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Fukushima: Japan’s Living Horror One Year On!


By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, March 16,2012

Japan – a remarkable blend of cutting-edge technologies and tradition; humility, hospitality and mannerism – is redefining itself. A year ago, on March 11, 2011, monstrous waves caused by a tsunami smashed into Daiichi’s complex of six nuclear reactors at Fukushima on the northern coast of Japan, causing a massive power breakdown and a series of blasts within the complex. 

For months, Fukushima’s smoldering nuclear plant represented a living horror until it was cold-shut-down in December. The smoldering plants posed a monumental challenge and caused horror because of fears that if something goes wrong followed by an explosion and massive emissions of radioactive materials, the consequences could be horrendous. Challenge because the fuel at the core of the three damaged units at the plant is still generating heat, and requires a round-the-clock cooling effort. This cooling and its support systems must continue working until the fuel cools down and the plants can be cold-shut in a few months. 

Until the accident, Fukushima and several other plants symbolized the human ability to harness such a massive source of energy. But the melt-down also exposed the human limitations. Man appears simply helpless if the nature – giant waves – knock out even the back-up systems. This is exactly what happened to the Fukushima complex. 

The disastrous impact of the accident is still deeply felt in Japan and the painful memories are lingering. The nuclear contamination resulting from the wreckage of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima and the subsequent meltdown of cores of the three reactors have forced so far an evacuation of over 100,000 local residents of a radius of 20 kilometers of the nuclear plant. The plutonium dust from the meltdown of nuclear fuel was detected in areas as far as 45 kilometers outside of Fukushima and created numerous nuclear hotspots. Cleanup of the hotspots requires removing 5 centimeters of top soil, trees, grass etc., from the contaminated areas. Sheer quantity of nuclear material that needs to be removed from the nuclear site, nearly 1,000 tons of nuclear fuel contained in the plant’s damaged reactors, and thousands of tons of radioactive water injected to cool down the nuclear cores have posed an unprecedented challenge to Japan. 

Cleanup of the sites may take decades or even longer. Where and how to store the removed waste is even more daunting. The fact that it took Americans 14 years (1979 to 1993) to clean up the site of Three Mile Island nuclear accident, which was of much smaller scale, is simply depressing. The ghost of radioactivity locks people out of their home and land that they have loved and tilled. When they can safely return to their own home, bury the memories of the past and resume their broken life is cruelly beyond their own control. The limit of human’s technology has been deeply felt even in an advanced economy as Japan. Returning or not returning, the decision has never been so heavy and difficult. 

Dilemma is not faced merely by local residents. Almost overnight the Japanese government found itself in a situation where it was pressured by the mounting public opinions to reverse its energy policy that it had actively promoted since the end of the World War II. For the first time in the country’s history, the security of civil use of nuclear technology has been widely questioned.

The fact that the radioactive decay in the tsunami-hit reactors would take another 7 months made worried people even more restless. A legitimate question is being asked: whether we humans are technically equipped yet to fully control the nuclear reactions that we set in motion. Before the 3/11 Earthquake, nuclear energy was the most important source of energy in Japan, accounting for roughly 30 percent of the total energy supply, followed by coal (26%), Liquified Natural Gas (24%), oil (11%), Hydro power (8%) and renewable energy (1%). This percentage was projected to increase to around 40 percent in 2020 and 50 percent in 2030. About 54 nuclear reactors located in 17 sites along the coastal line of Japan were running at full capacity to meet the country’s rising demand for power. The 3/11 Earthquake put a grinding halt to this quest for nuclear energy. Under strong public suspicion and criticism, 36 out of 54 reactor units had been shut down for a safety check as of 10 July 2011. It is planned that all nuclear plants in Japan will be shut down for the same purpose by April 2012.

Rerunning of these reactors depends on the newly introduced stress tests as well as an approving vote by local residents. For a country with only 16% of its energy being self-sufficient, an energy shortfall becomes inevitable. Finding alternative energy resources poses another severe challenge to Japan, which has far-fetching implications to its energy policies as well as foreign policies. If the thirst for resources once drove behind the major wars by this country in the beginning of the 20th century, meeting its increasing energy demand while readjusting its energy composition today is undoubtedly testing the wisdom of the Japanese incumbent government.

Raging Debate:

The structure of Japan’s power sector and its heavy reliance on nuclear energy became the focus of a fierce national debate since Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi plant plunged into crisis on March 11. Conditions at the plant have been stabilised and radiation leaks largely stemmed. Decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi’s damaged reactors and dealing with widespread radiation contamination in surrounding areas will take decades. The government is preparing a national energy plan that is set to abandon rapid development of nuclear power while increasing emphasis on renewable energy.

While labouring to improve the industry’s structure, Japanese authorities face more immediate difficulties from a shortage of generating capacity caused by the nuclear crisis. Amid worries about nuclear safety, no reactor shut down on March 11 or shut down since for routine maintenance, has yet been put back into action. All but five of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors are offline, enforcing limits on the use of power in greater Tokyo and other Japanese regions last summer and are widely expected to be needed again this year.

Although Japan’s 3/11 has triggered revision of nuclear energy policies in countries such as Germany and UK, the melt-down at Daiichi Complex has not deterred Japanese industry from continuing its production of nuclear plants. The nuclear manufacturing industry is too strong to be told off the production. Japanese people at large – though averse to nuclear weapons and very sensitive about the technology – have little to say when confronted with the question whether they can shut out the nuclear energy and technology for good.

Yet, the tsunami did wake them all up to realize that they will remain vulnerable to such accidents and thus need to further reinforce their protection and back-up systems.

Seen in the context at the magnitude of the disaster at Fukushima and viewed against the physical capacity to prevent and manage nuclear disasters, one can safely presume that such an accident at Kahuta or the KANUP or the small PAEC-run plant at Nilore could possibly spell unimaginable disaster. A wakeup call for the Pakistani nuclear establishment?

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk