With Japan turning on the first of potentially many nuclear reactors shut down in the wake of the horrendous Fukushima disaster, the entire ordeal has come round full-swing and back under public scrutiny once again. Many of the Japanese public have rallied against this switching back on, of what is deemed as crucial supplies of electricity with the coming warm summer, and the whole country has been experiencing protests and demonstrations the likes of which are rarely, if ever, seen within the kooky nation.
Unfortunately, the flipping of the nuclear switch could not have come at a worse time in terms of global public opinion, with the release of the final report from the Japanese government pertaining to why and how Fukushima came to not only lose all power including backup, but to explode in quite an impressive fashion, spraying the surrounding landscape with nuclear fallout, albeit resulting in no deaths or serious injury, at least up until now. The conclusion of the investigation was brutal and to the point - nature was not to blame, but poor regulation, collusion between multiple governing bodies, safety issues and a complete lack of any effort to solidify the plant against possible disasters. In short, it was manmade.
Going further, the report finds that since 2006, the plant executives and safety managers knew full-well that a large tsunami had the potential to severely damage the plant and shutdown the seawater pumps which lead to the hydrogen release and explosion. When the disaster struck, they were “quick to blame the tsunami and that further investigation into the earthquake impact was needed”.
In the end, it was seen that a lack of care for public welfare and an apparent focus on mitigating risk to the organisations involved ultimately led to poor handling of the situation both before and after the incident, with safety protocol and radiation measures all but ignored in the proceeding weeks. So all in all, it was a haymaker to the face of all those governing bodies tasked with dealing with Fukushima, and any talk of nature being the prime suspect were all but swept under the rug in an instant. Silly, naughty Japanese government.
Personally, I feel this report, of which I’m sure was extremely professionally handled and undoubtedly raises some serious questions over safety and nuclear regulation worldwide, still takes the issues far too deeply into the human end of things. Yes, safety measures were weak and outdated with little likelihood of being updated, and the ridiculous amount of dotted lines and red tape the nuclear fission process has to go through almost certainly leads some to cut corners, but there are other issues afoot.
When the earthquake struck, it was far beyond even the most extreme projections the Japanese officials had tested, hitting a whopping 9.0 on the Richter Scale, making it not only in the top five world’s largest quakes, but the largest Japan has ever recorded. Combine this with the shallow depth at which it struck, just 20 miles below sea level and only 43 miles off the coast, and the tsunami produced reached heights only Hollywood movies could conceive. In effect, it was a perfect storm of natural disasters.
At the other end, the doomed Fukushima-Daiichi plant waited, built on the coast as many nuclear reactors are (for water cooling), at the grand age of well over forty years, built amongst the first wave of new generation nuclear reactors. When the tsunami and quake hit, the again plant simply couldn’t hold up to the obscene strength that nature brought down upon it, an event that no-one could have foreseen. Once the seawater had flooded the reactor, it was ultimately the poor planning involved with backup and auxiliary systems which resulted in the explosion and heat buildup, and this cannot be forgotten, but neither can the completely unpredictable disaster that struck first.
Actually, and I may be wrong for thinking this, but for a 40+ year old nuclear plant to withstand the quake and tsunami, as well as the shutting down of all power, and still manage to contain enough of the nuclear material to let off just one relatively small and so far harmless hydrogen explosion, is in my books one hell of an engineering feat. There may have been radiation let free, but rapid evacuation and wide quarantine areas has meant that Fukushima barely falls into the same category as Three-Mile Island or Chernobyl.
I am by no means attempting to switch the blame from those humans involved to nature itself, and in no way do I mean to diminish the tragedy in any way, as the combined evacuation and subsequent radiation is no small thing, I simply feel that blaming it entirely on human error is a false point of the finger. The fact that the investigation mentions the need for ‘further study of damage caused by the earthquake’ proves that little is known about what the 9.0 quake actually did, and that there is no evidence to say that that was the main cause for concern.
From this has come a serious need to reinvent the way governing bodies and plant owners go about communicating their needs and worries, including how plants can be made impervious to similar incidents, both natural and manmade, which will require an almost complete overhaul of the system and a cutting of the red tape getting in everybody’s way. At least for now Japan is using the nuclear downtime to check over all the safety features and regulations within their own borders, as boy do they need them.
Despite a hugely generous feed-in-tariff introduced to the country to cover all manner of renewable technologies such as solar, wind and biomass, and a population highly disciplined in desperate times to limit their consumption and tend to their nation, they will not be able to survive without at least some nuclear capacity. Currently, the imports of fossil fuel-based energy has rocketed to fill the 30% gap created by closing nuclear, and more carbon in the air is certainly not what we need. No nation can fill a gap that big however quickly they slap money in green energy, there has to be a transition period, even Germany knows that.
What is worrying about this situation, is that by releasing this paper stating that Fukushima, a word which will ring in the Japanese’s ears for a long time to come, was an entirely manmade disaster is skewing the reality of the incident. Yes those involved made some highly dangerous and stupid decisions, and has probably done a good thing in forcing the rest of the world to rethink their nuclear strategies and systems, but you can’t ignore the bloody great earthquake and tsunami which caused the plant explosion in the first place. Well that is my opinion at least, what do you think?