The earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan is seared into our memories ever since March 11, 2011. The tsunami that caused the nuclear power plant disaster killed 19,000 people in one fell swoop. At the same time, the tsunami swept away the emergency diesel generators that are used to cool the nuclear power plant reactors in case of power failure. This allowed for a complete nuclear meltdown. It was the perfect recipe for disaster.
Firsthand account from Carl Pilitteri, Excerpt from Environmental Action:
"In one nanosecond, the entire floor went black. Every light went out. You would expect some emergency lighting would come on, but there wasn't a one. And there was this most welcome beam of light coming from the gap under the door. I made my way over to the door, and the one and only light in the room, it was swinging violently and then at the same time I opened the door it busted free and shattered on the floor. It was pitch black again. I remember thinking, ‘None of you are getting out of here.'
One of the Japanese guys had grabbed me around the waist. I put my arm up on his shoulder. With every jolt I squeezed his shoulder. I remember praying aloud for him, for all of us. I thought, we're going to perish in this turbine building. I can still hear the turbine making its unwelcome sound. I had many thoughts. But one of them was: Good God. I got up this morning just to go to work. And this is how it's written for me? Dying is a fact of life. We all have to do it sooner or later. But this is how it's written for me? March 11? On a Friday? On a turbine deck? In Fukushima? At work? Of course my thoughts went immediately to my family. My two young children."
Before the Tsunami
Researchers are now saying that the nuclear power plant disaster was bound to happen eventually, based on plant designs. USC Viterbi School of
Engineering and the Middle East Technical University have gone through government, industrial, and media reports to figure out why the power plant disaster happened. Through their research, they found that design flaws, regulatory failures, and improper hazard reports are the reason that the disaster happened in the first place.
"Earlier, government and industrial studies focused on the mechanical failures and ‘buried the lead.' The pre-event tsunami hazards study, if done properly, would have identified the diesel generators as the lynch pin of a future disaster. Fukushima dai-ichi was a sitting duck waiting to be flooded," said Professor Synolakis of Civil and Environmental Engineering at USC Vitebi.
The research paper states that the nuclear disaster was a "cascade of industrial, regulatory, and engineering failures" that led to the backup generators (needed to cool the plant in the event of power failure) being built in harm's way. The generators were built in the wrong spot.
"What doomed Fukushima dai-ichi was the elevation of the EDGs," the paper states. They were too low. One set was in the basement and the others were only 10-13 meters above sea level. It was later confirmed that the builders of the plant ignored Japanese scientists who said that larger tsunamis were possible and the EDGs should be placed higher. This is proven by the fact that 22 of the 33 backup generators were washed away by the tsunami, allowing for the meltdown.
During the Tsunami
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake prompted a tsunami that caused devastating, far-reaching effects for the world. At 2:46pm a magnitude 9 earthquake hit, which caused the tsunami. The largest wave arrived 50 minutes after the earthquake and reached 13 meters tall, overwhelming the power plant's seawall, which was 10 meters tall. Water flooded the low-lying rooms where the EDGs were housed.
The tsunami swept away 22 of the 33 backup generators, used to cool the nuclear reactors in the event of a power failure. This caused all three cores to melt within three days. The accident was rated a 7 (the same as Chernobyl) on the INES scale because of the high radioactivity. It released 940 PBq of radiation over 4-6 days.
Four reactors were written off. It took two weeks to begin to stabilize the other three reactors with water. By July, they were cooled by recycled water. By mid-December, a "cold shutdown condition" was announced.
After the Tsunami
Following the tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster, 100,000 people were evacuated to avoid the nuclear fallout. Japan began screening children that lived near the evacuation zone for thyroid cancer in 2012. As of December, 2014, 112 cases have been found. Stanford University predicts that within 10 years, there will be 130 fatalities and 180 additional cases of cancer related to the radiation.
The area around the nuclear power plant still has dangerous levels of radiation. Hundreds of fuel rods are still there, unable to be moved because they are unstable. This is also causing the underground water to be contaminated.
In response to this disaster, many countries have gone against nuclear power. Within days of the Fukushima disaster, Germany had already shut down 8 of their 17 nuclear power plants. Other countries planned to do the same. However, now it appears that this reaction was based on false information. If the reason for the disaster was the faulty design, then the risk for a similar accident can be avoided by simply designing the plant correctly.
The Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster forever changed not only Japan, but the world. It is an example of what can happen when power plant design takes a shortcut. The design of all things related to something as powerful, yet fragile as a power plant need to be meticulous. The results of not making proper design a priority are shown here. The world doesn't need another nuclear disaster. Chernobyl and Fukushima showcased it well enough.