First published online by Leo Hickman.
At 3.41pm on 11 March 2011, just as the first of multiple reports claiming a giant tsunami had come ashore were starting to arrive, the Japanese government received a call from an official at the Tokyo Electric Power Company: “We have a first-level emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.”
The 40ft wave triggered by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake just under an hour earlier had topped the 19ft protective sea wall, flooding the site’s six reactors and disabling all 13 of the site’s back-up diesel generators, which had been switched on when the earthquake first struck. Without power, water could not be pumped into the reactors to cool them and they soon began to overheat and overpressurise. Twenty-four hours later, an explosion caused by a buildup of hydrogen at reactor one ripped off the walls and roof. It was not the image an already traumatised nation wished to see.
As the world began to grasp the scale of devastation caused by the tsunami – the death toll would surpass 16,000 – fear soon spread that “another Chernobyl” was developing at Fukushima. The Japanese government fought to downplay the risks of a radiation leak, but, with growing local and international concern, a 20km exclusion zone was established around the stricken power plant and, after much prevarication, Fukushima was eventually graded as a “level 7″ accident by the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Only the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 had ever received such a severe grading. It meant that Fukushima was officially classified as a “major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures”.
As a later-to-be-fabled group of workers known as the “Fukushima 50″ remained at the site to try to contain the damage, most notably a fire that had started at reactor four, the government sought to reassure the world that the incident was under control. But a sense of distrust quickly developed and on 14 March the French government became the first to advise its citizens to leave the Tokyo area. Demand for iodine tablets surged in places as far away as California, as people feared contamination from drifting radiation.
Professor Robin Grimes, a nuclear industry analyst based at Imperial College London, watched on with the rest of the world. “I have to be honest and say that, in those first few early days when the information was both patchy and contradictory, I thought Fukushima would set the global nuclear industry back as much as Chernobyl,” he says. “I just wouldn’t have guessed then, though, that the reaction around the world would be so markedly different.”
After several months of global concern about the outcome of Fukushima, attention turned from the radiation leak itself – it is now estimated that Fukushima released about a tenth of the radiation expelled into the atmosphere at Chernobyl – to a fallout of a different kind. Many countries – including the UK – were in the throes of planning a new wave of “next-generation” nuclear power stations. How would Fukushima impact such plans?
The impact within Japan itself was swift and predictable. A nation that had been greatly reliant on nuclear power quickly rose up to condemn the technology. By June, polls showed 80% of the population were now anti-nuclear and suspicious of the government’s handling of the affair. Thousands marched through Tokyo demanding the government say “sayonara” to nuclear and by October only 11 nuclear power stations were still operating in Japan (a few years earlier it had 54) forcing the country to adopt rolling blackouts to manage demand for electricity.
The ripples of concern soon reached Germany. Within just a few weeks of Fukushima, the German government announced that all eight of the nation’s reactors that were built prior to 1981 (Fukushima began generating in 1971) were to be temporarily shut down as a precaution and to allow time for safety checks. On 26 March, Germany witnessed its largest ever anti-nuclear demonstration when 250,000 people marched demanding that the government “heed Fukushima”. By the end of May, Chancellor Angela Merkel had confirmed that Germany would speed up its retreat from nuclear energy and, by 2022, would have shut down the last of its reactors. To compensate, it would instead ramp up its supply of renewables from 17% to 35%.
The move was met with incredulity and applause across the world. On the one hand, it left Germany more reliant on energy imports, most notably from “nuclear France” and “coal Poland”. As soon as next year, it is predicted that Germany will become a net importer of energy. But, equally, others greeted the news warmly as it showed a major industrialised economy making a stride towards renewables.
“I was surprised,” says Grimes. “They were edging in that direction already, but their reaction really highlighted the politics underlying it all. It was about keeping the coalition government together and appeasing the Greens.”
Grimes adds that it’s “remarkable” how polarised the reactions to Fukushima have been: “I was also surprised that the US and UK were not really affected by it. If anything, it has strengthened attitudes in support of nuclear here in the UK.”
Environmental writers such as George Monbiot and Mark Lynas argued that Fukushima should, in fact, reassure us. “I am no longer nuclear-neutral,” wrote Monbiot, 10 days after the tsunami. “I now support the technology … Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small.”
Grimes says reactions such as this show that Fukushima has “improved” the debate about nuclear in the UK. “Perception and understanding of risk are two very different things. We have to have a better understanding of risk in our society and Fukushima has helped to open up a better debate about nuclear energy. I think the UK is better placed as a result. We’re not shouting at each other in the UK any more. We seem more comfortable talking about nuclear.”
But it has forced us to reassess safety, says Grimes: “We have lessons to learn about the risk of flooding, for example. But our new reactors will be fundamentally different to the old Fukushima-style reactors. It’s like trying to compare a Ford Prefect with a modern car today. India and China, who are both pushing ahead with their own nuclear plans, have also taken pause to look at their safety regimes, but are unlikely to rein back much as a result of Fukushima.”
Outside Germany and Japan, negative reactions have largely been limited to Italy (which, like Germany, has always had strong political opposition to nuclear), Israel and Indonesia. “Some countries who were thinking about nuclear power have now pulled back,” says Grimes. “Indonesia’s location on the ‘Ring of Fire’ area of seismic activity – and memories of its own tsunami – means nuclear energy is considered too risky now.”
But, overall, the global nuclear industry seems not to have experienced the aftershocks of Fukushima that some first imagined. Germany aside, the conclusion has been that nuclear is a “nosepeg” solution: we might not instinctively like the smell of it, but, given the predicted looming energy and climate crises ahead, we have little choice but to push ahead – as long as we learn the hard lessons of Fukushima.