On Friday, March 11, at 2:46pm, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook the ground under the water 80 miles off the east coast of Honshu, Japan, and 109 miles northeast of Fukushima. Forty-one minutes later a 14-meter-tall wall of water broke over the 5.7 meter-tall seawall protecting the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, snapping power lines and submerging the place in water for the next 20 minutes. At the time, Reactors 5 and 6 were shut down for maintenance, while Reactor 4 had been de-fueled.Reactors 1, 2, and 3 automatically shut down after the earthquake and emergency generators started up to control the systems necessary to keep the reactors cool.However, since flooding and earthquake damage prevented anyone from checking up on the plant immediately after the disaster, events began to spiral out of control.
Now, one hundred days later, the situation stilllooks bad.News watchers were introduced to the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale quite rudely, when the Fukushima incident was initially put at a 4 (bad), upgraded to 5 (super bad) and eventually evaluated as 7 (maximum bad).Reactors 1, 2, and 3 have melted down, and Reactor 4 has spent fuel sitting around in pools which may go critical.The Fukushima plant is still on fire, even 100 days after the event began.For comparison, Chernobyl only burned for 10 days.Radioactive materials are still being released into the atmosphere and sea.Deliberate venting and discharge of coolant water into the sea has released radioactive particles into the environment.Japanese officials say that the plant won't be completely stabilized until 2012.
What went wrong
The biggest question on everybody's mind is what went wrong Two reports were released at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) in Vienna on Monday. The first one was prepared by the Japanese government, and the other came from the IAEA team that visited Japan in May. Both reports agree with most of what went wrong in the disaster. Both reports start with the 14-meter-tall wave that hit the plant, which it was unprepared to withstand. The IAEA report describes the miserable conditions immediately after the wave hit. From the report, “During the initial response, work was conducted in extremely poor conditions, with uncovered manholes, cracks and depressions in the ground. Work at night was conducted in the dark. There were many obstacles blocking access to the road such as debris from the tsunami and rubble that was produced by the explosions.” The extremely dangerous terrain and the complete lack of electrical power in the area confounded all rescue workers' attempts to cool the reactors. The water had even gotten into the backup diesel generators and prevented them from running. The plant workers were extremely creative in dealing with the lack of power. The report details efforts to operate individual valves using car batteries or by using bottled nitrogen gas to keep valves open. One can imagine something out of a scene from the TV show Lost. In the end however, the workers failed to keep the cooling systems running, and everything melted down.
The reports placed most of the blame on the Japanese government for inadequate handling of the disaster. The report detailed an early wave of confusion on the whole situation at not knowing who was in charge of the situation. The prime minister was in a command center who could have been in charge of the situation, but the plant officials were also present. This operational confusion lasted days, and during that time there were contradictory orders about what the plant operators should be doing. Rumors that are now surfacing, talk of a deep distrust of the prime minister's office in TEPCO and the organizations responsible for handling nuclear power plant disasters, as well as the administration trying to personally deal with something it did not know enough about. However, the disaster is definitely not what it could have been. There are some workers who are approaching their government-allowable limits in radiation exposure for emergency workers, and rumors that some may have exceeded that early on. Some citizens were not evacuated as soon as they could have been, and the Japanese government was slow in admitting the full extent of the problem and asking for help from other countries. However the total number of dead or sick people because of this nuclear disaster will be much less than Chernobyl, the other comparable disaster, or the effects of the tsunami that caused the whole thing. With a context of 24,000 Japanese citizens outright killed by the tsunami, one melted nuclear power plant is not so bad.
International ResponseThe international response to the Fukushima disaster has been another story by itself. Nuclear power has experienced a complete loss of faith for the citizens of many countries, especially those who were its staunchest supporters before. The Swiss government announced its intention to completely withdraw from using nuclear power by 2034, even though it now supplies 43% of its electricity demand with nuclear energy. Germany also announced that it would completely eliminate its own nuclear power industry by 2022, while currently producing 28% of its electricity demand with it.
News reports say that many other countries with nuclear power plants have begun to question them, and denouncing nuclear power is a great political move for many politicians now. For instance, 5 days after the Fukushima disaster, a nuclear power plant in Pickering, Ontario, near Toronto, was found to be leaking demineralized water into Lake Ontario. Despite the fact that officials said it posed no threat to human health, many Canadians began to question the necessity of nuclear power plants in Canada. In China, the government has chosen to freeze approvals of new nuclear power plants, and revised planned energy targets to reduce the amount of energy expected to come from nuclear energy by 2020. In Australia, Prime Minster Julia Gillard made a statement that said Australia needed no nuclear power plants, because it was blessed with many power sources, among them “hot rocks.”
However, other governments have not reacted to the new wave of fear surrounding nuclear energy. President Barack Obama publicly announced continued support for the development of new US nuclear power plants. Despite the president's statement, two nuclear power plant projects that were already under way in Texas were abandoned by the company NRG Energy. The company cited a variety of reasons for them to abandon the project, none of which involved nuclear disasters in Asia. France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon asked for an open and transparent audit of each of its nuclear installations. France's position is very important, because it is the country which uses nuclear power the most, by supplying 78.8% of its electricity needs with nuclear power plants scattered all across the country.
There have also been a lot of protests in countries around the world. France and Germany have seen several protests. A small number of people in France's case, but with about 200,000 people in Germany's case on the eve of state elections. India had already been experiencing protests against nuclear energy, and they intensified after the Fukushima disaster, getting violent and resulting in one man being shot and killed by police on April 18. Switzerland saw approximately 20,000 people protest peacefully outside of the country's oldest nuclear reactor. In Asia, Taiwan saw around 2,000 anti-nuclear protesters, and the issue is becoming important in the country's upcoming elections in 2012, with one candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, promising to end nuclear power on the island by 2025 if elected. The Fukushima hit very close to home for Taiwan, which is also an island nation on the West Pacific Rim earthquake zone.
Economic IssuesSince the Japanese economy is the third largest in the world after the United States and China, the economic implications of this tsunami and nuclear disaster are important to consider for everyone in the global economy. Exports are very important for Japan's economy, but April showed Japan at a trade deficit for the first time in 31 years. As an example, Sony confirmed recently that the damage dealt to Sony's supply chains in the aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake have resulted in a US$3.2 billion net loss for its business year. This is its third deficit in a row and the largest in 16 years. The company's Chief Executive Sir Howard Stringer had held a press conference just one day before the tsunami in which he stated that the company was expected to return to profitability after Sir Howard's unprecedented restructuring in 2009. Things were looking good for the company, but the tsunami turned an $870 million projected profit into four times the loss. What's worse, Sir Howard had been planning to turn the company over to his likely successor, Kazuo Hirai, but now all that and the future of the company is unpredictable.
The Bank of Japan has been doing its part to fund the reconstruction efforts. An existing US$37 billion lending program aimed at companies that can spur economic growth is a target for possible government enhancement. But there is also already a US$12 billion new loan program from other banks which is aimed at getting funds to companies which have been hit by the quake. However, it is unknown whether or not this will be enough to recover from the damages, which are estimated to be US$300 billion or more. Political infighting has been hampering efforts to pass a reconstruction bill. A smaller earthquake in 1995 hit the port city of Kobe, and total reconstruction expenses for the government were US$64 billion, which the government struggled to pay. This current monetary crisis is 5 times as large. There are warnings that the country, with its public debt twice the size of its economy, will face sovereign downgrades if it doesn't do something about its debt soon. There are no easy choices for Japan's government now.
The disaster also affected Japan's major trading partners, of which Korea is one of the greatest. In a survey conducted by the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), 25% of local manufacturers in the country had lost business because of the disruption of the normal operations of companies like Toyota, Sony, and Toshiba. Korea-based ship and aircraft engine companies changed to European suppliers for parts and components, but have been having trouble getting used to the new parts. On the other hand, some companies received increased business performance, about 7.4%. These companies were mostly in the petrochemical, steel, food, and beverage sectors. They received more orders from Japan and were struggling to fulfill all of them. Some companies were doing especially well, such as a power-generator equipment manufacturer and an excavator manufacturer. The excavator company predicted that it would increase total sales this year by 45%. The KCCI predicted that Korean companies would be permanently less dependent on Japanese imports as a result of the tsunami, based on the survey which said that 25% of the companies would seek alternative sources for their parts and materials.