Japan: Two Years After Fukushima

06 Apr, 2013    ·   3873

Rajaram Panda assesses the lessons learnt from the 3/11 disaster

Rajaram Panda
Rajaram Panda
Visiting Faculty, SLLCS, JNU

Two years after Japan suffered the triple disaster on 11 March 2011, the country is still cleaning up the nuclear mess in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Though the world’s interests in its impact have somewhat waned, public interests globally continue to focus on the future of nuclear energy. The impact of course, continues to reverberate in Japan. Questions are still posed regarding the country’s nuclear industry, regulators, and why the government failed to use science and technology that could have minimised the risk and damages that the country and people suffered. The people of Japan ask why an unreasonably costly clean-up is being carried out in areas of low contamination, and why there is still no well-defined and operational waste management system in place.

While politics still play a role in devising the mechanism for avoiding such occurrences in the future, the people are still waiting for answers. Has Japan learnt any lessons from the 3/11 disaster, and has it developed alternatives that could at least reduce the risks of accidents in the future?

Quaking Fears
Being a geologically vulnerable country, Japan has a well-developed disaster management system and earned a strong international reputation for the same. Yet, it could not prevent the disaster of 3/11. While the fear of another earthquake continues to lurk, the bigger task of dealing with the contamination by radioactive and other toxic substances would continue to engage the present and future governments, as the impact will last for a long time.

Even while Japan continues to battle the nuclear fallouts, experts predict that the next ‘Big One’ will hit Tokyo by 2016 and if that happens, the impact will be catastrophic. In January 2012, the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo reported that there is a 70% chance a 7.0 magnitude or a quake of higher magnitude will strike Tokyo by 2016. What it would mean for Japan is the death toll of up to 11,000 people and $1 trillion damages to its economy.

Japan’s famous seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi’s research, first presented in 1976, found that large earthquakes occur southwest of Tokyo along the Pacific coast at intervals of about 100 to 150 years. These tremors occur because of mounting pressure from two converging tectonic plates grinding past each other. According to Ishibashi, there are three converging plates. Since there has not been a large-scale earthquake since the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, there is a high probability of a violent tremor striking the region anytime soon, the intensity of which could be greater than the 3/11 earthquake.

Fears also persist that Mount Fuji may get reactivated again, and a nuclear plant just 200 km southwest of Tokyo, in the heart of the seismically volatile earthquake region, would be just ripe for catastrophe.

Lessons Learnt: Assessing and Implementing Disaster Risk Reduction Processes
If in the event of a worst-case disaster scenario, in which a 9.1 magnitude earthquake hits Tokyo, it would unleash a 34-m (112 ft) tsunami along the Pacific coastline, killing about 323,000 people. Since about 20 per cent of the world’s earthquakes occur in Japan, it needs to have better disaster planning. So far, the government has installed nearly 300 seismographs in Tokyo schools, transmitting data to a central authority over the past five years at a cost of more than $10.4 million. Since 3/11 occurred, safety measures have increased. The Shinkansen now features a faster braking system. Tokyo’s business district of Marunouchi is planning a disaster-management facility that will house medical facilities and emergency accommodations. Also, one of Japan’s biggest developers, Mitsubishi Estate, is constructing buildings that can meet Japan’s strict code requirements.

Apart from tsunami flooding, another problem is the risk of fire. During a major quake, storage tanks along Tokyo Bay holding petrochemicals and other flammable materials could crack and spill, which could catch fire and affect the neighbourhood. Also, it remains unclear how Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), which managed Tokyo’s scheduled rolling blackouts after the 3/11 disaster, would handle a massive power shortage or outage when that happens. There is total lack of transparency and TEPCO is holding information from the public on what kind of safety system it has maintained.

Looking Ahead: Trends and Possible Outcomes
An interesting dimension to the nuclear energy debate is whether Japan can do away with nuclear power as a source of energy. The answer is, Japan cannot. For example, the Hamaoka nuclear facility that was deemed unsafe after the Fukushima accident is undergoing a re-look. Economic pressure is spurring debate and the Abe-II government is seriously considering restarting the country’s 50 operable reactors. As a quirk of destiny, as Japan faced the second anniversary of the 3/11 disaster, its anti-nuclear movement appeared to be struggling and disgraced pro-nuclear forces were rallying. A recent survey showed that approximately 70 per cent of the Japanese want to phase out nuclear power eventually, but an equal number back their new, pro-nuclear prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who wants to restart off-line reactors if they meet new safety standards, as he pushes policies aimed at reviving a long-stagnant economy.

In the meantime, the Japanese people continue to remain prisoners to their mind-sets of Shouganai (accepting one’s fate).
Two years after the Fukushima disaster, Japan still faces many challenges in terms of regional remediation. Monitoring effective procedures, formulating optimal clean-up plans and making the regulators accountable if safety procedures are compromised are the real challenges for the Abe-II administration. Regardless, the lessons learnt from the 3/11 disaster have made Japan more mature in dealing with adversity.