On Friday, March 11th, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan with the epicenter near the island of Honshu. This was the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and one of the top 5 largest in the world. This was soon followed by a tsunami that reached as high as 40.5 meters (133 ft) in some areas.

There are several nuclear plants along Japans coast, some of which, because of their design, were more resistant to flooding, but the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant was not prepared for the 13–15 m (43–49 ft) waves that came crashing into it. This flooded the basement and disabled the emergency generators, meaning there was no power for the pumps that normally circulate coolant water, preventing a meltdown. The rest, as we know, is history. Fukushima Daiichi is now known as the second largest nuclear disaster of all time, next to Chernobyl in 1986.

Much blame and criticism has been tossed around in the two years since the disaster. The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), established on 8 December 2011, called the disaster “man-made”, blaming the government, regulators, and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) for their unpreparedness, delayed response, and lack of communication among themselves and with the public. The report even went as far as blaming Japanese culture for “our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity”. Many people in Japan were not to happy about this ridiculous criticism. One only has to recall the response to the BP oil spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, to realize major disasters, that no one is prepared for, can happen in any industrialized society.

Assessments of the amount of radiation released, and of how it will affect the surrounding population, show a minimal health risk, but there are so much uncertainty involved, as the estimates are based on models, with many unknowns, that it is difficult to say what health impacts could be seen. Estimates of how many people could develop cancer as a result of radiation exposure range from dozens to thousands. Even well into the future it will still be difficult to say what impact it had, as it is impossible to say what caused any one persons cancer, and even if the rates rise, it would be impossible to rule out other contributing factors.

It’s possible that some negative health effects are already being seen. A health management survey, last year, found that 36% of children in the area have experienced abnormal thyroid growth, although doctors insist that it is not related to radiation from the disaster. Other studies have found an increase in butterfly mutations, but it is hard to say what this could mean for humans, as we are obviously much bigger.

The way of life for many people in northern Japan has been utterly devastated. Not only have around 140,000 people been evacuated from their homes, with some saying that millions should have been evacuated, but it also had a huge affect on food production. Vegetables, beef, milk, and mushrooms from the area have been banned from sale, domestically and abroad. Just recently, fish have been found in the contaminated areas to have over 2,500 times the safe level of radiation. This has clearly been crippling for the farming and fisheries industries in the area.

Northern Japan is not the only area affected by this crisis. Contaminated tuna has also been found as far away as California, and there are worries that things could get worse for the west coast of North America as the radiation continues to spread through the Pacific.

Some nuclear experts have also warned about the potential threat of a much larger disaster if another big earthquake were to strike again, calling the situation a ticking time-bomb. Robert Alvarez, senior scholar of the Institute for Policy Research, and former senior adviser to the Secretary of Energy under Bill Clinton, has warned about spent reactor fuel, which contains 85 times more radiation than was released at Chernobyl, and is still vulnerable to future earthquakes. 

Several non-profit nuclear watchdog groups, such as Fairewinds Energy Education and Beyond Nuclear, have also raised alarm about the risks, not only at Fukushima, but with nuclear power in general.

Kevin Camps (Beyond Nuclear) on RT:

Arnie Gundersen (Fairewinds Energy Education) on WDEV:

There are also, of course, pro-nuclear groups, like Atomic Insights, who are attempting to debunk the claims of those mentioned above. Atomic Insights is founded by Rod Adams, who also founded Adams Atomic Engines, which designed and ultimately planned to build atomic engines, until they went out of business in 2010.

Rod Adams (Atomic Insights):

For me, any time two groups are telling opposing sides of a story, I tend to be more likely to agree with the one who has the least to gain from their advocacy. It’s easy to see why someone like Rod Adams, with ties to the nuclear industry, would want the industry to grow. It’s possible that he might even want to get back into the industry in the future. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to say that anti-nuclear groups could exaggerate the threat in order to justify their existence.

Presently, at Fukushima, cleanup has only just begun. After the meltdown, radiation levels were way too high for workers, and even robots could not function in those conditions. The levels have dropped 40% in the last year, but it is still a very hazardous environment for workers. The cleanup must be done very carefully and is expected to take up to 40 years.

None of this seems to be having any impact on the future of nuclear energy. Japan has decided to drop their earlier plans of phasing out their reliance on nuclear power by 2040, mainly due to lobbying pressure from the industry that provides 30% of Japans energy before the crisis.

Thousands of people in Japan attended an anti-nuclear protest the day before the 2nd anniversary of the earthquake that triggered it all, and surveys show that 70% of Japan want to see nuclear power phased out. As we all know, however, powerful interest groups, with the help of governments, tend to find a way do what they want, no matter how unpopular it is.

Last year, around 16,000 of those evacuated were allowed to return to their homes, many of which decided to stay away. This still leaves over 100,000 not knowing when or if they will ever be able to return home. It’s been two years now since the disaster, but it’s clear that the story will not be over for decades and generations to come.