Why is nobody talking about Fukushima

Nuclear accident ten years agoThe lessons of Fukushima

The tsunami that hit the Japanese coast on March 11, 2011, triggered meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. More than 150,000 people had to be evacuated temporarily or permanently, and it took months for the situation in the piles to calm down.

The accident was not the first since the peaceful use of nuclear energy began. Chernobyl was a lesson for those responsible and the consequences for the employees in Japan were actually much less severe: While in Chernobyl between officially 47 and unofficially several thousand liquitators died, the statistics of Fukushima Daiichi show only one death from cancer to this day. But in Japan too, the impact on the environment and society was immense.

The Tohoku earthquake and its aftermath

The Tohoku earthquake was the most violent in Japanese history. At 2:46 p.m. local time, its tremors collapsed buildings in numerous Japanese cities and triggered a tsunami. The waves piled up as high as a house, in some bays as high as a tower. Boats thrown ashore and rubble washed up marked his way up to ten kilometers deep into the interior.

At around 3:27 p.m. and 3:35 p.m., two waves around 14 meters high also hit the Fukushima One nuclear power plant. All of the electricity in the three reactors that were connected to the grid at that time failed - radioactivity escaped. More than 19,000 people died in Japan as a result of the earthquake, 2,500 are still missing. 470,000 people had to be evacuated.

Key figures on the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011

In March 2011, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale triggered a tsunami that reached a height of 14 meters at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima (Statista)

Iwaki, in the summer of 2011, on the edge of the exclusion zone. Nobumi Furuichi lives in one of the many transitional settlements that have been hastily built for the evacuees. A gravel field with barracks between which power cables run. Not a tree, not a bush. Hardly any young people either. The old people's memories are still fresh back then.

The city of Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture on April 2, 2011 (IMAGO / ZUMA Wire)

Just three months earlier, the tsunami in Fukushima Daiichi destroyed the cooling system, the power supply and the security systems. And the situation is still not under control.

In Germany, the Tagesschau reports: Two reactor blocks are cooled with seawater to contain the risk of a core meltdown, an explosion destroyed parts of the plant. "After the severe earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the situation at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant has come to a head. An explosion destroyed parts of the plant."

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"In Fukushima we had three disasters at the same time: the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear disaster," says Peter Johnston, director of the radiation, transport and waste safety department at the International Atomic Energy Agency. "That is unique: also that four blocks were affected in one way or another - something like this is unique and nobody had foreseen it."

No one had thought of a chain of two extremely rare natural disasters, says Johnston. On the other hand: none of the serious accidents were foreseen: not Fukushima, not Chernobyl, not Three Mile Island.

The search for the causes

There was a partial meltdown in Three Mile Island in 1979. The cause: an interplay of technical, human and organizational failure, explains Michael Maqua, head of the plant engineering department at the Society for Plant and Reactor Safety GRS in Cologne:

"You noticed that there are also completely different accident sequences that were not included in the design of a nuclear power plant. And that you need additional systems, such as an additional shutdown system or even more diesel in the emergency power supply to keep the reactor going to be in control if something happens that goes beyond the loads that were estimated in the design of the facility. "

The then US President Jimmy Carter on a visit to Three Mile Island four days after the reactor accident at the power plant (IMAGO / Everett Collection)

Nevertheless, Chernobyl did not prevent these findings. There a daring experiment and serious violations of safety regulations led to an explosion in a reactor that was dangerous due to its design.

The lesson of this worst catastrophe in the history of nuclear energy: that it is not enough to set up rules and hope that they will be observed. The teams also need to understand why the rules are the way they are.

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The Fukushima Mistakes

And the lessons from Fukushima? "Fukushima Daiichi shows that extreme events, which statistically happen every ten thousand years, can happen next week. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake was an event with a very low probability of occurrence. An event that regulators weren't particularly concerned about," explains William Magwood, Director General of the OECD-Nuclear Energy Agency, or OECD-NEA for short.

"So that's the lesson we've learned. It has sparked a lot of debate around the world. Some countries like Japan have tried to install as much hardware as possible to steel the facilities against almost anything that could happen: a lot more Protection against earthquakes and floods, for example. In Japan they even did something to protect against volcanism, such really extreme events. "

Reactor blocks in Fukushima after several explosions and fires, nine days after the tsunami (imago stock & people / UPI Photo)

In Europe, the supervisory authorities initiated stress tests to determine whether the operating teams can still react in extreme situations. "Since then there has been significantly more equipment on the plants, especially mobile components, so that you can react flexibly to power failures. And there are additional feed-in options for cooling water," says Michael Maqua from the Society for Plant and Reactor Safety GRS in Cologne.

The worst could have been prevented in Fukushima Daiichi - if additional security systems had been installed. What is more: everything would have gone off more smoothly if the operator Tepco and the nuclear regulatory authority NISA had not ignored an obvious danger.

Negligence and misjudgments - those responsible at Tepco had several reasons to apologize (imago stock & people)

"In Japan, too, there were calculations before the tsunami that the tsunami design was too weak. Also for the location in Fukushima. They had not retrofitted and they would never have retrofitted for the first block in Fukushima Daiichi, because: This should also be in One year later, i.e. 2012, will be switched off, "says Maqua.

Tepco was able to run the power plant in strict compliance with its business objectives because government supervision was weak. One was carefree - too carefree, said Japan's then Minister of Economic Affairs Banri Kaieda at a conference of the IAEA in 2011: "We did not include such serious incidents in our safety guidelines because we believe in a safety myth in Japan. We were convinced that our nuclear technology One thing is certain. Our experts also believed in this myth. "

The risks of radioactive radiation

The tsunami shattered the myth. Japan was still lucky in misfortune. Georg Steinhauser, Professor of Physical Radioecology at Leibniz Universität Hannover: "Chernobyl released around ten times more radioactivity into the environment than Fukushima. In addition, around 80 percent of Fukushima was carried out to sea. That is by far the best thing to humanity. If you disregard it, the accident could have been avoided. "

The radionuclides spread quickly in the sea. On land, however, a patchwork remained: "The pattern of the release was very characteristic at Fukushima. When you drove through the restricted zone, you could literally observe with the dose rate meter in your hand where the wind had blown a cloud over it. That was Striking, downright, the pointer jumped up from one meter to the next and then fell off again just as quickly. "

One day after the tsunami it was clear - there is a much bigger problem than the consequences of the earthquake and the tidal wave (imago stock & people / XINHUA)

The clouds formed whenever pressure had to be released from the reactors in an onshore wind. Each one can be mapped. The fall-out was particularly severe when the clouds moved over areas where it was raining or snowing. "The most biologically relevant radioactive material was definitely iodine 131 in the first place. It has a half-life of only eight days. That sounds really good because it is gone quickly."

But iodine 131 accumulates in the thyroid gland with an almost unbelievable efficiency. "Practically all of the decay then takes place in the thyroid gland and the maximum dose is applied to the surrounding tissue," says Professor Steinhauser.

After Chernobyl, iodine 131 caused thyroid cancer in children and adolescents, mainly because radioactive milk was sold. More than 100,000 children and adolescents received thyroid doses of 330 to 1,100, some even more than 3,000 millisievert.

Radiation intensities in comparison

Radiation intensities to which a person can be exposed in everyday life, during medical examinations and nuclear disasters (Statista)

A direct connection between radiation and cancer can be established over 1,000 millisieverts, explains Wolfgang Weiss, member of the Emergency Advisory Board of the Radiation Protection Commission. In the 1,000 to 100 millisievert range, this individual assignment is no longer possible: “Here you can only assign the risk statistically. And below 100 millisievert there is no evidence at all for a specific risk Risk decreases linearly as a function of dose. "

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According to the calculations, the highest thyroid dose in Fukushima was 80 millisieverts. The risk is not zero, but the epidemiologists do not see the radiation effects of Fukushima in their statistics - because spontaneous cancers are so common. Approximately 40 percent of the Japanese population will develop cancer at some point in their life. Small rashes are drowned out in the noise, which does not mean that there are no additional cancer cases. This is exactly what means lifelong uncertainty for those affected.

The battle over thyroid cancer

In December 2020, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) held a conference in Japan on lessons from nuclear accidents - as was common in Covid-19 times via the Internet. Kenji Kamiya from Fukushima Medical University reports on the results of the study on the state of health of the people in the prefecture, which has been ongoing since 2011.

Part of the study attracted international attention in 2013: in the first round of investigations after the reactor accidents, changes in the thyroid gland were found in children and adolescents. What does the analysis look like today?

The results of the ultrasound examination of the thyroid showed changes that were reminiscent of Chernobyl. However, the effects there were noticed years later, especially in younger children, while in Fukushima older children were affected.

The development of the number of children in whom examinations had revealed malignant nodules in the thyroid gland became even more irritating, says Kamiya: "In the first examination this was the case in 116 of the children participating in the screening, in the second examination it was 71 of the participating children, in the third with 31 and in the meanwhile fourth examination with 21 children. "

A mother and her child are examined for radioactive radiation after the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011 (dpa / picture alliance / EPA / Asahi Shimbun)

The number of cases fell - with the number of children participating. Unlike after Chernobyl, where the numbers exploded over time. The rate was constant at around one percent of the children.

Bernd Grosche is a member of the Shamisen team, a European project that is looking for lessons from the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear accidents: "But now we know that screening measures simply lead to more thyroid changes being discovered than if no screening is done They also examined a comparison group in three regions in Japan with different social structures, i.e. rural and urban, and found the same number of thyroid nodules in children and adolescents. It is always this one percent. "

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Kenji Kamiya presented the conclusion at the ICRP conference: In Fukushima there was no connection between radiation and the incidence of thyroid cancer in children. But the screening has stoked fears and reinforced the already existing stigmatization.

That is why one now draws this lesson: no general screening. "In order to conduct the thyroid test, it is important that doctors only perform it on those who wish to have the test after they have been informed of the advantages and disadvantages of the test."

The dispute over the quick evacuations

Just five hours after the tsunami, the Fukushima Prefecture's emergency operations center issued an evacuation order for a two-kilometer radius from the nuclear power plant. After another half an hour, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan extended it to three kilometers, the next morning to ten, in the evening to 20 kilometers. This happened before the explosions released most of the radionuclides. Anyone who lived in the next zone, 20 to 30 kilometers from the nuclear power plant, should stay in the house and wait for further instructions. On March 25, 2011, these 60,000 people were also advised to go voluntarily - because of the supply shortages.

"The Japanese authorities make decisions in a very, very broad way - just like any authorities would do. They say, there is a nuclear accident, get everyone out." It's like a reflex, explains William Magwood. "We have seen in the course of events that perhaps some people have been evacuated who should never have been evacuated."

For example, the seriously ill and those in need of care who had been put in buses - often without medical or nursing care. That killed more than 50 people. "If you get tens of thousands of people to safety, you are sacrificing hundreds. The elderly will die. People will die in accidents and traffic accidents."

A head over heels abandoned classroom in a primary school in Futaba - were the evacuations completely excessive? (imago stock & people)

Evacuations always come at a high but overlooked price. "If you really have a very large radiological incident that is dangerous to your health, you evacuate," said Director General Magwood of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. "You will definitely want to get people to safety near the facility. But if you go ten kilometers away, the question is, is the dose these people would receive really worth the thousands of lives and their lives." If the risks are very, very small, you can make a different decision. And that's what we're talking about here. "

In Fukushima, the rapid evacuation prevented people from becoming acutely ill or dying as a result of the dangerous amounts of radiation released. Still people died. Not just during the evacuation itself. Most Fukushima victims died in the first two years after arriving in the gyms and transitional settlements.

Wolfgang Weiss from the Emergency Advisory Board of the Radiation Protection Commission: "Within two years of the accident, 2,688 evacuated people who were housed in makeshift accommodation far away from their usual living environment died.The social isolation of the evacuees in particular was identified as the cause of these deaths, and it can be stated again that around 90 percent of the deceased were older than 66 years, so they would not have experienced the increased risk of getting cancer from the radiation. "

The psychological and social consequences

The psychological and social consequences of an evacuation are serious, knows Wolfgang Weiss. This was already noticed after Chernobyl: there, the life expectancy of the evacuees fell from 65 to 58 years - not because of cancer, but because of depression, alcoholism and suicide.

The same thing is happening in Japan, Kenji Kamiya explains at the ICRP conference: "We see a significantly higher proportion of obesity, high blood pressure or even diabetes and depression among the people evacuated because of the accident than before the earthquake. These results indicate that the life changes caused by evacuation can be seen as a risk factor. "

Mieko Okubo with a photo of her father-in-law Fumio Okubo - the 102-year-old had committed suicide in April 2011 in view of an evacuation order. (imago stock & people)

The suicide rate is also increased. Many people lost their jobs, their homes, were isolated, their families torn apart, their social environment destroyed. Effects that are still in effect ten years after the disasters.

"The majority of the more severe health consequences observed were caused by the protective measures and not by the ionizing radiation. And this must be taken into account in the future when such drastic measures are implemented," says Wolfgang Weiss. It is about adapting the decisions to the actual risk.

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Automatisms have not proven themselves: This is shown by the two communities Iitate and Namie. While the evacuations were taking place in the vicinity of the nuclear power plant, based on criteria that had been defined in 1980 for an accident with loss of cooling, the people in Iitate and Namie were evacuated late: there the fall-out was particularly severe, but they lived beyond 30 kilometer zone.

Consequences of the evacuation debate

And so in 2015 the overarching goals of radiation protection were expanded to include two lessons from Fukushima: "The first: the preservation of human life. So not just the best radiation protection, but what happens if we use this radiation protection consistently? What happens to people, who are evacuated? What happens to the people who are in need of protection and who are evacuated? So the preservation of human life, this requirement is a consequence of the experience of Fukushima. "

The second requirement: Gaining the trust of those affected by providing open, honest and understandable information. This is exactly what has always been neglected: the dialogue with all those affected - long before a catastrophe. Education about the risks of radiation and how to protect yourself when it is better to stay. "The question of how one can bring these social risks in line with the risks of radiation into an overall concept is difficult."

The first consequences have already been drawn in Germany, we learn shortly before the 10th anniversary at a press conference of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection in Salzgitter. Matthias Zähringer, Head of the Radiological Emergency Protection Department: "The most important thing is the establishment of a consistent emergency protection management system."

In the event of an emergency, a radiological situation center should, among other things, create dose forecasts for rapid protective measures. It has been working since 2017. "This is about health in the sense of the WHO definition as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. This means that in addition to radiation protection, psychosocial, economic, legal and cultural aspects are equally important, at least equally important . "

The long road to return to normal

"I've always believed that something like this wouldn't happen. I said it was impossible, that a nuclear power plant couldn't explode." Masao Yukimori worked for the security guards until he retired. On March 17, 2011, he had to swap his house for a few square meters in a temporary settlement in Iwaki. "Now I wonder if I could return to my hometown safely. Is it possible to remove the radiation completely?"

Then Masao Yukimori says sentences that were used in each of the interviews in the summer of 2011: "You hear the various experts on television, read in the newspapers, but each time something different is said. Is it really true what the experts say? Government says "I don't know who to trust right now."

But the politicians want to overcome the consequences of the disaster, life should go on and the economy around Fukushima should flourish again. The government wants people to return as soon as possible. Also through financial pressure. Anyone who left without an evacuation order received hardly any support. Anyone who had to go gets help, but only until the place is classified as "habitable" again.

The new reinforcements against tsunamis should prevent an event like 2011 from happening again (imago images)

The more short-lived radionuclides have decayed today, including some of the longer-lived ones. But only a part. The renovations are mainly about radiocesium - cesium 137. Wherever people live and work, Georg Steinhauser explains, it had to be removed: "The organism confuses cesium with potassium, an essential element. And because of this chemical similarity is added to the cesium. "

Houses, streets, paths, drains, canals, drains - everything was scrubbed, scraped-off material and water caught, collected and stored. Cesium 137 also binds firmly to clay minerals: "This again significantly inhibits its mobility and also its bioavailability. This means that this cesium load remains relatively near the surface. What is being promoted with great vigor in Fukushima is therefore the top layers of the earth to be removed and to be stowed away separately. "

And so to this day mountains grow out of large, black plastic bags with the contaminated material. Since 2020, they have been gradually brought to an interim storage facility at the damaged nuclear power plant. "What exactly will then really happen to them has not yet been finally clarified."

Contaminated soil is removed in order to remediate areas affected by fall-out - only what should happen to the gigantic amounts of nuclear waste is unclear (imago stock & people)

This, too, is one of the lessons learned from Fukushima: you should think about what happens to the nuclear waste in an emergency.

December 2020, the conference of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) on lessons from nuclear accidents. In 2011, 165,000 people were evacuated from Fukushima: two thirds of them with evacuation orders, the others voluntarily, explains Yasunori Noguchi from the cabinet office of the Japanese government.

"So that the evacuation orders can be lifted, three conditions must be met. First: The annual dose must not exceed 20 millisieverts. Second, the infrastructure must be rebuilt. And third, a dialogue must be conducted with the local governments and residents."

Gradually, the government has made parts of the cities safe for residents to return and lifted restrictions. Often this just means that an accordion forms the barrier between "safe" and "unsafe" on a street. And sometimes the unsafe area starts right behind the house.

The boundary between "safe" and "unsafe" is marked by fragile fences (www.imago-images.de/Keizo Mori)

Ten years later - where Fukushima is today

Around 42,000 people are not allowed to go back yet, others do not want to. Peter Johnston of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): "After a decade, the Japanese do not expect all the evacuees to return fully. People have moved on with their lives. For many people it is a very difficult decision to make."

And it gets more difficult the more time goes by. At some point, especially the young, potential workers from the former exclusion zone have reoriented themselves. "From the point of view of practical radiation protection, returning home is very simple. Try to create conditions as quickly as possible that enable normal life in the evacuated areas."

You shouldn't force anyone, emphasizes Wolfgang Weiss. Especially not parents who stay away for fear for their children, even if experts say that the risk is minimal. If one of your children develops cancer in the course of their life, who will wonder whether it will be to blame for returning? "That's why you have to clearly accept that people's freedom of choice has more value and more importance than what a scientist would consider scientifically sound."

Wild animals have taken over the abandoned human dwellings (imago stock & people)

Ten years later, around a fifth of the original exclusion zone is considered difficult to return to. An area the size of Munich. This also includes Futaba and Okuma - the two places on whose territory Fukushima Daiichi is located. They are places that seem to have fallen out of time. Monkeys, wild boars, feral dogs have moved into the decaying houses and gardens.

On the power plant site, however, there is brisk activity: the damaged reactors must be secured and dismantled. At the moment, the main focus is on getting fuel assemblies out of the spent fuel pools. In addition, the problem with the tritium-containing wastewater masses must be solved. They now fill around 1,000 huge tanks on the site. Tepko wants to dump it into the sea in a controlled manner.

The severe earthquake of February 13, 2021 highlighted the danger they pose. If the tanks were destroyed, huge amounts of radioactive water would flow into the sea in one fell swoop.

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Three-Mile-Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima - each disaster had its lessons ready and yet could not prevent the next. There is no global end in sight to nuclear power. And so is perhaps the most important lesson, in the words of Wolfgang Weiss: "This is an event that can have huge consequences. That is why we now have to deal with options for how to deal with it and concretely deal with it. One has to take responsibility seriously to take."