On the role of human error in the Fukushima nuclear accident.
It has been five years to the day since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake shook the coastline of Japan’s Honshu island, leading to the tsunami that killed over 15,000 people. Beyond this real disaster, this tsunami also caused a major accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which displaced hundreds of thousands more. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resultant tsunami destroyed offsite and onsite power supply to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, causing the fuel of three reactors to melt and substantial amounts of radioactive material to be released out of the plant. The environmental and economic consequences of the Fukushima accident were significant. An estimated 200,000 Japanese were forced to relocate from their homes and their return awaits a massive land remediation effort that will take decades to complete.
The environmental and economic consequences of the Fukushima accident were significant.
Not surprisingly, much of the coverage of the incident tends to emphasize the resilience of Japanese society during the emergency and the fact that no individuals were killed immediately by the nuclear accident. The over 15,000 who were killed because the Japanese tsunami protection system did not warn or protect them all too often appear to be forgotten today. But these accounts overemphasize the role of good fortune over good planning and pessimists see the fact that the Fukushima accident did not produce massive fatalities in Japan as “homage to plain dumb luck.” The appropriate perspective on Fukushima must, however, include a basic awareness that the disaster could have easily been much worse in terms of loss of life and economic damage to Japan, and even surrounding countries. Equally, with modestly better advance preparation, none of the Fukushima reactors would have suffered any fuel damage. Due to a lack of preparation, the natural disaster of the 2011 earthquake set off a major man-made accident, caused by human error and institutional shortcomings, and from which we stand to learn many lessons in order to redouble efforts to improve nuclear safety.