Before March 11, 2011, “Fukushima” was the name of a relatively unknown prefecture in Japan. Now it is a shorthand reference to an event in which three large nuclear power plants melted and released a small quantity of long lived radioactive material that has not harmed any human being.
Here is a brief synopsis of the events that have turned “Fukushima” into one of the most frequently found words on the internet.
Immediately after a very powerful earthquake and tsunami hit the north east coast of Japan, killing at least 16,000 people and destroying the man made infrastructure over more than 100 miles of the Japanese coast, the word “Fukushima” was still not well known outside of Japan. We were focused on the tragedy and the visual images of incredible shaking in offices, malls, and tall buildings and the frightening sight of a wall of black water washing over people, automobiles, and multi-story structures.
Within about a day of the initial tragedy, however, the world was distracted as a larger and larger portion of the major news media outlets outside of Japan decided to focus our attention on the unfolding drama at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. Though the station did not suffer any significant immediate damage, and though essentially all of the people on the site were safely protected from the effects of the earthquake and tsunami, the events had knocked out all electrical power.
Both the off-site power system and 12 out of 13 diesel generators on site were severely damaged. Off-site power was knocked out by the earthquake when a large transmission line tower fell down; the diesel generators were knocked out by the tsunami. Unfortunately, those generators were on the sea side of the plant and located below the flooding caused by the tsunami. Even their fuel tanks were washed away. This loss of power made it very difficult for the operators to provide the continuing flow of coolant required after a nuclear plant shuts down. The plants were never “out of control” but they were gradually heating up due to the effects of radioactive decay.
As Margaret Harding, one of my favorite nuclear energy professionals, describes the way the media decided to focus on the struggles at the nuclear plant instead of the immense human tragedy of the casualties and property damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami, the events at Fukushima Dai-ichi were like a slow motion disaster movie. The talking heads – or their producers – decided that it was more interesting to tell that story than to help us understand where the real needs were.
Groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and individuals like Arnie Gundersen and Helen Caldicott have worked overtime to use the difficulties at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear station to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about the use of nuclear energy. There are hundreds of thousands of real victims of that fear mongering campaign of disinformation, some of whom have already experienced shortened lives due to the negative health impacts of living under severe stress, worried that they have already become a victim of “contamination” that they cannot see, feel, or smell.
Even after scientists and technicians have used the simple instruments that can detect incredibly minute quantities of radioactive material and given a clean bill of health, the fear mongers have convinced people that they are not out of the woods. According to their purposeful campaign, affected people must continue to stress out about “hot particles”, about food whose measured radioactivity is less than the natural activity of a banana, a glass of beer or a Brazil nut, and about the very soil on which their children should be playing.
Partly as a result of the focused fear-spreading campaign, Japan is spending at least $60 billion more per year for imported fossil fuel to replace the output of its 50 operable reactors. Even with all of that extra cost, the supply of electricity is still not as abundant as it was before the event, requiring continued personal sacrifices and continued curtailment of valuable production at certain times of day.
This episode of the Atomic Show is a small attempt to spread calm by sharing useful information that can help people respect and understand radiation instead of trembling about the mere hint that it might be nearby.
Will Davis who publishes the excellent Atomic Power Review blog, writes for ANS Nuclear Cafe and writes a column for Fuel Cycle Week.
Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy and one of the stars of the Sundance Film Festival sensation titled Pandora’s Promise.
Margaret Harding, principle at 4 Factor Consulting, writer at Fuel Cycle Week and a technical consultant for the NGNP (Next Generation Nuclear Plant) project
Steve Aplin, an energy policy consultant in Ontario who publishes the highly regarded Canadian Energy Issues blog
Cal Abel, a PhD Nuclear Engineering student at Georgia Tech and former nuclear submarine engineer officer who was the first person to suggest using a concrete pumper truck to refill the elevated spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station.