It has been a decade since 11 March 2011, when the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan triggered a tsunami and killed over 19,500 people and displaced over 230,000. It was the country’s worst natural disaster since 1995.
The ‘Great East Japan Earthquake’ or ‘Great Tohoku Earthquake’ is better known as the ‘Fukushima nuclear disaster’ and often cited as Exhibit A in the case against nuclear energy. Yes, the quake and tsunami caused a catastrophic failure of three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi power plant, leaving a contained radioactive mess that will take decades to clean up, and triggered a mass evacuation during which 2,313 people died.
Yet, for all the horror stories, the actual number of deaths or cases of radiation sickness due to the accident is—take a deep breath—zero. Coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the disaster, a United Nations scientific committee confirmed findings that there have been no adverse health effects linked to radiation exposure. Nobody died and no one fell sick due to the reactor accident.
That’s not all. The popular narrative often neglects to mention that there were 11 operational reactors—including the three at Fukushima Daiichi—at four nuclear power plants in the region. All of them shut down automatically, but the three at Fukushima failed to complete the process.
Sixty kilometres away, three reactors at Onagawa were undamaged and shut down safely, despite being closer to the epicentre and suffering a more powerful tsunami. None of this is to downplay the human, environmental and economic damage that the Fukushima accident caused, or indeed the risks arising from nuclear power plants; only to put it in perspective. What we have is a case for greater attention to safety and governance, not a knee jerk rejection of nuclear energy as we saw in many Western countries soon after the incident.
A dispassionate assessment of technology and economics suggests that nuclear energy has to be part of the civilizational response to climate change.