The fire that won’t go out

March 16, 2016

The fire that won’t go out

The effects of the disaster on March 11, 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station are continuous and far-reaching. Although decontamination efforts continue, reports of increased thyroid cancer suggest that the health of children has been compromised by the dispersal of radioactive material across a wide region after the hydrogen explosions at the power plants. Communities and families in the evacuation zone around the power plant have been torn apart as more than 100,000 people have been forced to leave their homes. 

Food supplies in this rich agricultural region have been compromised, and wildlife and other vegetation in the region have been affected. The fisheries in Fukushima bay are contaminated by the continuous flow of radioactive ground water beneath and past the damaged reactors into the ocean and have been shut down. 

Finally, public trust in government, corporate leadership, and even medical experts in Japan has been profoundly damaged. All told, Japan is paying a very high price for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power disaster. 

And the disaster is by no means over. Decommissioning the plant has not even begun, because plant officials have not been able to locate the damaged cores in the reactors; radiation is much too high for workers to enter the damaged reactor housing, and robots designed for the task keep breaking down because of the very high radiation levels. Even attempts to stop the flow of ground water under the radioactive cores by chemically freezing the earth have not yet succeeded. Current estimates are that it may take as long as 50 to 75 years and more than $250 billion to decommission the damaged power plant and clean up the area.

What is being learned from this very expensive experiment in nuclear power production?  First, the “myth of absolute safety” entangled Japanese industry and government officials in a mind-set, leading them to overlook evidence about the dangers to the plant from tsunamis. It prevented them from making plants safer, from adopting policies of “continuous improvement,” because nuclear power was thought to be absolutely safe.

Second, this disaster provides further evidence that “normal accidents” can be expected as the result of interactions between human beings and complex technologies. In other words, no matter how safe the design, the combination of human operators and external events with very complex technologies is bound to produce disasters. 

Third, although the probability of nuclear accidents is thought to be very low, the consequences are extraordinarily and devastatingly high. The disruption to individual health, to families, to communities, to energy supplies, to economies and to societies has long-lasting effects. 

Finally, the products of nuclear fission, including melted fuel as well as other radiation-contaminated materials, will require continuous care and storage for tens of thousands of years. The question is whether any society has the capacity to safely deal with this fire that will not go out.