THE PUBLIC EYE: Fukushima: What Have We Learned?

By Bob Burnett
Friday March 14, 2014 - 09:18:00 AM

It’s been three years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the bad news continues. In December, it was widely reported that 51 US sailors assigned to the nuclear carrier, Ronald Reagan, have incurred cancer, as a result of that vessel’s 2011 deployment to the area of the Fukushima reactor failure. The actual cleanup is painfully slow. What have we learned from the Fukushima disaster? 

On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced a 9.0 earthquake. The six nuclear plants at Fukushima Daiichi – about 136 miles north of Tokyo – survived the quake but were swamped by a 45-foot wave that overwhelmed the 19-foot seawalls. Fukushima units 5 and 6 were in cold shutdown for maintenance and Unit 4 had been deactivated. Units 1,2, and 3 lost power and were unable to cool down properly; they experienced full meltdown. In the ensuing three years, we learned four grim truths. 

Disaster communication was terrible. At the time of the earthquake and tsunami, the USS Ronald Reagan was in the Gulf of Japan and was deployed to aid the relief effort. Now, 51 sailors, who were part of the 2011 rescue mission, are suing the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) “alleging that the utility mishandled the crisis and did not adequately warn the crew of the risk of participating in the earthquake relief efforts.” 

Journalist William Boardman reported: 

Although the potential seriousness of the Fukushima accident was widely apparent, Japanese officials publicly and privately minimized the danger for as long as they could, lying to their own people and rescue personnel from other countries alike. At the time, the first meltdown was thought to have happened on March 12. [Two years later] on December 12, 2013, Naoto Kan, the former prime minister who was in office at the time, told a meeting of the Japan Press Club that his government had known that “the first meltdown occurred five hours after the earthquake” which hit at 14:46 on March 11. The U.S.S. Reagan and accompanying ships were coming into an environment where radiation levels in the air and water were far higher than the Navy was being told officially. That lying is at the heart of the lawsuit against TEPCO, which… argues that TEPCO’s lies led the U.S. Navy to sail unknowingly into intensely and dangerously radioactive waters.

The Reactors weren’t designed to be safe. In February the Union of Concerned Scientists published Fuskushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster written by scientists David Lochbaum and Edwin Lyman together with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Susan Q. Stranahan. They observed: 

Fukushima Daiichi unmasked the weaknesses of nuclear power plant design and the long-standing flaws in operations and regulatory oversight. Although Japan must share this blame, this was not a Japanese nuclear accident [alone]… The problems that led to the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi exist wherever reactors operate. Although the accident involved a failure of technology, even more worrisome was the role of the worldwide nuclear establishment: the close-knit culture that has championed nuclear energy – politically, economically, socially – while refusing to acknowledge and reduce the risks that accompany its operation… In many respects, the emergency communication system at Fukushima Daiichi reflected the underlying premise of the plant’s comprehensive accident management plan, which read: ‘the possibility of a severe accident occurring is so small that from an engineering standpoint, it is practically unthinkable.’ The follies resulting from this complacent attitude began to build catastrophically.

We still don’t understand what happened, As horrific as the Fukushima nuclear disaster was, one would hope that we’ve learned important lessons from it. Sadly, that’s not the case. Lochbaum, Lyman, and Stranahan reported that, so far, accident modelers have not been effective: 

The computer simulations could not reproduce numerous important aspects of the accidents. And in many cases, different computer codes gave different results… When computer models cannot fully explain yesterday’s accident, they cannot accurately simulate tomorrow’s accident. Yet the nuclear establishment continues to place ever-greater reliance on these codes to develop safety strategies and cost-benefit analyses.

Meanwhile, TEPCO struggles to clean up Fukushima Daiichi. Recently, the TEPCO president Naomi Hirose said: 

we have set an ambitious goal to remove the fuel debris from at least one of the reactors by the first half of fiscal year 2020. It will not be easy. The technology for safely doing so is not yet in place, and there can be no shortcuts."
On March 10th a senior advisor to TEPCO warned, “[the company] may have no choice but to eventually dump hundreds of thousands of [tons] of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.” 


What does this mean to the United States? We shouldn’t build any more nuclear plants and we should shut down the 65 currently operating. Lockbaum, Lyman, and Stranahan observed that our nuclear facilities are also vulnerable to natural disasters (and terrorist attacks) and “U.S emergency plans are not designed to protect the public in the aftermath of Fukushima-scale accidents or fully address the problem of long-term land contamination.” 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at