be predicted. More concise and scientific discussion may certainly have assisted in allaying the public’s fears. Also, Hirose (2012) believes that the media in conjunction with TEPCO, misled the public. For example, they overplayed, he says, how unnatural an event the tsunami itself was. He notes that although TEPCO argued that the tsunami of 2011 was of ‘unimaginable height’, at 38.9 metres at highest point, measured on Omoe Peninsula, Iwate prefecture, in fact, in 1896, a tsunami was observed in the same prefecture with a height of 38.2m. After the 1933 Showa Sanriku Earthquake, a height of 24.4m was measured and in 1993, a tsunami of more than 30m hit the Okushiri Island (Hirose, 2012, 30). Whilst the earthquake itself may have been an extremely rare event, considering its magnitude, the size of the waves was not unprecedented, or unimaginable.
At the same time, unsurprisingly, the media played up the nuclear aspect of the disaster. Adam Burgess (2011) noted that the story of the tsunami became a lesser story to that of the radiation from Fukushima, when he argued that in fact there were very few casualties of the nuclear radiation. In particular, in Japan, with the strong memories of the nuclear fallout following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, any nuclear catastrophe is sure to be feared greatly by the people. It is true, as well, that the international media made this a major focus of their reporting of the events in Japan.
The Unfolding of Events
The magnitude of the initial earthquake, which was centred about 130 km out to the Pacific Ocean, east of the city of Sendai, was 9.0 on the Richter scale. This would make it the fifth earthquake since 1900 of magnitude 9.0 or higher (USGS, Earthquake Hazards Program). Figure 1 from NASA shows a pre and post-tsunami image, graphically illustrating the reach of the tsunami, on the coastline of northern Japan, from Fukushima to northern Sendai. In this region, there was inundation of over four kilometres inland of sea waters. The waves which hit coastal settlements along the Japanese coast wielded significant damage and there will clearly be a long period of rebuilding necessary for those affected. The death toll was also high.
The initial unfolding of events on March 11th, 2011, was highly unpredictable. The earthquake released a tsunami which inflicted heavy damage on coastal communities north of Tokyo, in particular to the three prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate. On Friday afternoon, the world watched television images showing waves roaring inland in Japan and pushing aside heavy objects such as trucks as if they were toys (Fackler, 2011). The Japanese news media in the early days reported that the death toll could rise to be more than 1300 people. There was no electricity and no water for many people in shelters. Business reports of the impacts quickly estimated that 86418 businesses and 311934 employees had been impacted and 209 billion dollars’ worth of sales volume lost, across 715 industries (D&B, 2011 Impact Report). It is the ensuing nuclear fallout that I will now examine. It was thought by some commentators that even the megalopolis itself, Tokyo, might be forced to evacuate to escape such nuclear fallout.
Meltdown and social networking
Late on March 11, the news of a potential partial nuclear meltdown of a nuclear plant in Fukushima began to come through. In association with the three prongs of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, in the hours after the earthquake, 177 million tweets were sent, and 572000 new Twitter accounts were created (Tucker, 2011). In the end, three reactors experienced complete meltdown and several hydrogen explosions occurred in the subsequent days (Gioetta Kuo, 2011). It is possible that the social networking reaction is a particularly Japanese response. It is also likely to be true that this is a particularly twenty first century response to this kind of event. Rather than relying on news reports, and in a cynical attitude to the typical media forms, people used social networking such as ‘Twitter’, to keep themselves informed of developments. At the same time, of course, social networking itself may function in a reactionary way, responding to rumours and innuendo. Pragmatic use of social networking, though, enables networks of acquaintances, friends and colleagues to respond to urgent issues, quickly and effectively. In the case of nuclear fallout, these networks were able to provide a lot more information than other media, which is what people desired.
So what of the government response? The Kan administration, represented by Chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, was initially a frequent spokesperson for the government, but the government was itself reliant on the operator, TEPCO, or Tokyo Electric Power. At the same time, TEPCO is more recently reporting that the government handled things badly and did not make good decisions at the time.
In response to the crisis at the time, the Japanese government constantly revised guidelines regarding the nuclear fallout. As a result, a crisis of lacking public confidence became evident (and possibly drove more people to seek information from other sources, such as social networking). Tucker (2011) argues that to the government failed to predict some of the potential consequences of the disaster, such as the possibility of increasing radiation levels in local milk, vegetables and seawater and that Tokyo’s drinking water would also see a ‘radiation spike’.
When these things were reported by the media, without any prediction from TEPCO or the government, there was a resulting panic and concern. The Japanese government then moved to expand the evacuation area around the nuclear plant from 10 to 20 kilometres. Further implications of this uncertainty included the mass migration of expatriates out of Japan, and within Japan, as well as a huge fall in tourism for Japan. Many expatriate foreigners quickly removed themselves from Tokyo, to either a city further away, such as Osaka or even returning home overseas. The French government, ironically (in its support of nuclear energy power), promptly advised its citizens to leave Tokyo. At the same time, Japanese businesses suffered enormous blows, based upon the loss of business and of course the impacts of the tsunami’s physical devastation.
The likelihood of future radiation events
The nuclear radiation issue has been continuously monitored since the meltdown event. Like nuclear irradiation experienced in Chernobyl, the impact will continue to be monitored and it is likely to become clearer over the next 30 to 50 years. As for this accident, TEPCO is currently claiming that it was government ineptitude, rather than the company’s stance which caused considerable public confusion following the disaster (Hiroko Tabuchi, June, 2012). Currently too, as the government aims to reopen the first two reactors following the disaster, in Oi, some experts have called for a re-examination of the safety level of the plant, considering a fault line which lies beneath it.
In a world where nuclear power continues to be a reality, especially with its perceived efficiency, there is a need for checks to be held between the dangers of fallout and the economic advantages. However, the very ‘Japanese’ or ‘Asian’ response to the crisis of nuclear fallout in Japan included a lack of confidence in government assurances. The media was also mistrusted by the Japanese public and that was reflected in this case by the greater dependence of the public on twitter and other social media. Nuclear radiation continues to be a much misunderstood topic, and there is a need for a greater level of dialogue between both sides, nuclear proponents and anti-nuclear campaigners, for the sake of public safety. Whilst the nuclear industry has for many years argued for the safety of plants around the world, this incident belies that claim. It has caused the industry around the world to take breath and to re-evaluate.
Nevertheless, the economic imperative, with ongoing greenhouse implications of changing climate, also continues to impact this issue. There are, of course, conservationists who believe that nuclear energy has a great future. Nuclear energy continues to be seen as a cheap alternative to carbon rich energies. It is to be hoped that this incident would ensure that future development is appropriate and is not “Simpson-esque”, remembering the Springfield nuclear power plant in “The Simpsons” cartoon, which was mis-managed and accident prone. The memories of those in Japan will certainly limit the developments allowed by its government, whilst China and Korea and other Asian countries will likely continue down the nuclear energy track. At the same time, Australia continues to hold the line that any nuclear power is only used for scientific research, whilst selling uranium on a large scale to Asia. It is without doubt that the economic considerations must not overplay the importance of environmental and social impacts for the future.
Dun & Bradstreet, (April 5, 2011) Impact Report of Japan Earthquake and Tsunami: Preliminary Business Impact Analysis for High Impact Areas of Japan, D&B.
Burgess, Adam, (2011), ‘Fukushima Fixation: The Media Focus on Radiation Risk in Tsunami-stricken Japan’, European Journal of Risk Regulation; 2011, Vol. 2 Issue 2, p209-212, 4p, University of Kent, Canterbury.
Fackler, Martin, (12th March, 2011) ‘Japan Tsunami: Toll could rise to more than 1,300’, New York, The New York Times.
‘Fukushima Fallout fails to dim nuclear’s long-term prospects’, (2011), Power Engineering International 19 (8), 72-72, 74, 76. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com
Hirose, Takashi, (May, 2011), translated by Douglas Lummis, Fukushima Meltdown, Asahi Shinbun Publications, Tokyo: #298.
Holloway, James, (March 14th, 2012), “Despite Fukushima disaster, global nuclear power expansion continues”, accessed, June 12th, 2012, arstechnica.com, Scientific Method/Science and Exploration.
Kuo, Gioetta (2011), ‘Nuclear Energy after Fukushima’, World Future Review; Winter2011, Vol. 3 Issue 4, p35-37, 3p.
Tabuchi, Hiroko (June 20th, 2012), ‘Nuclear Operator in Japan exonerates itself after report’, New York Times, retrieved, 2nd July, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/world/asia/tepco-operator-of-fukushima-exonerates-itself-in-report.html?_r=2.
Tucker, P. (2011). ‘My first meltdown: Lessons from Fukushima’, The Futurist, 45 (4), 14-16., retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.
USGS, Earthquake Hazards Program, accessed, 2nd July, 2012, http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/.