Thirteen years on: limited change since Japan’s 2011 Disaster

Today marks 13 years since a strong earthquake and tsunami hit the northern coast of Japan. Nearly 20,000 people died, entire cities were wiped out, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was destroyed, creating profound radiation fears that persist to this day. As the nation celebrates the anniversary, let's understand what's happening now at the plant and nearby areas

In 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan triggered a tsunami, leading to one of the world’s worst nuclear incidents as it devastated the country.

Despite numerous issues and government promises, Japan last year decided to extend the lifespan of its 11 reactivated nuclear reactors by 60 years post the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. While 43 reactors are shut down due to severe structural problems and obsolescence, Tokyo is building new ones. Moreover, many of the 11 reactors that survived the Fukushima disaster are still undergoing maintenance, and in 2020, less than 5% of Japan’s electricity was generated from nuclear energy, down from 30% before the incident.

Additionally, a controversial plan to release over 1.3 million tonnes of treated water from Fukushima Daiichi was initiated last year, raising alarms across the Pacific and sparking political debates.

What happened 13 years ago?

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake caused a tsunami that hit northern coastal cities in the Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures. The tsunami, reaching heights of up to 15 meters in some areas, struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, destroying its power supply and cooling systems for fuel, leading to reactor meltdowns.

Hydrogen explosions caused significant radiation leaks and contamination. Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings claimed the tsunami was unforeseeable, yet investigations and court rulings highlighted human error, safety negligence, lax regulatory oversight, and collusion.

Since then, Japan has implemented stricter safety standards and initially moved towards phasing out nuclear energy. However, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government has reversed this policy, accelerating the restart of operational reactors to maintain nuclear power as Japan’s main energy source. Meanwhile, a recent earthquake on January 1 in central-northern Japan, which damaged many homes and roads but not an inactive nuclear plant, has reignited concerns about the adequacy of current evacuation plans.

What has happened to the residents in the meantime?

About 20,000 of the over 160,000 residents evacuated from Fukushima have not returned home.

In Futaba, the hardest-hit town and home to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a small area was reopened in 2022, allowing about 100 people, or 1.5% of the pre-disaster population, to return. Okuma, another host town, has allocated part of its land for a temporary storage site for nuclear waste from decontamination, with 6% of its residents returning.

The discharge of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant

In August, Fukushima Daiichi began discharging treated water into the sea, with a current release of a fourth batch of 7,800 tonnes. Daily seawater sampling results have reportedly met safety standards, but the plan continues to face protests from local fishermen and neighboring countries, particularly China, which has banned Japanese seafood imports.

Meanwhile, the government has allocated 10 billion yen to support Fukushima’s fishing industry. The contaminated cooling water is pumped, treated, and stored in about 1,000 tanks. According to the government and TEPCO, the water is diluted with large amounts of seawater before release, making it safer than international standards.

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