Daiichi Fukushima: A Lesson for the Future

by Gordo

A TEPCO worker checks a child for radiation levels

The Daiichi Fukushima nuclear plant became a household name in March 2011, and not for a good reason. When a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan on March 11, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered a series of failures and meltdowns that resulted in the release of large amounts of radioactive material into the surrounding environment.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the earthquake itself that caused the major damage, but the tsunami following the earthquake. When the tsunami wave hit the plant, it damaged its automatic cooling system and the computerized system managing it. Without a cooling system in place, the reactor started to overheat until the point of meltdown.

During the few hours after the tsunami, the high waters and intense damage caused by the earthquake made it impossible for personnel to reach the plant. Without outside assistance, the reactors continued to overheat. By the second day, three reactors were either in complete meltdown or close to it. Two additional reactors had been shut down prior to the earthquake for maintenance. The sixth and last reactor never reached complete meltdown despite being damaged. Reactors 1 and 3 suffered the most damage, with numerous explosions, containment breaches and high radiation levels seeping into the surrounding water and air.

Damage Control

The first step in controlling damage was to add saltwater and later fresh water to the reactor cores to try and cool them down and prevent further explosions. It took over two weeks for power to be restored, using off-site sources. This was essential to getting the cooling system going again so the reactors could be stabilized.  It wasn’t until near the end of April that robots entered the plant to check the situation and not until the end of May that the first employees and emergency personnel returned to stabilize major components.

The reactors didn’t return to their normal temperature (under 100 degrees Fahrenheit) until the third week of September. For the six months between the meltdown and the return to normal, the main objective was to reduce the reactor’s temperature and to ease the pressure of the fuel vessels. During that time, there was no attempt to make actual repairs or remove radioactive material from the plant because it was either impossible or too risky to attempt that.

The Daiicihi Fukushima Nuclear Disaster’s Significance

The accident at Daiichi Fukushima is the second largest nuclear accident in history after Chernobyl. Still, the radiation that leaked from Daiichi Fukushima was about 10 percent of the total released during Chernobyl. Because of the evacuation procedures in place, the accident in Japan claimed no victims and injured less than 40 employees. Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi are the only two incidents in history to be marked as Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Level 7 is the highest, most serious possible level in nuclear accidents. For an accident to be marked 7, it needs to have caused significant damage to the environment and serious and lasting contamination.

Fukushima Daiichi is not expected to reopen, since the damage was so extensive. Still, experts are working hard to ensure that no further contamination and leaks happen in the area. Teams are also working on decontaminating the water and land near the plant. A 12.5-mile zone was evacuated all around the plant and has been declared inhabitable. There are no plans to allow people to return there.

The one positive thing to come out of the Daiichi Fukushima disaster is Japan’s renewed interest in alternative energy sources. As a first step, the government will build a wind farm around the area where the nuclear plant is located. Over time, they hope to replace 100 percent of the energy the nuclear plant used to produce.

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