Nuclear Power Issues: Fukushima Accident

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Ethical Implications of Fukushima Accident

The ethical dilemmas behind the Fukushima incident spread much further back than just their actions in response to the incident. After the Fukushima accident, the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) was formed with the task of investigating the causes, both direct and indirect, of the accident itself. Throughout the Fukushima-Daiichi Power Plant’s life, TEPCO had a general disregard for regulations and a dangerous lack of caring for the recommendations of experts. Studies found that in 1967 the construction plans for the isolation condenser deviated from the original plans that were submitted to the government in 1966 and were not reported, which violated regulations.

In 2012, when TEPCO was confronted with this, they failed to provide any official explanation as to why the deviation was made, and could only speculate as to the reasoning (Lilley, 2015). In 1976, members of TEPCO’s design staff resigned in protest of negligence due to the company repeatedly ignoring their warnings of major design failings. In 2002, the Japanese government received reports from GE, the contractor hired to design the reactor, which stated that the company had, “injected air into the containment vessel of Fukushima reactor Number 1 to artificially lower the rate of a leak (Lilley, 2015).” All of these shortcomings in the realm of safety present a path for the Fukushima-Daiichi Power Plant to follow on its way to disaster. Beyond just the cavalier way that TEPCO treated safety regulations, they also appear to have ignored reports from within their own company.

In December of 2011, TEPCO officials admitted that in 1991, one of the backup generators for Unit 1 failed after a corroded seawater cooling pipe had burst, flooding the generator. After the accident, superiors were informed and they were also warned about the potential for a tsunami to cause similar damage to the other generators that are near the sea (Lilley, 2015). Instead of raising the generators and moving them further form the water, TEPCO installed leak-proof doors in the generator rooms.

According to the reports form the NAIIC, “regulators and TEPCO were aware of the risk that a total loss of electricity at Fukushima Daiichi would occur if flooding from a tsunami were to reach the level of the site since 2006” (Lilley, 2015).” They were also aware that if a tsunami of over 10 meters were to hit the site, then they could lose their seawater pumps which could then result in reactor core damage. Despite all of this, TEPCO had taken no mitigating actions, nor was it instructed to do so by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The lack of interest in maintain the high safety standards required in the nuclear industry continued in 2008, when a study performed by the nuclear supervisory department at TEPCO concluded that there was a possible threat of tsunami waves over 10 meters tall and that there was an immediate need for improved seawater flooding protection.

However, TEPCO headquarters dismissed the risks as unrealistic and that despite the historical data, “there was a failure to imagine that such conditions would recur” (Lilley, 2015). In 2008 at a G8 Nuclear Safety and Security Group assembly, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presented concerns that Japan’s nuclear plants had an inability to withstand seismic activity, and that a serious threat was posed by a magnitude 7.0 or higher earthquake. All of this shows that TEPCO almost had a complete inability to critically assess its own preparedness in the face of possible natural disasters. In 2008, simulations were created showing the effects of an 1896 earthquake which generated waves between 8.4 and 10.2 meters which were capable of flooding the Fukushima-Daiichi site. TEPCO’s knowledge of this simulation was revealed in a report released by the Japanese government on October 2, 2011.

This report showed that TEPCO knew that there was a possibility of waves hitting their site that were well over the 5.7 meters that the plant was designed to withstand. Because the estimates were still tentative and in the research stage, TEPCO felt no need to act immediately on the threats that were spelled out, and therefore did not plan to have any Further studies by scientists or examinations of the plant’s tsunami resistance measures conducted before April 2011 and no mitigation was planned to be enacted before October 2012 (Lilley, 2015). This is in stark contrast to other companies’ accident prevention, such as Tokai Nuclear Power Plant, which raised its protective dike to 6.1 meters in response to simulations showing tsunami waves greater than previously estimated. This allowed that plant to remain safe, even with an unfinished dike, during the 2011 tsunami, where the dike protected two seawater pumps and emergency diesel generators.

Now with an understanding of the climate in which the TEPCO company was running its plants, we can start to explore their actions in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. After the tsunami hit the Fukushima-Daiichi plant and the site started to lose its safety systems, TEPCO was reluctant to inform anyone of the issues they were having. When the plant had an explosion at Unit 1, the Prime Minister of Japan only found out when he saw it on TV. Furthermore, in the days following the disaster, TEPCO provided only partial briefings, refused to answer questions at press conferences and when they did answer, the answers they gave were vague and full of delayed information.

Throughout, they preferred to apologize for the inconvenience they were causing, instead of keeping people apprised of the ongoing developments (Kaufmann and Penciakova, 2011). TEPCO’s prolonged disregard for the well being of its own plant shows a serious lapse in its mentality. Any company’s main responsibility is the safety of its workers and the general public. This responsibility is multiplied when speaking of nuclear power companies, not only because of the increased risk, but because of the public perception of nuclear power as a whole. The general public’s historic lack of understanding means that any mistake on the part of Nuclear Power Companies is magnified and used as a tentpole for the crusade against nuclear power.

Societal Impact of Fukushima Accident

In order to look at the societal impact of the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster, we are first going to look at the impacts on society of the release of nuclear material, the impact of the evacuations, and finally we will discuss the impacts on public opinion of nuclear power. One of, if not the biggest fear is the idea that a power plant undergoes any sort of major incident will devastate the surrounding area, making it unlivable for many years. According to World-Nuclear.org, after the accident, radionuclides were released from the cores of Units 1, 2 and 3 at Fukushima-Daiichi as a result of fuel, cladding, and Reactor Pressure Vessel (RPV) failure.

The radionuclides then were released to the environment by either controlled venting of the Primary Containment Vessel (PCV) or because of damage to the PCV and reactor building (RB). The main radionuclide that was released among the many that were, was Iodine-131, with a half-life of 8 days. The other, was caesium-134, with a half-life of 30 years. The issue with Cs-134 is that it is a strong gamma emitter that lasts such a long time. It is also soluble, which means that it can easily be ingested into the human body where it doesn’t tend to settle in any specific organ, but has a biological half-life of 70 days, so it stays inside the body for a long time.

When measuring the release of Cs-137 to assess the significance of atmospheric releases, an “iodine equivalent” figure is created by multiplying the Cs-134 figure by 40 and adding it to the I-131 number. The release of radiation into the air caused the evacuation of citizens to be extended to 20 km from the plant, where a criterion of 20 mSv/yr was applied. The initial estimate for release of radioactivity by the Japanese government was 770 Petabecquerel (I-131 equivalent), about 15% of the release at Chernobyl. By August 2011, that estimate was lowered to 570 PBq (World-Nuclear.org, 2018). The radioactivity released into the air eventually settled to the Earth, where it mixed in with the soil spreading outward from the Fukushima-Daiichi site.

According to an IAEA report, soil samples taken in the surrounding areas revealed radioactivity levels upwards of 5000 kBq/m2 in localized areas with that number rapidly lowering as the sample sites moved further out from the site (Jammal et al., 2015). The radioactivity released from the site saw an increase in the general background radiation of the surrounding area causing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of citizens. In Fukushima City, 65 km northwest of the site, radiation levels a month after the incident were measured to be 0.06 mSv/day which is roughly 60 times higher than normal, however it is important to note that this did not present a health risk. The elevated radiation levels led to the evacuation of an estimated 160,000 people.

Of these, half were under mandatory evacuation orders from the government because they were within a 20 km evacuation area (later to be raised to 30 km), while the rest left of their own accord (Fairlie, 2018). These evacuations took about 2 weeks, a delay caused by gridlocks along many of the Prefecture’s main roads. These were caused by a combination of poor road infrastructure and several accidents occurring along the roads. Public transportation during this period ceased, and the gridlocks were so bad that the emergency crews for Fukushima-Daiichi itself had to be flown in on helicopters just to respond to the accident. During the evacuations, many farmers refused to leave their farms and the animals on them. Some resorted to killing their own animals rather than leave them behind, and many then committed suicide (Fairlie, 2018).

More confusion was caused when schools attempted to send students home via bus while their parents were attempting to drive to the schools in order to pick up their kids to evacuate. All in all, the Japanese government concluded that nearly 2,000 people died from the effects of the evacuations (Fairlie, 2018). Immediately after the Fukushima accident, the response of the Japanese government was to step away from nuclear power completely. According to the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) this led to all but two of the operational reactors remaining in Japan to be taken offline as they went into regularly scheduled maintenance outages.

In 2012, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), a new independent agency, was established and with it came new stringent regulations that were put in place by 2013. The Japanese government stated that it was going to follow the judgement of the NRA and restart reactors as it was authorized to. However, it proved difficult to get the reactors restarted due to the new regulatory requirements, the cost of retrofitting old reactor plants to meet new safety requirements and the growing public distrust of nuclear power. All of these factors combined led to a shift in the energy production mindset of Japan, and there was a large increase in the amount of fossil fuels burned in order to make up for the approximately 30% of power generation that was originally provided by nuclear power. Because of this, there was a 9% increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 2012 and 2013 (OECD, 2017).

This step away from nuclear power continued until 2013, when Japan held a general election and a new government was formed. This new government released its Basic Energy Plan in 2014 and in 2015 a government plan for 20-22% of national electricity generation to come from nuclear power by 2030 was introduced (OECD, 2017). Several polls were taken in April and May of 2011 in order to assess whether the general population of Japan still supported nuclear power after the Fukushima accident. In April, around 50% of citizens polled supported maintain nuclear power at present or increased levels.

However, in May, those numbers lowered to just 40% while over 40% wanted its use decreased. By March of 2013, those in favor of maintain or increasing the use of nuclear power had fallen to 22%, while 53% wanted to decrease its use and 20% were in favor in abolishing the use of nuclear power altogether (world-nuclear.org, 2018). Around the world countries have had a diverse reaction to the Fukushima-Daiichi accident, however we will focus on the effects on the general populations trust of nuclear power. After the accident, many countries shut down their own nuclear power plants. For example, in Germany, eight nuclear reactors were shutdown with a pledge to shut down all remaining reactors by 2022 (Breidthardt, 2018).

In the United States, the Obama administration showed continued support for the development of nuclear technologies, however the private sector showed signs of being less certain. The energy company NRG Energy decided to abandon construction on two already started nuclear power plants in Texas, which may be attributed to the companies partnering with TEPCO, the low costs of energy in Texas and the expectation of permitting delays (Souder, 2011).

Stories like these are found throughout the world. Countries are either stepping back from developing nuclear power, or shutting down power plants in their prime out of fear of being the next Fukushima. Conclusion: The worst effects of the Fukushima-Daiichi incident were fully preventable in hind sight. Had the TEPCO company and Japan’s government held stricter regulations and paid more attention to the warnings and recommendations of experts, the bulk of the issues could have been avoided. Although natural disasters such as earthquakes are unavoidable, the effects can be mitigated with proper planning and incident prevention measures. The plant’s response to the earthquake was the perfect example of how, when everything is done right, nuclear power plants are some of the most resilient power plants we have.

However, the tsunami that followed made it the perfect example of just how poorly things can go when the proper mitigation and prevention actions are not taken. Had the warnings been listened to and acted on, the meltdowns at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant could have been avoided. The lack of care given in the years leading up to the disaster are a complete lapse in judgement and an example of what happens when a company takes for granted the trust that its workers and the general public hold in it. The Fukushima-Daiichi disaster was a step back for nuclear power in a world where its benefits have been questioned for decades.

Cite this paper

Nuclear Power Issues: Fukushima Accident. (2021, Nov 26). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/nuclear-power-issues-fukushima-accident/

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