When the Unthinkable is Deemed Impossible: Reflecting on Fukushima

March 20, 2016

When the unthinkable is deemed impossible: Reflecting on Fukushima

Nuclear power requires obedience, as well as massive subsidy and the suppression of competition from other forms of low-carbon energy. These are not attractive platform planks in market-oriented democracies, so subterfuge in the service of political clout is also needed.

Abhorrent prerequisites need not lead to political defeat these days. Raise enough money. Scare enough people. Demonize and hamstring enough alternatives. Hornswoggle enough regulators. Procure celebrity endorsements. Rhapsodize new designs transcending today’s shortcomings. Just don’t make fools of your backers, or befoul their living rooms.

That is where Fukushima fits in. A few times in the six-decade history of nuclear power, some event once deemed impossible has taken place—shifting the ground under politicians and investors and forcing the abandonment of plants well along or already built.

Fukushima did not undermine a budding nuclear renaissance. For economic reasons, there was none. The 30-plus reactors that had applied for licenses in the United States in 2008-09 had shrunk by two-thirds before March 2011. The cost overruns at Olkiluoto and Flammanville were well underway and owed nothing to events in Japan. But Fukushima did tilt many nations away from the needed governmental benevolence sharply. Here’s why.

The accident involved a number of events once deemed by regulators to be impossible, or at least too unlikely to require countermeasures. Regulators in Japan and elsewhere had been asked, sometimes repeatedly, to require measures in contemplation of these events. At one time or another, they had declined to do so. 

All of the following virtually impossible events happened over a stretch of a few days: 

  • A level 9.0 earthquake off that particular stretch of Japanese coast
  • Followed by a tsunami with a height exceeding 10 meters
  • Followed by an extended loss of offsite power and the lengthy failure of multiple diesel generators
  • Leading to a loss of cooling capability in three reactors and therefore to extensive multiple-core melting
  • Which generated enough hydrogen to lead to hydrogen explosions
  • And failures of three containments
  • And releases of a large amount of radiation from the site
  • Requiring evacuations more than 10 miles from the reactors (i.e. beyond the emergency planning zones) as well as
  • The need for evacuation during ongoing independent natural disasters (the earthquake and the tsunami), which vastly complicated both the accident response and the evacuations.

Here is what the world beheld as the accident unfolded:

  • The permanent destruction of some one percent of the world’s nuclear capacity live on worldwide television;
  • The destruction of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the world’s fourth largest utility, which has since existed as a ward of the Japanese state;
  • Health effects due to radiation and other stressors (such as the evacuations) of undetermined magnitude, but significantly mitigated by the fact that the wind blew mostly out to sea in the days following the accident;
  • Evacuation of some 164,000 people (79,000 mandatory), 100,000 of whom have not returned home nearly five years later;
  • Discussion of the evacuation of Tokyo—at 38 million people the world’s most populous metropolitan area—were the wind to shift;
  • Land and ocean contamination;
  • A highly contaminated site with water flow issues still not under control;
  • The failure and abolition of a once highly respected regulatory regime;
  • The closing of all 54 of Japan’s nuclear plants, with only a few having resumed operation as of now and 10 considered permanently closed;
  • Damages exceeding $100 billion, not counting food exports and tourism;
  • Major loss of confidence in the Japanese government, voted out of office a few months later;
  • Decisions to exit nuclear power in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and Taiwan;
  • Reductions and slowdowns in some other nuclear programs;
  • Reluctance of legislatures to vote needed financial support.

So, as events deemed impossible in one decade come once again to terrify the next, one almost rational step at a time, Fukushima shows on a larger scale the lesson first taught at Three Mile Island—just how much damage events ruled out by regulators can do in a little time. While rising nuclear construction and operating costs coupled with falling costs of alternatives are at the root of nuclear power’s current difficulties, Fukushima definitely impedes the customary rescue attempts.