It’s been five years since a massive 2011 earthquake hit Japan, including a devastating tsunami that led to the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
So, where stands the aftermath of the power plant disaster? Has the crisis subsided? Or has official Japan — as so often happens — papered over lingering problems with news reports that insist, “No one was killed by radiation, because levels outside the plant itself were too low”?
More important, what lessons, if any, have we learned?
EE Times, five years ago, published a special digital edition, entitled “The Day the Lights Went Out in Japan.”
Click here to download the digital edition.
Click here to download a PDF.
The issue, focused on the worldwide impact of Japan’s devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck with little warning on March 11, 2011, was a comprehensive examination of the impact of an unprecedented natural disaster on Japan, its people, its technology sector and the world.
Now, five years later, we've followed up on the issue by scouring the Japanese media and government reports issued in recent months.
We also talked to Prof. Rodney Ewing, earth scientist at Stanford University, and chair of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. In addition to the lessons we’ve learned from the disaster, we asked him specifically, where the so-called experts have gone wrong (and if they could still go wrong) when it comes to risk or safety assessments in the science and engineering world.
Risk analysis, a methodology well established, is “very good at capturing rare natural disasters,” Ewing said, but it could also lead to “complacency,” he said, if it’s based on incomplete safety assessments.
Aftermath of the power plant disaster
First, here are some facts:
1. Displaced population
The widespread radiation across the northeastern Japan led to evacuation of more than 400,000 individuals, 160,000 of them from within 20km of Fukushima. A majority of those displaced — in excess of 100,000 people — remain homeless.
The Japanese government’s order banning former residents from returning to live in homes located in the affected areas is still in force. The government, however, says it’s hopeful to lift the ban in certain areas in March 2017.
2. Removal of the melted nuclear fuel
Yet to begin is the difficult task of removing the melted nuclear fuel from the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants.
There are plans to send in robots to determine the location and status of the melted fuel, but actual work isn’t likely to begin until 2017, according to media reports in Japan.
Decommissioning of the nuclear power plant is said to be a process that will take 30 to 40 years.
3. More storage tanks for radioactive water needed
The more immediate concern is an accumulation of groundwater that continues to flow into the basements of reactor buildings where melted nuclear fuel is located.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), operator of the plant, has not been able to reduce the volume of highly contaminated water — except for storing it in tanks.
Every day, 150 tons of contaminated water is generated and needs to be contained.
An aerial photo shows the No.3 (L) and No. 4 reactors of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant being decommissioned and tanks containing radioactive contaminated water in Fukushima on Feb. 21, 2015. (Photo credit: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)
As of last month, Tepco constructed more than 1,000 tanks to store the radiation-contaminated water that has been accumulating unchecked for five years.
Tepco plans to construct 20 more water storage tanks to accommodate 30,000 tons of water expected to be generated in the remaining months of 2016. But the utility company is running out of space for tanks, full of radioactive water, that now sprawl over 42 acres of parking lots and lawns.
Next page: Failed safety analysis