Natural Disaster or Man-made?

It’s 3.11 again. Four years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku Japan that have led to the accident in the nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi. Thousands of people are still displaced, unable to return to their homes. However, since they are moving out of the temporary housing they leave back the old and lonely who cannot move. These old people face social isolation. Compensation payment is going slow and is appallingly small, not even enough for the refugees to build a new life and a new home outside of Fukushima Prefecture. Official figures estimate that it will take about 30 years until the polluted regions will become inhabitable again but it seems as if that estimate was too ambitious. Decontamination work is lagging behind while radioactive soil is amassing with no real long term plan where to dispose of it. A temporary storage site might have been found but that won’t be enough. Suggestions have been made to dump the whole dirt into the ocean, secured in casks that “probably won’t break”. Why hasn’t anybody thought of this ever before? They have, which is why between 1946 and 1993 several countries, among them the US, have dumped an estimated sum of 85 quadrillion Becquerel into the ocean, a policy that has been forbidden by the London Convention since 1972. If Japan were to do the same, it’d probably be doing it illegally.

The question that has been asked since the beginning was “How could that accident happen?” At the first gaze, it seems easy. There was a terribly strong earthquake and an unexpectedly high tsunami, both natural phenomena that tend to break things. However, if you look further back at the Japanese nuclear policy and the construction of the Fukushima Daiichi plant you’ll find a number of things that have led up to the accident and that show that if a little more thought had been given and a little more money been spent at the right places instead of the wrong ones, this accident could probably have been avoided.

Since this is a huge part of my master’s thesis I have dedicated the last weeks to reading through books by Japanese researches who have asked the question: “Was the Fukushima Daiichi accident due to natural disaster or was it man-made?”

I can tell you from the beginning that it was man made. Here’s why.

Let’s start at the beginning. The very first nuclear power plant in Japan has been put into operation in 1966. It had been built by a British company, not an American one because at that time the British were more advanced in nuclear technology. This first nuclear plant was an overall bad experience for the Japanese. Because the Japanese government demanded more safety measures against earthquakes the construction plans were changed several times. Construction didn’t begin until 1961 and its cost blew up to ¥10 billion more than estimated. After having gone through that experience, the government wanted a simpler way to get nuclear plants and turned to the US where GE was offering plants with a so-called turnkey agreement. The name is to be taken quite literally. GE built the plant and delivered it ready-made. They handed the key over to TEPCO who had to do nothing but turn the key to fire up the plant. This sounded so nice, simple and cheap that neither the Japanese government nor TEPCO thought for a minute about checking those construction plans to see whether changes should be made.

One of those power plants bought with a turnkey agreement is Fukushima Daiichi. The construction plans, however, were the exact same ones that were used in American nuclear power plants. America is a country of hurricanes which is why it makes sense to put the entire emergency power supply system underground where it was safe from the hurricanes. That is exactly what was done in Fukushima as well. Japan, however, is a country of earthquakes and tsunamis, which is why underground, where water can easily reach it, is the worst place to store the emergency power supply system. But since TEPCO and the government didn’t want to spend more money than necessary they decided not to care.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant is on a plateau that was originally 35m above sea level. Before construction began most of that plateau was taken off so that now it’s about 10m above sea level. If they had left it the original height it’d never have been reached by the tsunami.

Now who could have reckoned with a 14m tsunami, really? The security division of TEPCO, actually, that calculated at the beginning of this century that the likelihood of a tsunami of 10m or higher hitting Fukushima in the next 50 years was about 1%. That’s high enough that the coast levee should have been extended significantly. That, however, would’ve cost money so TEPCO never extended it.

In the US, to make sure that there is always an emergency power supply at hand, power plants are required to store portable devices to use in an emergency. Even though the Japanese government has thought about implementing the same rule in Japan as recent as 2008, they have decided against it.

Due to all those misses and stingy money-saving policies the emergency power supply system of every reactor has broken during the earthquake and the tsunami, leading to core meltdowns and hydrogen explosions. Nobody was prepared for such an accident so nobody really knew how to react.

In addition, Japan has in recent years begun experimenting with using MOX fuel rods in regular reactors. MOX means mixed oxide, so instead of using pure enriched uranium in their fuel rods they used a mixture of uranium and plutonium they had extracted with their reprocessing plant. The problem with plutonium is that even in small dosages it’s lethally poisonous to humans, which is why an accident with MOX rods leads to a much more catastrophic outcome than simple uranium rods. Now guess which Japanese power plant was one of the first in 2010 to experiment with using MOX rods? It sounds like a bad joke but I can promise you all those policies were meant dead serious by the Japanese government.

Now, you say, why haven’t people protested more? Anti-nuclear movements are alive and thriving in Germany, why not Japan, especially with their past in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? There’s two reasons for that.

First, there are indeed many protest movements in Japan, even before the accident in 2011. Some date as far back as the 1950s. They have prevented nuclear power plants from being constructed and even when they were struck down by courts they more often than not went as far as the Supreme Court in Tokyo with their claims. It’s just that nobody really talks about it. News agencies don’t dare to, many being subsidized so heavily by the nuclear lobby in Japan (being called 原子力ムラ, nuclear power village, even though empire would be more accurate) that their survival is threatened if they talk too much. Over the years TEPCO, other huge power companies, and the Japanese government have spent huge sums on propaganda convincing the population that power plants are save, vital for a solid energy supply and overall nothing to be worried about. Even in recent years publishers of school books have been ordered to erase sentences like “protest movements happen everywhere where nuclear power plants are being built” and substitute them with sentences such as “no protests against nuclear power whatsoever exist in Japan”.

In February 2010 two new books were published as part of the compulsory curriculum. One, called Wakuwaku genshiryoku rando (わくわく原子力ランド, “The exciting land of nuclear power”), was directed at elementary schools while the other, called Charenji! Genshiryoku waarudo (チャレンジ!原子力ワールド, “Challenge! The world of nuclear power”) was directed at junior high schools. Both claimed that it was impossible for radioactivity to leak from nuclear power plants and that as soon as an earthquake occurred the plant would power down automatically. By the way, Fukushima Daiichi wasn’t the first nuclear power plant in Japan to get damaged during an Earthquake. In 2007 an earthquake in Kashiwazaki Kariwa in Niigata prefecture damaged the plant there so it had to be switched off for two years.

The elementary school book cover. You can actually download the whole book here (Japanese):

The elementary school book cover. You can actually download the whole book here (Japanese)

... and the junior high school version. Downloadable at the same link as the other book.

… and the junior high school version. Downloadable at the same link as the other book.

The second reason is that Japan is actually really good at suppressing anti-nuclear protests. Their tools are three bills that have been implemented in 1956. They are called Genshiryoku sanpô (原子力三法, “Three laws on nuclear power”) and basically say that a region with a nuclear plant will receive a ton of money in subsidies. Not only public institutions but construction companies, hotels, restaurants, etc. Everyone is showered with money until it’s almost impossible for them to live without those subsidies. As a result, many protest movements are suppressed by the citizens of their own regions who don’t want to lose the money.

If all that money had gone into safety measures instead of propaganda and bribery, who knows what could have been avoided? But even now, after all that has happened Prime Minister Abe has decided to take a big dump on plans to phase out nuclear energy and TEPCO shows no remorse either.

Japan, Quo Vadis?


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