The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster turned out to be catastrophic—the earthquake, tsunami, and environmental devastation came together to cause explosions, radiation leaks, and the evacuation of 165,000 people. Even today, Japan seems to live in the shadow of the cataclysmic destruction.
A Natural Disaster
In March 2011, natural disasters namely the earthquake and tsunami, wreaked havoc at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on the Japanese coast north of Tokyo. The initial tremors were massive—around 9.0 on the Richter scale—followed by a wall of water over 130 feet high in some places.
The tsunami inundated over 200 square miles of coastline, reaching up to six miles inland. Some 20,000 people died, and a million buildings were destroyed. Among its impacts, the tsunami compromised the safety systems at the Fukushima plant.
The Incident at Fukushima
For a few brief moments on March 11, the nuclear plants in the Fukushima prefecture operated like engineering marvels. All 11 reactors survived the earthquake intact and began automatic shutdowns. But the reactors were not designed for the massive tsunami that struck minutes later.
The tidal wave overtopped the seawalls around the reactors, damaging the backup systems, battery power, and diesel generators. The seawater also destroyed the electrical equipment used to control and monitor the reactor.
As a result, workers lacked instrumentation and even lighting. And they had no standard way to cool the reactors’ fuel rods for a safe shutdown.
The plant’s emergency procedures simply didn’t allow for the possibility of a prolonged, total loss of power. So, the managers and workers had to improvise. They used fire hoses to pump seawater into the reactors in an attempt to cool them.
This helped stop the meltdown from spreading beyond the reactors to the pools of spent nuclear fuel. But it created huge pools of contaminated water—a different serious problem. And despite those efforts, hydrogen explosions damaged the containment structures of two additional reactors.
Now, because workers there had no emergency procedures for total power loss, the disaster is what the industry now calls a beyond-design-basis event. That means, ‘the system actually worked as designed, but the disaster exceeded our expectations’.
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Bad Decisions and Incompetent Leaders
The CEO, Shimizu Masataka, came through the crisis quite well, unlike hundreds of thousands of people in Fukushima prefecture—people who were forced to abandon their homes and the region.
Shimizu did resign as the CEO of TEPCO. But he was promptly appointed to the board of Fuji Oil, whose largest shareholder is TEPCO. The company’s cozy relationship with regulators made him somewhat immune from the consequences of his own bad decisions.
Critics of Japan’s nuclear power industry refer to it as a nuclear village. Similar to the residents of a small village, Japan’s government regulators and private companies are hostile to outsiders, and they cooperate to serve the interests of the village. But the interest of that village—in this case, the nuclear industry—are not necessarily those of Japan.
Japan’s prime minister at the time, Kan Naoto, had campaigned on shaking up institutions like TEPCO. The optics of Japanese leadership were terrible during the Fukushima crisis. The public saw the old guard as self-serving liars. And the nuclear village did what it does best: protect itself, even at the expense of public safety and trust.
Impact on Japan’s Power Industry
The scope of the disaster, and government mismanagement, opened the door for a resurgence of the Liberal Democratic Party, which won the December 2012 elections.
The Liberal Democratic Party went ahead with its plans to minimize alternatives to nuclear power. It eliminated the previous government’s subsidies for renewable energy, especially solar power. As a result, Japan has become more dependent on imported fossil fuels, especially natural gas but also coal.
Even a decade after Fukushima, the Japanese had no sensible plan to meet electricity demand while reducing greenhouse gases.
By the early 2020s, however, Japan was no longer a clear leader in green vehicles or green technologies. The government’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry did choose to promote hydrogen fuel cells. However, the whole hydrogen fuel cell plan really works only if Japan reopens those 50 shuttered nuclear plants.
So, the Japanese political establishment seems stuck as much as the country’s power industry.
Emerging Solo Society
Another area where Japan seems stuck after the Fukushima Nuclear disaster is its family policy. Japan has experienced population shrinkage since 2010. Its young people aren’t getting married. They aren’t starting families. They aren’t making enough children to keep the population from declining.
With Japan moving toward becoming a solo society, we can say that the impact of the nuclear disaster has been tremendous which can also be termed as ‘existential crisis’. There is a pervasive sense that Japan has lost its way and that it needs to change radically to recover its place in the world.
Common Questions about the Economic and Social Impact of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
In March 2011, natural disasters like an earthquake and a tsunami wreaked havoc at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on the Japanese coast north of Tokyo.
After it came to power that year, the Liberal Democratic Party went ahead with its plans to minimize alternatives to nuclear power. It eliminated the previous government’s subsidies for renewable energy, especially solar power. As a result, Japan has become more dependent on imported fossil fuels, especially natural gas but also coal. Even a decade after Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Japanese had no sensible plan to meet electricity demand while reducing greenhouse gases.
With Japan moving toward becoming a solo society, we can say that the impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster has been tremendous which can also be termed as an ‘existential crisis’. There is a pervasive sense that Japan has lost its way and that it needs to change radically to recover its place in the world.