Discovery Guides Areas


Aftershock: The Continuing Effects of Japan's March 11, 2011 Earthquake
(Released February 2012)

podcast link 
  by Kathryn Mori & Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations




June–September: Continuing Revelations about Fukushima


The two natural disasters which occurred on March 11 triggered a third man-made disaster which in the long term may prove to be even more devastating than both natural disasters combined. Fukushima Daiichi, a nuclear power plant consisting of 6 boiling water reactors, the oldest of which was constructed in 1967, was hit by the brunt of the earthquake and then a few hours later by a fifteen meter wall of water. Due to the damage caused by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the reactors that had been on line were shut down, and soon afterwards the cooling system was destroyed. Over the next few days, a number of explosions occurred first in reactor 1, then 3, and finally reactors 2 and 4 which released a plume of radioactivity into the atmosphere (Brook). There was also a fire in the spent fuel rod pool stored above one of the reactors (Matson). Soon after the accident, officials from TEPCO as well as the government assured the public that the situation was under control, and that the power plants posed no risk to the public. Soon afterwards, the statement was revised to say that there could be health risks within a 12 mile evacuation zone, but that there was little or no health danger outside this zone (King et al).  

Graph of radiation release from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant
Graph of radiation release from the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, compared to historic events and standards.

For a brief time Fukushima was only rated as a four on a scale of nuclear disasters, a rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) which suggests only a minor release of radiation with only local effects (INES).  After initial reassurances, increasingly alarming news began to surface. It became clear that the fuel rods had been exposed and there were three full meltdowns. Additionally, there were cracks at the bottom of the containment in unit 1, allowing contaminated water to leak through into the basement. Despite the fact that many global media sources were suggesting there had been multiple meltdowns (Joyner), it was not until mid May that the Japanese government publicly acknowledged the meltdowns.  The Fukushima disaster was raised to a level seven on the INES scale, the highest possible rating, indicating wide-scale health and environmental effects and an external release of a significant fraction of the reactor core inventory (INES). After the rating was upgraded to seven, many news agencies were quick to point out that, although Fukushima was rated the same as Chernobyl, that the scale used to measure these disasters was limited and that Fukushima was not nearly as large a disaster as the one in Chernobyl. By June, however, many news agencies began to revisit that evaluation. Comparison is complicated due to the fact that a number of varieties of radiation have been released, and while one or several forms of radiation may be lower than Chernobyl, others may be higher. Iodine 131, cesium 134 and 137, strontium and plutonium have all been released into the atmosphere, soil, and water (Watts).  In June, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) estimated that the release of radiation into the atmosphere in the first week may have been double what was previously estimated. As of September 2011, they estimated that 770,000 terabecquerels were released (“Fukushima radiation levels”). TEPCO announced that the Fukushima disaster probably released more radioactive material into the environment than Chernobyl, and one source suggests that there still remains a potential for a release 20 times that of Chernobyl (Jamail).

Some experts fear that further earthquakes may significantly worsen the situation (Kaku). The plants are not even scheduled for cold shut down until early-2012. Until late June, the core material was kept cool by continuously injecting water into the system, much of which leaked out into the basement. By July, the four units held 110,000 tons of contaminated water, which had begun to spill up out of the basement and present risks of leaking into the ocean (“Japan nuclear”). Finally, in late June, a system was put into place that could clean the water and re-inject it into the system (“Fukushima water cleanup”). Five hours after start up on the first attempt, the system was shut down due to the absorption of levels of radiation far higher than any expectation (Bishop).

In June, the public began to discuss radiation hot spots which had developed outside the Fukushima area. A number of radioactive hot spots were detected up to 200km from the nuclear power plant, with levels high enough to trigger mandatory evacuation. As much as 300km from Fukushima, areas, including Tokyo, showed significantly elevated levels of radiation.  The Japanese government has been very conservative in evacuating any such areas (White). Along with fears about hotspots, food has also increasingly become a concern. In July, it was found that almost 3,000 cattle, whose meat was feared to be contaminated, had been distributed and consumed throughout Japan. These cattle had been unintentionally fed hay which was highly contaminated (“Radioactive-tainted beef”). With seawater climbing to 30 times the allowable limit of cesium 134 near Fukushima, seafood is also a large concern. Products including spinach, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tea, milk, plums and fish have been found contaminated with cesium and iodine as far as 360km from Daiichi (Takada). The next crop to cause serious concern is rice. As of August, Japan had no organized system of testing food, but authorities do plan to ban shipments of rice where contamination is found (Matsuyama).

Radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi plant
Radiation doses for March-April 2011 from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster from combined results of 211 flight hours of aerial monitoring operations and ground measurements made by DOE, DoD and Japanese monitoring teams.

The constant trickle of discouraging news is taking its toll on the general public, including those not living near Fukushima. One leading clinical psychologist, Satoshi Takahashi, predicts that the mental fallout will be worse than the physical effects. He says as opposed to the post traumatic stress caused by the earthquake, the radiation “creates a slow, creeping, invisible pressure” that can lead to prolonged depression. “Some people say they want to die. Others become more dependent on alcohol. Many more complain of listlessness.” He also says that the uncertainty is very difficult for Japanese people. “Individuals are being forced to make decisions about what is safe to eat and where is safe to live, because the government is not telling them – Japanese people are not good at that” (Watts). The Japanese government has admitted to initially covering up the severity of the incident to prevent public panic. In one interview former Prime Minister Kan admits to having visions of a lifeless and deserted Tokyo, but says it would have been impossible to evacuate Tokyo no matter what the circumstances (Jardin). Regardless of the motivations, many citizens are frustrated and disillusioned with their inability to get accurate information from the government and feel unable to trust public reports. Various groups and individuals have begun using radiation detectors to monitor the levels of radiation for themselves (“Radiation hot spots”).  Many videos have appeared on YouTube, some completely silent, of people measuring the levels of radiation in their local areas. Frequently, these videos show levels significantly higher than the governments claims (“TrailmanStoicLife”).

Along with the growing incredulity toward the accuracy of available information, there is some concern about what caused the accident itself. All initial reports suggest that the damage to the cooling system was caused by the tsunami, however there is some indication that the cooling system was damaged beyond repair by the earthquake itself. Some first-hand accounts claim seeing walls and pipes coming apart before the tsunami hit. TEPCO has had problems in the past with falsifying safety records. In 2002, pipes were found to be fractured, deteriorating and in poor repair. Just 9 days before the earthquake, NISA warned TEPCO about its failure to inspect critical pieces of equipment including recirculation pumps. They were ordered to perform inspections and repairs. If the damage was caused by the earthquake instead of the tsunami it casts doubts on claims that the disaster was 'unforeseeable' and creates new doubts about the future safety of other plants. With Japan's nuclear reactors being shut down one by one for inspection, local resistance has delayed or completely forestalled reactors coming back on line (McNeill and Adelstein).

Go To September–December: Japan's Economy and Fukushima

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