Five years ago next month, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded hit Japan, destroying its long-standing myth of zero-risk nuclear energy. The meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant revealed significant shortcomings in Japan’s safety culture, which the country has since learned from and has been trying to address. Countries charging ahead with nuclear power should heed these lessons to avoid another Fukushima.
In the years since the accident, the Fukushima plant’s damaged reactors have been stabilized through a makeshift water-cooling system, and releases of radioactivity have been greatly reduced. Meanwhile, after decontamination efforts, some of the over 100,000 evacuees have been allowed to return home.
However, despite some notable successes in cleaning up the site, tens of thousands of people are still displaced, work conditions at the plant remain poor, storing the accumulating radioactive water is an ongoing concern, and Japan remains decades away from fully decommissioning the mangled reactors. The total economic damage has been estimated at over $100 billion, and none of the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi will ever operate again.
There have been no deaths from the effects of the radiation (according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, any increase in cancer rates is expected to be too small to detect). On the other hand, forced evacuation is estimated to have played a role in over 1,000 premature deaths, and according to a World Health Organization health risk assessment, as with Chernobyl, the psychological toll of the disaster is a major concern and potentially outweighs other health consequences.
The disaster prompted many other countries to take stock of their own nuclear programs. The take-home lesson for some, including a majority of the Japanese public, was to move away from nuclear power. For example, Germany vowed to phase out all nuclear power by 2022, Italy voted overwhelmingly not to restart its nuclear program, and Switzerland banned the construction of new reactors.
Other nations were hardly slowed in their expansion of nuclear energy. China, India, and Russia lead the way with, all together, more than 40 reactors under construction and over twice as many planned. In their haste, it seems that many of these countries have not absorbed the key lesson from Fukushima: the importance of a rigorous and all-encompassing safety regime.
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