Fukushima has joined the pantheon of nuclear place names widely enough known to evoke dread simply by their utterance or publication. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki signify not just the frightening specter of overwhelming power married to an invisible menace—radiation—but more to the point, they are associated with mankind’s failure to control that combination of power and menace. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 8.9 earthquake centered off the northeast coast of Japan caused a tsunami, approximately 15 meters in height, that swamped the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, cutting off electricity and causing a station blackout that cut power to the cooling system for reactors there. For weeks, it was unclear whether three melted nuclear cores and associated used nuclear fuel storage pools could be effectively cooled and radiation releases from them controlled.
Now, five years after the accident, Fukushima is recognized around the world as a symbol, but the meaning of the nuclear accident that happened there continues to be debated, in Japan and globally. Massive amounts of contaminated water remain under the stricken reactor site and in some 1,000 storage tanks on it; large areas of the surrounding countryside remain contaminated; the problem of dealing with three melted reactor cores has yet to be resolved. Even so, Japan has begun to restart some of the fleet of nuclear reactors that it shut down in the wake of the Fukushima accident amid early governmental suggestions that the country would permanently forgo nuclear power. The reaction to the Fukushima catastrophe has been contradictory in the rest of the world, as well. In the immediate wake of the accident, Germany announced it would close its nuclear power sector, and it has stuck to that course. The United States made some efforts toward applying the lessons of Fukushima to US nuclear power regulations, but whether the reforms were substantive or symbolic remains a matter of opinion. And as some climate scientists call for increased use of nuclear power in the fight against climate change, many nations around the world—most notably China, which is building 26 new nuclear power plants and has plans for more—are taking steps to massively expand nuclear power generation.
Given the disparate reactions the Fukushima disaster has evoked, the Bulletin invited a wide range of nuclear power experts to comment on the meaning of the events of five years ago. These commentaries will be published in the weeks after this fifth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, in hopes of sparking renewed discussion about lessons that have or have not been learned and applied to the continuing task of improving the safety of nuclear power around the world.