Three years after a tsunami hit the north-eastern coast of Japan, reconstruction is well behind schedule, while the nuclear accident in Fukushima remains a source of concern and reflexion and no one has been indicted for the consequences of the disaster.

A triple disaster

The tsunami in Japan, three years after
© Maksym Yemelyanov / Fotolia 2014

On 11 March 2011, the north-eastern coast of Japan was hit by an earthquake of 9 on the Richter scale, the fourth biggest worldwide since 1900. A tsunami with waves of up to 40 metres followed and the combination of these two events claimed 15 884 deaths and 2636 people missing in the Tohoku region. A 15-metre tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a complex run by TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company, now controlled by the State after the disaster), causing the second most serious nuclear accident after Chernobyl. According to an early estimate, damages could top $300 billion (0.5% of Japan’s GDP)

Around 300 000 people are still living in makeshift temporary shelters in Tohoku. Reconstruction – due to end in five years – is well behind schedule. The choice of Tokyo as organising city of the 2020 Olympic Games has raised concerns: will it drain precious resources from disaster areas to the capital?

Cleaning up after the nuclear accident in Fukushima

At Fukushima Daiichi, 340 000 litres of contaminated water still on site represent one of the most serious problems. News on spills worry the public. It will take 30-40 years to dismantle the four most damaged reactors. Fukushima workers’ health and their difficult working conditions have recently been highlighted. Renovation works are currently run by subcontractors with TEPCO reported not to have a clear overview of the workers’ situation.

Around 150 000 people have been moved out from the 20 km exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi. While in Chernobyl an area with 30 km radius was permanently evacuated and 115 000 people relocated outside it, land scarcity in Japan has led to the decision to carry out a difficult and expensive restoration of the nuclear plant and to make the affected areas fit for human habitation once again. In April 2014, the first 350 people are to come back home and, by 2016, 30 000 people.

Japanese people have shown strength and resilience during the disaster, but now tend to disbelieve public authorities. The local authority recently reported that the number of health complications stemming from the tsunami have killed more people in Fukushima prefecture than the disaster itself, since a growing number of people are dying from the physical and mental stress of staying at shelters, including through suicide. Children are showing a tendency to develop a higher than average level of behavioural disorders .

 Consequences for nuclear policy in Japan…

Japan needs to import about 84% of its energy. In 2010 the Japanese energy plan aimed to increase the share of nuclear energy from 30% to 50%. In response to the disaster, in October 2011 the then Kan Government decided to reduce Japan’s dependency on nuclear energy as much as possible in the medium and long-term. At present, all 48 commercial reactors are inactive until they meet the new safety requirements.

The press reported pressures coming from the industrial lobby during the run-up to the new Basic Energy Plan proposed by Abe’s Government in February 2014. Nuclear power is seen as an important source of energy out of the four options listed in the 2014 Plan, albeit with reduced dependence on it. Public opinion has meanwhile moved against nuclear power, however this does not necessarily translate into votes for anti-nuclear candidates. This was the case in the race for Tokyo’s Governor, where Yoichi Masuzoe, Abe’s candidate, beat two candidates who had promised to end nuclear power.

… and in the EU

The accident in Fukushima had an impact on the nuclear policy of several EU countries. Many decided to carry out safety tests on their own reactors. Germany closed its oldest nuclear plants, while planning to phase out all the others by 2022. During the presidential electoral campaign in France, François Hollande promised to close the oldest French plant (Fessenheim, in Alsace) and to decrease the share of electricity produced through nuclear power from 75% to 50% – both commitments are currently being debated. In Italy, 94% of voters rejected the proposal to re-introduce nuclear energy in the June 2011 referendum. Belgium has decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2025.

Further reading:

Fukushima : impacts and implications / D. Elliott, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2013