Japan After Fukushima, One Year Later

Thierry Ehrmann/CC BY 2.0

This is part two in a series about the impacts of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Start here for Part One.

An ocean away, we can really only look at the dumbfounding images and try to imagine what a 8.9 earthquake, the tsunami that followed, and the disaster at Fukushima would do to an island nation with a population of 130 million and an economy the size of California’s. The nuclear crisis alone which took hair-raising, painstaking months to resolve, has left some still-deepening scars. Its impact has been massive, both on the economy and the social fabric of the nation.

In Japan,

Only two of the country’s 54 nuclear reactors are still operating. The rest may never come back online.

Concerted energy conservation efforts have carried the nation through the massive drop in electricity production, and they may have to continue through summer.

The ordeal will likely cost more than $100 billion.

Top Japanese government officials say they aim to put the nation on a path to shutter all nuclear plants, and to adopt renewable power to fill the gap.

daveeza via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Tens of thousands of people remain holed up in refugee encampments, and thousands of those, who lived too close to the meltdown site at Fukushima Daichii, might not ever be able to safely return.

Residents who didn’t have to evacuate, but live within 50 miles of Fukushima, are still freaking out [[and rightfully so]].

There is widespread mistrust in government, after it released conflicting reports in the wake of the disaster.

The nuclear regulatory body in Japan has not yet made significant changes to its operating procedures, despite promises from politicians that they would be updated.

Large amounts of radioactive material were dumped into the sea, and coastal marine life may be severely damaged.

And yet.

There are no confirmed deaths caused by nuclear radiation, though at least two workers died while trying to repair the Fukushima reactor during the tsunami. Much is still unknown about the long-term health impacts on the populace, but few doctors and scientists fear Chernobyl-esque woes.

In fact, the relative non-Chernobylity of the disaster has provoked at least one prominent environmentalist to advocate for nuclear power. If this is the worst that a modern nuclear meltdown does, the argument goes, then clean, carbon-free power sapped from a split atom or two might be worth it after all. We do need to find some way of fighting climate change, and stat, and we can build better, safer plants than Fukushima in the modern age.

Which opens familiar rifts, not just inside the environmental and clean energy communities, but in public discourse: nuclear power, yeah, no? If anything, Fukushima has eroded those rifts, not bridged them. The disaster reminds us of the many costs of nuclear power, and how damn scared we all are of it. It also reminds us that nuclear catastrophes do not necessarily turn everyone within eyeshot into mutant zombies.

Any debate over how to wield nuclear power going forward must now necessarily include the full weight of events that surround Fukushima, and whether the quest for low carbon energy is worth the possibility of such a crisis recurring. It’s not as easy a riddle to solve as it may seem—even though a cadre of workers are still continuing to risk their lives to clear the radioactive rubble and decontaminate Fukushima to this day.

Tags: Japan | Nuclear Power | United States