StMU Research Scholars

It Started with a Wave: The Fukushima Disaster

Natural disasters are very common but tragic events around the world. From earthquakes to tornadoes, geological disasters can cause increasingly damaging effects, affecting the landscape and those who find themselves there. But when these events are combined with man-made artifacts, the effects might be even greater. An example of this is the Fukushima Disaster in Japan, the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl incident.1 But the cause of this horrific disaster wasn’t particularly a man-made event. In fact, it all started with a wave.

Map of Nuclear Power Plants in Japan | Courtesy of CNN

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake with a magnitude 9.0—the worst to ever hit Japan—hit the country. It was such a powerful catastrophe, that Japan’s main island, Honshu, was permanently moved more than two meters to the east. As the earthquake gained momentum, waves up to 40 meters began crushing the country’s coast. The effects of the earthquake and the waves were too much for the Japanese. More than 20,000 people died or went missing and hundreds of thousands more lost their homes.2 But the worst was yet to come. Fifty minutes after the initial earthquake, a ten-meter high sea wall hit the Fukushima Daiichi (Number One) nuclear power plant. The water flooded the plant’s emergency power generators, knocking vital cooling systems offline, triggering a meltdown of reactor fuel rods. These then leaked deadly radiation into the coastal atmosphere of Japan. With the cooling systems not working, hydrogen gas built up in the reactor buildings, causing several hydrogen explosions in the following days of the earthquake.3

Upward view of the Nuclear Plan after the explosion | Courtesy of The Daily Mail

Because of the highly toxic radioactive material that leaked to the surrounding areas of the power plant, the government began to evacuate 80,000 people from a twelve-mile radius. Technicians turned to several things to try to cool the nuclear fuel, like using fresh water, seawater, and injecting nitrogen into the reactor containment buildings to prevent further explosions.4 But despite the efforts to try to help the people of Honshu, the government didn’t tell the people the truth. The official statistics of the event and even the admittance that the meltdown had taken place weren’t disclosed until eighty-eight days later.5

It was estimated that more than 800,000 tons of highly-radioactive material sat near the accident, which was slowly getting into the ground and moving towards the ocean. Although many people were evacuated, there were still many that couldn’t leave. The government installed temporary housing that was intended to house tens of thousands of people after the disaster for twenty-four months. But five years after the disaster, thousands of people were still living where they were surrounded by the radioactive material. Many of those who remained were the elderly and low-income families who had few options to move away.6

Protests Against Fukushima Nuclear Plant | Courtesy of Environmental Justice Atla

Several months after the disaster, people in other parts of Japan began rallying to help these people and bring an end to nuclear power plants in Japan. This pushed forward for the closure of all of the other nuclear plants in Japan for maintenance and inspection.7 These protests also pressured the government to issue a report on the disaster at Fukushima. This report criticized TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric and Power Company) for failing to address concerns about safeguards at the plant. This report also included information about how TEPCO officials had ignored engineers’ concerns that a seawall constructed to protect against major tsunamis as they had seen on March 11 was not sufficient. The report additionally criticized safety regulators for not implementing proper safety measures and for failing to adopt global nuclear safety standards.8 This was really important for the Japanese because TEPCO had always emphasized that the nuclear generators were “fail-safe,” that the facility was completely earthquake resistant and that the reactors would be able to withstand a major tremor.9

Five years after the disaster in Japan, several policies were changed to address the rising concerns of the Japanese population regarding nuclear power plants. The major decision of this kind was the decision to phase-out nuclear power plants during the 2030s as part of Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment adopted by the cabinet of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).10 TEPCO is still facing criticism regarding the amount of nuclear material that was leaked into the environment and it is estimated that cleanup operations could take up to forty years.11

  1. Will Ripley, Junko Ogura, and James Griffiths, “Fukushima: Five Years after Japan’s Worst Nuclear Disaster,” CNN, March 11, 2016, sec. World.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, s.v. “Fukushima Accident.”
  3. New World Encyclopedia, 2017, s.v. “Fukushima nuclear disaster.”
  4. New World Encyclopedia, 2017, s.v. “Fukushima nuclear disaster.”
  5. Will Ripley, Junko Ogura, and James Griffiths, “Fukushima: Five Years after Japan’s Worst Nuclear Disaster,” CNN, March 11, 2016, sec. World.
  6. Will Ripley, Junko Ogura, and James Griffiths, “Fukushima: Five Years after Japan’s Worst Nuclear Disaster,” CNN, March 11, 2016, sec. World.
  7. New World Encyclopedia, 2017, s.v. “Fukushima nuclear disaster,”
  8. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, s.v. “Fukushima Accident.”
  9. Akira Nakamura and Masao Kikuchi. “What We Know, and What We Have Not Yet Learned: Triple Disasters and the Fukushima Nuclear Fiasco in Japan,” Public Administration Review 71, no. 6 (2011): 894.
  10. Rie Watanabe, “After the Fukushima Disaster: Japan’s Nuclear Policy Change from 2011 to 2012,” Review Of Policy Research 33, no. 6 (2016): 623.
  11. Alexis Dudden, “The Ongoing Disaster,” The Journal of Asian Studies 71, no. 2 (2012): 349.

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111 Responses

  1. The story of the Fukushima is a decade old at this point but it’s still fresh in my mind. As someone who advocates for the widespread adoption of nuclear energy it’s a story I’m intimately familiar with and it still saddens me to this day. This article does a wonderful job elaborating on the tragedy that befell the people the Japanese government has forsaken. Hopefully things will get better for them and we can remember the lessons learned from Fukushima going forward.

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