Ten years after Fukushima: The experts examine lessons learned and forgotten

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Credit: IAEA Imagebank via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Credit: IAEA Imagebank via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.

A decade later, the footage of the dramatic hydrogen explosions in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, broadcast live on television—and the subsequent disruptions to livelihoods, ecosystems, and economic activities—still reverberate.

In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, several new nuclear safety institutions such as the World Association of Nuclear Operators and the Convention on Nuclear Safety were created. Nevertheless, the West-based nuclear industry used an “us and them” pretext to mask some of the intrinsic and global flaws in nuclear safety practices, asserting that an accident like Chernobyl, caused by flawed technology and operational practices, could never happen within their own national borders. Then came Fukushima, a catastrophe that flipped such a narrative on its head and exposed the nuclear industry’s limitations in understanding the risks of the so-called “beyond design basis accidents”.

Amid a looming climate crisis and a desperate need to curb emissions, analyzing the costs, risks and benefits of nuclear energy cannot be more timely and relevant. If the global expansion of nuclear energy to address climate change is inevitable, how can we prevent, or at least mitigate, the effects of the next nuclear accident or disaster? If nuclear accidents are no longer unimaginable, can we accept the inevitability of future nuclear accidents and focus our efforts just as much on mitigation as accident prevention?

Providing coherent and credible answers to these questions in a polarized and opinionated world is not easy. Nevertheless, this is a task we took on when we organized “Nuclear Safety and Security after Chernobyl and Fukushima: Lessons learned and forgotten,” a three-day international conference hosted by the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

This commentary series is more than just a distillate of the views that were presented during the conference by some of the world’s leading thinkers, scholars and practitioners on the 10th anniversary of Fukushima. It is a call for action, for change, and for a genuine collective engagement.

As our experts share in this series, the lessons learned and forgotten from past nuclear disasters are many. But, broadly speaking, they can be placed under four themes:

First, the impacts of nuclear accidents should not be measured quantitatively alone. Quantitative measures such as the number of fatalities or deaths per kilowatt hour are not only inappropriate, they are incomplete and unethical. The lingering human suffering resulting from forced dislocation and resettlement due to the destruction of human habitats and ecosystems ought to be fully appreciated and accounted for.

Second, there are many intangible and unquantifiable aspects of nuclear safety. These include good organizational culture (“safety culture” in the nuclear parlance), leadership, memory (so that we may remember our past failures), and imagination (so that we may anticipate the unexpected). We must look beyond hardware when we think about safety. We must consider not only technological failures but also organizational, institutional, and human failures and examine how each of them might interact with one another.

Third, it is vitally important to strike a balance between sharing information and harmonizing practices and approaches, while also developing and preserving country-specific ways of thinking about safety and security. Yet, these shared accountability mechanisms should not dilute national, organizational and individual accountability.

Finally, an aphorism bears repeating: A nuclear accident anywhere is an accident everywhere. Countries tend to assert that an accident could never happen within their own national borders because of differences in technological or institutional designs. When we embrace narratives of national exceptionalism, we lose opportunities to learn lessons from each other and set ourselves up for future catastrophe.

We hope that the commentaries presented here will inspire renewed and creative reflection on the future of nuclear safety and the governance of nuclear technologies.

Editor’s note: This collection was produced in a collaboration between the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School and the Bulletin.

flags in Vienna

What are we waiting for? The need for stronger international nuclear energy relationships.

In the decade since, the nuclear industry and those who regulate it have come a long way in many countries but, arguably, still haven’t made sufficient progress in cultivating and codifying effective, trusting, and transparent international relationships.
Abandoned Chernobyl village. Credit: Clay Gilliland via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0

Chernobyl: A nuclear accident that changed the course of history. Then came Fukushima.

Amid the renascent verdure, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi power plants stand dormant, sullen testaments to nature’s relentless forces and to human folly and resilience. The question is not whether another nuclear accident will happen, but rather when it does, how prepared are we?

Nuclear power: A question of risk and balance

Abandoning nuclear power would unbalance the risk equation, increasing societal risks while decreasing societal benefits.
Leningrad nuclear power plant: a pond for storing spent fuel rods at the Leningrad nuclear power plant in Sosnovy Bor. Photo credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #305008/ Alexey Danichev/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Nuclear safety and security lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima

Here are nine nuclear safety and security lessons that international experts examined at last week’s Harvard Belfer Center conference on the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi disasters.
IAEA Experts at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Credit: IAEA Imagebank via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Fukushima 10 years later: It still could happen here

Last summer, an aging nuclear reactor several miles outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa came uncomfortably close to experiencing a similar fate to Fukushima.  
Tsunami damage.

Asking the unasked questions

So-called "tsunami stones" alerted people in Fukushima, Japan, to not build in areas that had been devastated by the giant waves. Many people, however, including officials at Tokyo Electric Power, owners of the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, ignored the warnings. In the aftermath of almost every technological disaster, reviews find that there were clear warnings before it occurred, but not enough was done to head off catastrophe.
abandoned radioactive hearse in village of Namie outside Fukushima

Remember Fukushima: The accident is not over

Earthquakes, contamination, and forgetfulness still threaten the region a decade after the disaster.

Highly enriched shareholders mean disasters down the line: Why utilities like TEPCO need new corporate governance

As we continue to learn from the intertwined social, technical, political, and economic factors of the Fukushima disaster, we must, at minimum, re-design and modernize corporate governance and incentive structures, just as we do with reactors and regulatory bodies.

A call for transnational citizen-expert engagement in nuclear compensation

In preparedness for the next large scale nuclear disaster, we need forums where ordinary citizens from nations with differing histories of nuclear power can engage directly with nuclear experts from both government and industry as well as representatives of international institutions.
abandoned house in Fukushima

Nuclear accidents will happen. What do we do about them?

If accidents are going to happen, and we can’t mitigate them, what are the options?
Three Mile Island

Better nuclear fuel could reduce the likelihood and severity of nuclear power plant accidents

The Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents shared an important attribute: Each of the power plants experienced a fire involving the zircaloy (zirconium alloy) cladding of nuclear fuel assemblies
Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency inspect the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture on May 27, 2011. (Photo by Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images)

Are we ready for the unimaginable? Ensuring nuclear safety post-Fukushima

The nuclear sector learned important lessons from the Fukushima crisis a decade ago—and enacted important reforms and improvements. But we must never become complacent. There is more we can do.
Combined results of 211 flight hours of aerial monitoring operations and ground measurements in the Fukushima area made by the US Energy Department, US Defense Department, and Japanese monitoring teams from March 30, 2011 to April 3, 2011. Source: National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)/ US Energy Department

The Fukushima accident: Do we have the wisdom to move forward?

Nuclear power is not free of risk—obviously. But these risks must be weighed against risks in the larger energy context. And possible accidents at nuclear reactors must be measured against the coming calamity of climate change brought on by our reliance on fossil fuels. 

Together, we make the world safer.

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3 years ago

What people and scientists seem to reject in global warming is every source of heat that is man made adds to the heat from the sun and earth. This is global warming. Heat per day from millions of barrels of oil, millions of tons of coal, btus from nuclear and YES Hydro. Electrifying is not the answer to our problem of making Earth into Mars, it is CUTTING ALL BTUS. Start by not flying or cruising, live near work, have family stay together, build earth homes with high energy efficiency. Make mining bitcoin illegal Musk will have Mars on Earth… Read more »

Larry Gilman
Larry Gilman
3 years ago

“If the global expansion of nuclear energy to address climate change is inevitable . . .” The global expansion of nuclear energy is closer to unimaginable than inevitable. The following facts are a matter of public record (see World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2020 at https://www.worldnuclearreport.org/-World-Nuclear-Industry-Status-Report-2020-.html and Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis at https://www.lazard.com/perspective/lcoe2020): Global nuclear power output has been approximately flat for decades. It is now by far the most expensive grid-scale power source and is getting costlier while wind and solar get even cheaper. New reactors take on the order of a decade to build, 5- to… Read more »


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