The great Japanese earthquake of March 2011 was a tragedy of unprecedented scale. It began with the primary damage of the earthquake, which was of magnitude 9 (at the top of the scale). This caused a tsunami with waves 20 to 30m and in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, the run-up height of the waves was 43.3m. The tsunami damaged the Fukushima 1 nuclear plant, resulting in a nuclear meltdown and hydrogen explosions in two reactors.
Although most damage, deaths and casualties were caused directly by the earthquake and tsunami, much media and world attention has been given to the Fukushima 1 nuclear accident. The investigations and reports by the Japanese commission on the whole event is therefore of great importance.
The event as a whole caused 15,882 deaths, with 2,668 people missing. Of these 92.4% died by drowning (tsunami), 4.4% died by crushing (earthquake collapse), 1.1% by fire and 2.1% by unknown causes.
There were no deaths caused by the nuclear accident but 321,000 people were evacuated from their homes – mostly those living up to 30km from the plant many of whom have still not returned. The full radiation clean-up will take several years. The reconstruction will take up to 10 years with costs for the damage to homes, public buildings and infrastructure estimated at £160 billion. Most of the infrastructure, however, had been reconstructed and recovered by November 2012, but housing will take longer.
With a natural disaster of such magnitude the surprising finding is that the Fukushima 1 disaster was avoidable and was caused by neglect by the plant owners and regulators. This conclusion was drawn because none of the other nuclear plants in Japan had similar failures. Indeed the newer Fukushima 2 nuclear power plant, which is located 11km south, did not reach a stage of overheating and meltdown because its design was of a higher standard.
When it started operating in 1982 Tepko, the owners of Fukushima 1, were required to upgrade their systems to meet the new higher design standards. They failed to do so and were not pressed by the regulators. In the words of the Diet Commission ‘the accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepko and the lack of governance by said parties’.
In the UK we are now losing the ability to build our own plants and putting construction in the hands of foreigners such as the French company EDF with additional Chinese help. We need to rebuild this technical base, using nuclear power as part of a mixed energy provision, along with maintaining strong regulating bodies, which have been shown to be so important in the Fukushima 1 disaster.