The Fukushima accident, also referred to as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was an incident that took place on March 11, 2011. It resulted in the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi (Number One) nuclear plant in the town of Ōkuma in Northern Japan. Regarded as the worst nuclear disaster in history, it left the surrounding area completely destroyed and abandoned. Today, people have started to return to the town to document the aftermath, and the images are haunting.
It All Started With An Earthquake
On Friday, March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan, with its epicenter near Honshu, Japan’s largest island. Known as the Tōhoku or Great East Japan Earthquake, it was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful since recording began in 1900.
When the earthquake hit, units 4,5, and 6 of the reactor were shut down for a scheduled inspection with 1,2, and 3 shutting down automatically. This caused the plant to stop generating electricity.
They Knew The Plant Was Suseptable To Earthquakes
Japan rests on the Pacific Rim, an area in the world that is particularly prone to large earthquakes. In 1997, seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi coined the term “nuclear earthquake disaster,” and wrote an article warning about the dangers of building a nuclear power plant in such an unstable area.
The International Atomic Energy Agency also expressed their concern about Japan’s plant’s ability to withstand earthquakes. In 2008, it was announced that anything above a 7.0 magnitude would cause “a serious problem,” which isn’t uncommon for the area.
The Earthquake Caused A Devastating Tsunami
The massive quake caused a 43 to 49-foot tsunami, which reached Ōkuma approximately 50 minutes later. The tsunami waves rushed over the power plant’s 19-foot sea wall, flooding the basement of the turbine buildings, disabling the emergency diesel generators.
Furthermore, the switching stations that provide power for the backup generators failed after the building was flooded. The plant’s control systems were then switched to batteries designed to only last eight hours. Other batteries were shipped to the site but were delayed due to road conditions.
There Was A Massive Evacuation
The Japanese government quickly established a four-stage evacuation process which included a prohibited access area, an on-alert area, and an evacuation prepared area, depending on how far people were from the plant. On the first day, more than 170,000 people were evacuated from prohibited access and on-alert areas.
The following groups were later instructed to evacuate on March 25. Of the 470,000 in need of evacuating from the earthquake and tsunami, 154,000 were evacuated due to the nuclear accident.
Hydrogen Explosions Were The Beginning Of The End
The residual heat within each reactor’s core caused the fuel rods in reactors 1,2, and 3 to overheat and partially meltdown, releasing radiation. The melted material fell to the bottom of each vessel creating holes in reactors 1 and 2. The overheating caused a reaction between the water and zircaloy, creating hydrogen gas.
When the hydrogen mixed with oxygen on March 12, it caused Unit 1 to explode and a similar explosion in the Reactor 3 building on March 14. There was another explosion in the Reactor 4 building the following day.
The Fear of Radiation Increased Evacuations
After the explosions, workers began to try and stabilize the three cores by pumping seawater and boric acid into them. However, the biggest fear now was radiation, so the government established a strict 18-mile no-fly zone around the area and an immediate evacuation of a radius of 12.5 miles around the plant.
In total, approximately 232 square miles was evacuated. After the explosion on March 15, the government ordered an even larger evacuation 19 miles around the plant.
The Worst Had Come True
Insufficient cooling eventually led to the meltdowns in Reactors 1,2 and 3, and in the days following the accident, radiation was released into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the meltdown led to the release of contaminated and radioactive isotopes which were released into the Pacific Ocean both before and after the accident.
The incident was the only other nuclear disaster to be rated a Level 7, the highest classification by the International Nuclear Event Scale. To this day, Japan is still trying to recover.
Braving The Water
Although the water in the surrounding area is still contaminated, brave surfers still ride the waves on Tairatoyoma beach near the area of the disaster. Few people can be found within the radioactive zone, minus the protected workers involved with the clean-up.
However, some surfers can’t be stopped and walk right past the warning signs and plunge into the radioactive water. Wearing little more than a wetsuit, it’s still unclear the effects that surfing these waves will have on them in the future.
Radiation Monitoring Stations Are Scattered Everywhere
Here is a radiation monitoring station that has been placed in front of a destroyed and abandoned home inside the exclusion zone, incredibly close to the disaster area. These monitoring stations were established in various parts of the area after the disaster to document the movement and power of the radiation to judge whether an area is safe or not.
These have been placed all around near the disaster zone so the government has an idea if things are getting better or worse.
There Are Press Tours
This is an image of an employee measuring a radiation level of 213 micro Sievert per hour in front of the No.1 and No.2 reactor buildings. The image was taken during a press tour at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The media tour was offered in preparation for the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Entering the area is still considered to be highly dangerous and the right precautions must be met to protect yourself.
Eating The Food Is No Longer As Taboo As It Was
In the years following the incident, the local agricultural and fishing industries collapsed, as customers were hesitant to eat products remotely close to the region. However, recently, Japan has set limits on the amount of cesium allowed in food, a whopping 12 times more strict than the United States.
An agricultural testing center in Koriyama has analyzed 210,000 samples of local produce as well as beef from the danger zone. Similar testing is done at the Onahama fishing port where every fish is monitored from each catch.
Residents Don’t Appreciate The Negative Misconceptions About Moving Back
Of the small number of residents who have returned home after some areas have been classified as safe, many don’t appreciate the stigma of living in the area.
According to Shuzo Sasaki, a government official, “The people around here aren’t happy with the idea they live in a ‘dark’ place. The idea that because this is Fukushima it must be dangerous is completely wrong.” Sasaki himself has led tours through the area to try and inspire tourism and relocation to the area.
There Are Global Repercussions
The nuclear disaster is still causing major issues both at home and abroad. According to Harvey Wasserman, “Massive quantities of heavily contaminated water are pouring into the Pacific Ocean, dousing workers along the way. Hundreds of huge, flimsy tanks are leaking untold tons of highly radioactive fluid.”
Although the worst of it is being experienced in Japan, few people understand that the disaster could have global repercussions as well with so much radiation being leaked into the Pacific Ocean.
People Are Concerned About The 2020 Tokyo Olympics
The Fukushima disaster released pollutants into the air such as cesium-134, cesium-137, strontium-90, iodine-131, and plutonium-238. These radioactive pollutants have a lifespan of over 100 years, which means they can still be a major threat for decades to come.
In regards to the Olympics, not everyone is entirely keen on having an international event around the location of a major nuclear catastrophe that still isn’t entirely dealt with. Some have even begun to claim that the Japanese government isn’t strictly following decontamination protocol, making even more people skeptical.
Radioactive Material Is Supposedly Just Being Moved Elsewhere
The area surrounding the disaster is riddled with radioactive particles that have even sunk into the ground. So, cleanup efforts include stripping the top layer of soil and disposing of it in a correct and safe manner.
However, many eyewitness reports show that a lot of this soil and other radioactive material is simply being placed into bags and then moved elsewhere. While this might be part of the process, some have claimed that it seems the bags don’t look to be moving anywhere soon.
Contaminated Water Is A Whole Other Issue
The storage of radiation-contaminated water brings up another entirely new set of worries. Around 100 to 150 tons of contaminated water is produced at the plant every day, meaning that a 1,000-ton tank can be filled up in around seven to ten days.
At the moment, 1.1 million tons of radioactive water is currently being stored on the plant’s premises. The major problem is, that under TEPCO’s plan, the maximum capacity for contaminated water storage is only 1.35 million tons.
Plant Workers Are Very Concerned
Unfortunately, people are still needed to work on the plant because there is still so much to get done. In a survey conducted, many of the workers are concerned about their frequent exposure to radiation, with over half fearing that it will cause serious health issues in the future.
The main concern for these workers, however, is how long they will have to work at the plant. This is because there seems to be no end to the work in sight. With no guaranteed stable income in the future, many are afraid they won’t be able to receive treatment if needed.
There Are Tours For Those Who Dare
Although most people would prefer to stay far away from anywhere near Fukushima, those who are looking for a unique adventure can take tours of the area. While the Japanese government has claimed much of the surrounding area to be safe in hopes of encouraging people to move back, not everyone is convinced.
However, those who are daring enough can hop on a bus and see the aftermath of the disaster. All they have to do is keep tabs on the radiation.
There Were No Immediate Deaths Due To The Meltdown
At Chernobyl, two plant workers were killed by the immediate explosion, with 29 more dying from radiation poisoning over the next three months following the disaster. In the case of Fukushima, there were no deaths or cases of radiation sickness associated directly with the catastrophe according to the World Health Organization.
However, it did result in the relocation of 100,000 at the time and is now believed to have indirectly resulted in around 1,000 deaths of people 66 and older according to the World Nuclear Association.
Contaminated Water Reached North America’s Western Coast
Radiation from contaminated water reached the western coast of North America in 2014. However, experts have claimed that the radiation was too low to pose any real threat to human life. In addition, in 2018, it was discovered that some wines produced in California after the Fukushima disaster showed elevated levels of radioactive cesium-137.
Thankfully, the California Department of Public Health proclaimed that the wines with a higher radioactive level were no more dangerous consumed than those that were unaffected.