The Fruits of Civilization (24-4-6) Nuclear Power in Japan

  Nuclear Power in Japan

Aside from chopping down its forests, Japan lacks fuel resources. Japan has to import fuels to meet ~90% of its energy needs. This deficiency was a prime motivator in the militaristic fever that infected the Japanese government in the 1st half of the 20th century.

With scant fossil fuels, it is unsurprising that Japan was an early and enthusiastic adopter of atomic energy (despite being a victim of 2 atomic holocausts). Slowdown in nuclear plant construction in Japan only happened after several serious accidents which provoked protests and resistance to new plants. Japan has had over a dozen major nuclear incidents, and many more of modest consequence. Revelation of repeated cover-ups involving mishaps did not endear the public to the cause of nuclear power.

The Japanese public had never been in favor of nuclear energy. The industry, abetted by the government, did its best to manipulate public opinion.

Geologically, Japan is ill-suited to host nuclear power plants. Situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire, atop 3 tectonic plate boundaries which are fond of geophysical friction, Japan sports earthquakes like Idaho sprouts potatoes.

In the wake of an earthquake 153 km offshore, a tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan on 11 March 2011, resulting in 18,500 deaths. A 13-meter wave crested the 10-meter seawall at the Daiichi nuclear power facility, flooding the low-lying rooms housing the diesel generators that powered pumps critical to the cooling system. Core meltdown ensued in 1 reactor, followed by hydrogen-air chemical explosions in 2 other reactors. Building the hapless facility at Fukushima was considered ill-advised 600 years ago. A few kilometers inland from the nuclear power site are a set of inscribed stones set in a roughly semicircular pattern. The stones mark that distance that a tsunami had washed ashore. The inscription on the stones reads: “don’t even think of building anything between here and the ocean.”

The 2011 disaster was merely the last in a series of mishaps at Daiichi. Besides lamentable siting, the plant was never well managed.

There were design problems that led to the disaster that should have been dealt with long before the earthquake hit. Fukushima Daiichi was a sitting duck waiting to be flooded. ~ Turkish civil and environmental engineer Costas Synolakis

The radiation leak at Daiichi was massive and went uncontained for years. Evacuation from the area incurred 1,600 deaths. Even now, the cancer toll from radiation exposure is just beginning. By 2014, at least 40% of the children in Fukushima prefecture had thyroid tumors. Radiation exposure had killed 10,000 by 2014.

Investigation into the accident found the disaster “foreseeable” and “man-made.” Plant owners and government regulators bungled their way through the aftermath, making matters worse.

The accident destroyed people’s trust in the industry, in the government, and experts. ~ Japanese nuclear scientist Ikuro Anzai

The Japanese government is determined to rebuild Fukushima prefecture. The power company is decommissioning the Daiichi reactors; a process that may take 3 to 4 decades and cost over $15 billion.

The Fukushima disaster provoked a rethink regarding nuclear power around the world. The Germans and Swiss swore off nuclear power, ostensibly opting to go back to coal.

Meanwhile, China, South Korea, and India were unfazed. Operation of existing facilities and plans for new reactors were unaffected.

The reaction in Japan was especially stark. Prior to the Fukushima incident, Japan had been getting nearly 30% of its electricity from nuclear reactors and was headed toward 40%. That immediately dropped to zero in the wake of Fukushima, which shook the government’s faith that atomic power was safe.

Practical considerations prevailed a very few years later. In 2014 the government sought to reopen nuclear plants, aiming for “a realistic and balanced energy structure”: pabulum which masked desperation.