Situated in the town of Okuma in Fukushima prefecture, on the northeast coast of Japan, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was battered by an enormous tsunami on 11 March 2011, causing a perilous nuclear meltdown and a mass evacuation. The impact of that terrifying moment is still being felt.
The nuclear incident triggered a mass evacuation, the setting up of a vast exclusion zone around the plant, several hospitalisations due to the initial explosion and ensuing radiation exposure, and a clean-up operation costing trillions of yen.
The Fukushima accident was the worst nuclear disaster since the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine in 1986.
Here are 10 facts about Fukushima.
1. The disaster began with an earthquake
On 11 March 2011 at 14:46 local time (05:46 GMT) the 9.0 MW Great East Japan earthquake (also known as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake) struck Japan, 97km north of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The plant’s systems did their job, detecting the earthquake and automatically shutting down the nuclear reactors. Emergency generators were turned on to cool the remaining decay heat of the reactors and spent fuel.
2. The impact of a huge wave led to a nuclear meltdown
Soon after the earthquake, a tsunami wave of over 14 metres (46ft) in height hit Fukushima Daiichi, overwhelming a defensive seawall and flooding the plant. The impact of the flood took out most of the emergency generators that were being used to cool the reactors and spent fuel.
Urgent attempts were made to restore power and prevent the fuel in the reactors from overheating but, while the situation was partially stabilised, it was not enough to prevent a nuclear meltdown. The fuel in three of the reactors overheated and partly melted the cores.
3. Authorities ordered a mass evacuation
A triple meltdown, caused by overheated fuel melting the nuclear reactors in three of Fukushima’s six units, ensued and radioactive material began leaking into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean.
An emergency evacuation order with a radius of 20km around the power plant was quickly issued by authorities. A total of 109,000 people were ordered to leave their homes, with a further 45,000 also opting to evacuate nearby areas.
4. The tsunami claimed thousands of lives
The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated large swathes of Japan’s northeast coast, killing nearly 20,000 people and causing an estimated $235 billion in economic costs, making it the costliest natural disaster in history. It is often referred to as simply ‘3.11’ (it occurred on 11 March 2011).
5. No adverse health effects related to radiation have been documented
Understandably, any radioactive leak will trigger health concerns, but multiple sources have claimed that radiation-related health issues in the area surrounding the Fukushima plant will be very limited.
Two years after the disaster, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report claiming that the Fukushima radiation leak will not cause any observable increase in cancer rates in the region. Ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the disaster, a UN report said there had been “no adverse health effects” documented among Fukushima residents directly related to the radiation from the disaster.
6. The Fukushima Daiichi power plant had been criticised prior to the incident
Though the Fukushima incident was ostensibly caused by a natural disaster, many believe that it was preventable and point to historic criticisms that were never acted upon.
In 1990, 21 years before the incident, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) anticipated the failures that led to the Fukushima disaster. A report claimed that the failure of the emergency electricity generators and subsequent failure of the cooling systems of plants in seismically very active regions should be regarded as a likely risk.
This report was later cited by the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), but Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), who ran the Fukushima Daiichi Plant, did not react.
It’s also been pointed out that TEPCO was warned that the plant’s seawall was insufficient to withstand a substantial tsunami but failed to address the issue.
7. Fukushima has been described as a man-made disaster
An independent investigation set up by Japan’s parliament found that TEPCO was culpable, concluding that Fukushima was “a profoundly man-made disaster”.
The investigation found that TEPCO failed to meet safety requirements or to plan for such an event.
8. Fukushima victims have won £9.1 million in damages
On 5 March 2022, TEPCO was found to be liable for the disaster in Japan’s Supreme Court. The operator was ordered to pay 1.4 billion yen ($12m or about £9.1m) in damages to about 3,700 residents whose lives were greatly impacted by the nuclear disaster.
After a decade of failed legal actions against TEPCO, this decision – the result of three class-action lawsuits – is particularly significant because it’s the first time that the utility company has been found to be liable for the disaster.
9. A recent study claims that Japan probably didn’t need to relocate anyone
Recent analysis has questioned the need to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people from the area surrounding Fukushima Daiichi. Having run a simulation of a Fukushima-style event at a fictional nuclear reactor in southern England, the study (by The Conversation in collaboration with academics from the universities of Manchester and Warwick) found that “most likely, only the people in the nearest village would need to move out.”
10. Japan plans to release the radioactive water into the ocean
More than a decade after the Fukushima disaster, the question of disposing of 100 tonnes of radioactive wastewater – the product of efforts to cool the overheating reactors back in 2011 – remained unanswered. Reports in 2020 said that the Japanese government could start to release the water into the Pacific Ocean as early as 2023.
Scientists have claimed that the sheer volume of the ocean would dilute the radioactive wastewater to the extent that it would no longer pose a significant threat to human or animal life. Perhaps understandably, this proposed approach has been greeted with alarm and criticism.