Last Update: MAR 12, 2012 | The unfolding legacy of the Fukushima nuclear plant continues to shape international energy discussion. On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake, followed by a tsunami with waves over 120ft led to the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant suffering great damage; currently there are still 3 generators experiencing a level 7 meltdown. The literal and figurative fallout from the disaster has raised concerns about health risks and put Japan in a complicated position in general, yet it has also stoked discussion about nuclear energy’s viability in meeting ever-expanding global energy needs.
This case study will first consider the background of of the Fukushima plant and the domestic concerns in Japan, and then continue into the global ramifications of the event.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This case study is still in development; there are many details to be explored and checked. This page will continue to be updated as more data is processed.
Who administered the Power Plant?
What was the context of the Fukushima power plant’s origins?
Japan’s ten regional electric companies, including TEPCO, were established in 1951 with the end of the state-run electric industry regime for national wartime mobilization. In the 1950s, the company’s primary goal was to facilitate a rapid recovery from the infrastructure devastation of World War II. After the recovery period, the company had to expand its supply capacity to catch up with the country’s rapid economic growth by developing fossil fuel power plants and a more efficient transmission network. In the 1960s and 1970s, the company faced the challenges of increased environmental pollution and oil shocks. TEPCO began addressing environmental concerns through expansion of its LNG fueled power plant network as well as greater reliance on a ‘deal with the devil’- nuclear generation. The first nuclear unit at the Fukushima Dai-ichi (Fukushima I) nuclear power plant began operational generation on March 26, 1970. (Wikipedia)
General Description of Earthquake and Tsunami
The 2011 earthquake of the Pacific coast of Tōhoku (東北地方太平洋沖地震 Tōhoku-chihō Taiheiyō Oki Jishin?), also known as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the 311 Earthquake, was a magnitude 9.0 (Mw) undersea megathrust earthquake off the coast of Japan that occurred at 14:46 JST (05:46 UTC) on Friday, 11 March 2011, with the epicenter approximately 70 kilometres (43 mi) east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tōhoku and the hypocenter at an underwater depth of approximately 32 km (20 mi).It was the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan, and one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900. The earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres (133 ft) in Miyako in Tōhoku’s Iwate Prefecture, and which, in the Sendai area, travelled up to 10 km (6 mi) inland.The earthquake moved Honshu 2.4 m (8 ft) east and shifted the Earth on its axis by estimates of between 10 cm (4 in) and 25 cm (10 in).
The tsunami caused a number of nuclear accidents, primarily the ongoing level 7 meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, and the associated evacuation zones affecting hundreds of thousands of residents.Many electrical generators were taken down, and at least three nuclear reactors suffered explosions due to hydrogen gas that had built up within their outer containment buildings after cooling system failure. Residents within a 20 km (12 mi) radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and a 10 km (6.2 mi) radius of the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant were evacuated. In addition, the U.S. recommended that its citizens evacuate up to 80 km (50 mi) of the plant.
On 10 March 2012, a Japanese National Police Agency report confirmed 15,854 deaths, 9,677 injured, and 3,155 people missing across eighteen prefectures, as well as 129,107 buildings totally collapsed, with a further 254,139 buildings ‘half collapsed’, and another 365,750 buildings partially damaged. The earthquake and tsunami also caused extensive and severe structural damage in north-eastern Japan, including heavy damage to roads and railways as well as fires in many areas, and a dam collapse. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said, “In the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan.” Around 4.4 million households in northeastern Japan were left without electricity and 1.5 million without water.
Early estimates placed insured losses from the earthquake alone at US$14.5 to $34.6 billion. The Bank of Japan offered ¥15 trillion (US$183 billion) to the banking system on 14 March in an effort to normalize market conditions. The World Bank’s estimated economic cost was US$235 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in world history.[Wikipedia]
What caused the meltdown?
There is still some dispute about what actually caused the meltdown. One of the most popular stories has been that the plant survived the earthquake, but the rush of water from the tsunami disabled the cooling mechanism designed to prevent a meltdown. But controversy remains:
The Atlantic Wire, in an article entitled “Meltdown: What Really Happened at Fukushima?” by Jake Adelstein and David McNeill, reports — based on interviews with eyewitnesses, as well as a careful review of the catastrophe’s timeline and even documented admissions made by Tokyo Electric Power Company itself – that major damage to piping and other safety significant structures at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 — the oldest reactor at the site — may very well have begun the first meltdown, even before the tsunami hit. The article reports:
“The reason for official reluctance to admit that the earthquake did direct structural damage to reactor one is obvious. Katsunobu Onda, author of TEPCO: The Dark Empire, who sounded the alarm about the firm in his 2007 book explains it this way: ‘If TEPCO and the government of Japan admit an earthquake can do direct damage to the reactor, this raises suspicions about the safety of every reactor they run. They are using a number of antiquated reactors that have the same systematic problems, the same wear and tear on the piping.‘ “
An employee states that the state emergency plans, at least as per 2009, did not involve pumping in sea water.
Tooru Hasuike, a Tepco employee from 1977 until 2009 and former general safety manager of the Fukushima plant, says: “The emergency plans for a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant had no mention of using seawater to cool the core. To pump seawater into the core is to destroy the reactor. The only reason you’d do that is no other water or coolant was available.”
Former Prime Minister of Japan Naoto Kan, a year after the event, expresses a lack of foresight:
“If they had thought about it, they wouldn’t have intentionally built it at a place so low,” said Kan. “The plant was built on the assumption that there was no need to anticipate a major tsunami, and that’s the very beginning of the problem.” Naoto Kan, Ex-Prime Minister: Japan Was Unprepared For Fukushima Nuclear Crisis
EDITOR’S NOTE: In an energy course I was taking at the time, the conclusion was that the Tsunami was the actual cause of the meltdown because of its disruption of various containment and cooling mechanisms. However, this conclusion was based on evidence in the few weeks directly after March 11, and the argument may not hold given current information.
Further Reading On Cause of Meltdown:
- Initial location: “The plant was built on the assumption that there was no need to anticipate a major tsunami, and that’s the very beginning of the problem” – Naoto Kan
- Regulations and safety inspections: Planning apparently only accounted for tsunami wave height of less than 5.7 meters (height of the seawall). Internal report in 2007 cautions against tsunamis more powerful than anticipated. International Atomic Energy Agency warned in 2008 about not being prepared for higher waves and additional threats from earthquakes.
- 9.0 Earthquake
- Tsunami of 13-15 meters in top wave height
The radiological and psychological consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – Frank N. von Hippel)
ABSTRACT: The release of radioactivity into the atmosphere from the Fukushima Daiichi accident has been estimated by Japan’s government as about one-tenth of that from the Chernobyl accident. The area in Japan contaminated with cesium-137—at the same levels that caused evacuation around Chernobyl—is also about one-tenth as large. The estimated number of resulting cancer deaths in the Fukushima area from contamination due to more than 1 curie per square kilometer is likely to scale correspondingly—on the order of 1,000. On March 16, 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advised Americans in the region to evacuate out to 50 miles (NRC 2011a). If the Japanese government had made the same recommendation to its citizens, it would have resulted in the early evacuation of about two million people instead of 130,000. Because contaminated milk was interdicted in Japan, the number of (mostly non-fatal) thyroid cancer cases will probably be less than 1 percent of similar cases in Chernobyl. Unless properly dealt with, however, fear of ionizing radiation could have long-term psychological effects on a large portion of the population in the contaminated areas.
Naoto Kan, Ex-Prime Minister: Japan Was Unprepared For Fukushima Nuclear Crisis (FEB 22, 2012) Since the crisis, Japan has decided to lower its reliance on nuclear power, reversing its plans to boost it to 50 percent by 2030. Most of its 54 reactors are currently offline, most of them undergoing safety inspections. Kan said there is no future for nuclear energy, considering the magnitude of the damage from an accident and the yet-to-be resolved question of what to do with radioactive waste. “I wouldn’t call myself anti-nuclear,” Kan said. “I seek a society non-reliant on nuclear energy, a society that can do without nuclear energy, and Japan can prove a role model. It’s possible.”
Estimates fall between 235-300 billion USD$ for the total cost of the event, ranking as the world’s most expensive natural disaster according to AccuWeather (March 2011)
1. Earthquake and tsunami, Japan (2011) Cost: $235 billion (by the World Bank)
So far, 8,649 people have been confirmed dead and another 13,262 are missing since the 9.0-magnitude quake struck off the coast near Sendai, Japan, on March 11, 2011. The degree of damage caused by the earthquake and resulting tsunami was enormous. Videos show that almost no parts of any structures were left standing in the worst affected areas. Failure of the cooling system at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant intensified the situation, resulting in evacuation of about 200,000 people residing around the plant.
The World Bank on March 21 said that damage might reach $235 billion, while Japan’s government had a higher estimate of $309 billion. The damage estimate could go even higher as it does not include losses in economic activity from planned power outages or the broader impact of the nuclear crisis, making the disaster world’s most expensive on record.
Questions concerning Japan adequately updating safety procedures
In Japan’s recalibration of its energy system, XXX power plants are being inspected. There are concerns, however, that lessons from Fukushima’s meltdown are not being applied to the reviewing process.
Failings in the first days of the disaster as reactor buildings exploded and the fuel cores melted were also highlighted [the Feb 15, 2012] hearing. [...] The Diet inquiry is the first investigation into the disaster with powers of subpoena and includes critics of the government, the regulators and Tepco. The investigation is going on as NISA reviews so-called stress tests to check on the safety of the country’s 54 nuclear reactors. Those checks have been criticized by the agency’s own advisers for disregarding the lessons of the catastrophe.
“The safety review system used before the Fukushima accident was wrong,” Hiromitsu Ino, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo who serves on NISA’s stress-test committee said in January. “The same system is being used for the current stress tests without taking into consideration the causes of the Fukushima accident.”
Ino’s views were echoed by Kazuhiko Kudo, a research professor of nuclear engineering at Kyushu University, who said stress tests are computer simulations to assess how strong a plant is and they don’t reflect the lessons from the Fukushima accident. “It’s wrong to use the stress-test results as a measure to judge whether to restart idled reactors,” said Kudo. [Nuclear Safety Chief Says Lax Rules Led to Fukushima Crisis - BusinessWeek]
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Fukushima I Nuclear Plant Timeline
Construction of Fukushima I Nuclear Plant begins, by Kajima, a Japanese construction company.
MAR26 Fukushima I-1, the first reactor, goes into commercial operation. Reactors 1-3 supplied by General Electric
When Tokyo Electric President Masataka Shimizu apologised to the people of Japan for the continuing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant he called the double disaster “marvels of nature . that we have never experienced before”.
But a review of company and regulatory records shows that Japan and its largest utility repeatedly downplayed dangers and ignored warnings — including a 2007 tsunami study from Tokyo Electric Power Co’s senior safety engineer.
“We still have the possibilities that the tsunami height exceeds the determined design height due to the uncertainties regarding the tsunami phenomenon,” Tokyo Electric researchers said in a report reviewed by Reuters.
The research paper concluded that there was a roughly 10 percent chance that a tsunami could test or overrun the defenses of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant within a 50-year span based on the most conservative assumptions.
But Tokyo Electric did nothing to change its safety planning based on that study, which was presented at a nuclear engineering conference in Miami in July 2007.
??/?? International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned Japan over nuclear quake risk: WikiLeaks – Indian Express
[Date and Primary Source Search Still Underway...]
An IAEA expert expressed concern that the Japanese reactors were only designed to withstand magnitude 7.0 tremors, according to a December 2008 US diplomatic cable obtained by the WikiLeaks website, Telegraph reported.
The IAEA official told a meeting of the G8′s Nuclear Safety and Security Group in Tokyo in 2008 that Japan’s safety guidelines were outdated, the cable said.
“He (the IAEA official) explained that safety guides for seismic safety have only been revised three times in the last 35 years and that the IAEA is now re-examining them,” it added.
“Also, the presenter noted recent earthquakes in some cases have exceeded the design basis for some nuclear plants, and that this is a serious problem that is now driving seismic safety work,” it added.
FEB28 TEPCO submitted a report to the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency admitting that the company had previously submitted fake inspection and repair reports. The report revealed that TEPCO failed to inspect more than 30 technical components of the six reactors, including power boards for the reactor’s temperature control valves, as well as components of cooling systems such as water pump motors and emergency power diesel generators
MAR11 JAPAN SUFFERS 9.0 EARTHQUAKE ~50 MILES OFFSHORE
The earthquake was followed by a 13–15 m (43–49 ft) maximum height tsunami arriving approximately 50 minutes later which topped the plant’s 5.7 m (19 ft) seawall, flooding the basement of the Turbine Buildings and disabling the emergency diesel generators located there at approximately 15:41. (Wiki)
APR04 TEPCO vice president Takashi Fujimoto announced that the company was canceling plans to build Reactors No. 7 and 8
MAY20 TEPCO’s board of directors’ officially voted to decommission Units 1 through 4 of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and to cancel plans to build units 7 and 8. It refused however to make a decision regarding units 5 and 6 of the station or units 1 to 4 of the Fukushima Daini nuclear power station until a detailed investigation is made. It said in the interim it will work to preserve these reactors in the state of cold shutdown.
SEPTEMBER The radiological and psychological consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
NOV28 Fukushima No. 1 tsunami risk ignored | The Japan Times Online Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s nuclear facility management department did not heed the risk of a massive tsunami striking near the Fukushima No. 1 power plant after it was projected in an in-house study in 2008, and ruled out an immediate need to bolster defenses against the sea, Tepco sources said.
FEB16 Nuclear Safety Chief Says Lax Rules Led to Fukushima Crisis – BusinessWeek | Japan’s atomic safety rules are inferior to global standards and left the country unprepared for the Fukushima nuclear disaster last March, the country’s top nuclear regulator told a parliamentary investigation. “The root of the problem lies in the fact that, when other countries implement changes, Japan spends time making excuses as to why we don’t have to follow,” Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame told the inquiry yesterday in the parliamentary annex building in central Tokyo. …
… The investigation is going on as NISA reviews so-called stress tests to check on the safety of the country’s 54 nuclear reactors. Those checks have been criticized by the agency’s own advisers for disregarding the lessons of the catastrophe. “The safety review system used before the Fukushima accident was wrong,” Hiromitsu Ino, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo who serves on NISA’s stress-test committee said in January. “The same system is being used for the current stress tests without taking into consideration the causes of the Fukushima accident.” …
MAR11 (One Year Anniversary)
– TEPCO: A Message from TEPCO President Toshio Nishizawa marking the First Year since the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Accident
Jesse Parent studied International Relations at SUNY Geneseo and is studying STEM in preparation for a Nanoscience degree. His research focuses on Energy, Technology, Resources, Geopolitics, and Sustainability. For more of Jesse’s thoughts throughout the week and to see what news he’s following, you are invited to join the conversation via Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr. Visit INFLUENCE with Jesse Parent to view Case Studies, Reports, Editorials and more.