The Fukushima Plant Is Still Leaking Poison After a Decade

The tsunami created a new debate over nuclear power.

A man searches through earthquake rubble in Japan.
A man searches for the remains of people who went missing after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Iwaki, Japan, on March 11. Yuichi Yamazak/Getty Images

On Thursday, Japan commemorated the 10th anniversary of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant accident that was a defining moment even in a country well used to natural disasters. Now often simply referred to as “3/11,” the events tested the resilience of the Japanese people and raised doubts about their trust in authority. But through the smallest amounts of good luck, it did not bring the country to its knees.

The quake that hit off Japan’s northeast coast just before 3 p.m. on Friday, March 11, 2011, was an astounding 9.1 on the moment magnitude scale, making it among the five strongest earthquakes ever recorded. It was the largest ever on record to hit quake-prone Japan and left more than 18,000 people dead or missing.

In Tokyo, Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako led a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m., the time the quake hit 10 years ago. “The magnitude of the damage brought about by the disaster is so profound that the unforgettable memory of the tragedy still persists in my mind,” Naruhito said, and he noted that even a decade later, work remains. Of the 160,000 residents evacuated at the time, 40,000 people were still displaced as of early 2019.

A 6.0 quake is a strong one; a 9.1—the scale increases exponentially—is catastrophic. If it had taken place closer to a city, the quake itself would have caused massive loss of life; even as it was, it sent skyscrapers in central Tokyo 150 miles to the south rocking back and forth like ships caught in a storm, with office chairs gliding across the floor. And yet, the structural damage from the severe shaking was remarkably limited, a testament to Japan’s building construction codes that had been tightened repeatedly over the years for just such an event.

But the quake itself was to prove the least damaging part of the disaster. It was followed by a tsunami wave of up to 30 feet across a broad swath of the Pacific coastline (and up to 90-100 feet in some remote areas). Entire villages were subsumed in the water, which swept as much 6 miles inland, carrying tons of debris. Thousands of people were killed in the wave or its aftermath.

Tsunamis are among the most unpredictable of natural disasters. A major quake will often produce no tsunami, while others will wreak havoc hundreds or thousands of miles away. In the destructive path of the 3/11 tsunami were two of the country’s largest nuclear plant facilities, and this was to prove the longest-lasting part of the disaster. The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant held six separate reactors, while the Fukushima Dai-ni facility 7 miles away had four reactors on site. The age of the reactor units was later blamed for the extent of the damage. Construction on the first unit at Fukushima Dai-ichi began back in 1967 as part of the grand strategy for a nuclear Japan.

Fukushima Dai-ni was hit hard by the waves. The cooling systems for all four reactors were shut down, along with three of the four emergency generators needed to provide back-up power. More than 200 workers labored through the night to connect all four reactor units to the lone working generator, which was located a half-mile from the unit most at risk of overheating. This is not easy work. The high-voltage cable weighed more than 2 tons in all. Workers were stationed every 5 feet to carry it through a site littered with rubble, even as serious aftershocks continued to hit the facility.

As the world would soon discover, the Dai-ichi plant was not so fortunate. As a minute-by-minute report from plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) would later chronicle, the staff at the facility were coping with the initial effects of the quake when a 45-foot tsunami inexorably rolled in, overwhelming the 30-foot sea wall that officials had thought would be more than enough to protect the plant. The massive wave hit about 30 minutes after the initial quake, knocking out all power and leaving the control rooms in a condition known as “station blackout,” the most feared scenario for any nuclear plant. It means that all power is cut, leaving no way to control or even monitor the ongoing nuclear reactions in the three reactor cores active at the time.

The desperate work by staff amid the debris and danger became legendary, but time was not on their side. After they worked through the night to jury-rig power from portable generators, the nuclear reactions quickened their pace, and with no cooling water and no ventilation, hydrogen built up inside the reactor buildings. An explosion at the No. 1 unit destroyed not only the building housing the reactor but also most of the previous night’s work. Over the next few days, various types of battery or generator power were the only way to keep operating. Workers at various points went to cars in the parking lot to pull out their batteries for use.

As the crisis worsened, the news flashed around the world, often with alarmist headlines. Some foreign embassies began to pull operations out of Tokyo in the fear that a nuclear cloud could soon hit the world’s largest metropolitan area. “Exodus from Tokyo—1000s flee poison cloud,” the Sun newspaper of London read. Fortunately, there was no cloud, and authorities did not have to face the unprecedented question of how they could possibly evacuate more than 35 million people.

And yet, the line between containment and utter disaster was razor-thin. In the end, an even worse disaster was averted only through the virtual drowning of the reactors through water sprayed on top of the buildings by firetrucks to stop the nuclear cores from turning into unstoppable chain reactions. Ten years later, the injection of water continues. With the containment vessels leaking and unable to be fixed due to the high radiation, the utility has had a continued battle against water. Some 1,000 tanks holding 320,000 gallons of partially decontaminated water that had been used to cool the nuclear fuel now dot the landscape of the facility while TEPCO tries to figure out where to put it.

The accident became the worst nuclear disaster since the Soviet Chernobyl accident in 1986.

The accident became the worst nuclear disaster since the Soviet Chernobyl accident in 1986. TEPCO would later come under fierce criticism for not being better prepared. Its arguments that a quake of this scale could not be anticipated largely fell on deaf ears.  In the months after the disaster, the headquarters building in Tokyo had most of the lightbulbs removed in hallways and other public areas to help save power. Employees were instructed to avoid using air conditioning at home, even during the hot Tokyo summer, to avoid antagonizing neighbors who would blame them for the energy conservation measures that lasted for months after.

The accident also rekindled global anxiety about the safety of nuclear energy, just as it was starting to be seen as an important source of power amid growing concerns about global warming and climate change. Supporters of nuclear power argue that Fukushima gave it a bad name and point to the outdated technology being used.

“[T]he high priority of reducing carbon emissions thanks to climate change means nuclear power looks more important than ever,” argues Michael Fitzpatrick, a professor in engineering, environment, and computing at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, in a 2017 essay. “Luckily, the next generation of reactors could hold the answer. With more in-built safety systems and a way to reuse old fuel, they are set to make nuclear power safer and, potentially, cheaper.” Proponents of nuclear power note that the Fukushima facility was based on technical specifications from the 1960s. When reporters finally got to tour the plant after the disaster, the control rooms looked like the set of Apollo 13, with analog dials and controls still in use.

The disaster forced a U-turn in the government’s energy policy. With the Middle East oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 having a major impact on Japan’s economy, the government had planned to ramp up nuclear production to meet more than 50 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. That goal has now been abandoned, and just nine reactors continue to operate under tightened regulatory authority, down from 54 before the Fukushima accident. In fiscal year 2019, nuclear power accounted for just 6 percent of total energy production. In a poll earlier this month, national broadcaster NHK found that 67 percent of respondents wanted a further reduction in nuclear power generation.

Renewable energy has finally begun to take hold, accounting for 23 percent of the total energy mix in the first half of 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. But the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, along with the Japanese business federation Keidanren, continue to support nuclear energy as a part of the goal to reach the much-vaunted carbon neutrality targeted for 2050.

Despite warnings at the time, the disaster would prove to have a minor impact on Japan’s broader economy, with businesses more concerned about a rising yen that was hurting their ability to export. In analyzing the year, Japan’s central bank cited the impact of the 3/11 quake. But it said that just as important was the much-less-noticed heavy flooding that hit Thailand that same year, which took out offshore manufacturing plants operated by more than 400 Japanese companies. The subsequent production bottlenecks were a testament to the power of global supply chains.

For the Fukushima region, the work continues. The coastal town of Namie, in the shadows of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and still partly evacuated due to radioactive contamination, has taken disused farmland to create a solar array that powers the creation of hydrogen fuel. “As I have learned, we cannot allow disaster to take away our hopes for the future,” Mayor Kazuhiro Yoshida said.

Yvonne Chang contributed reporting to this piece.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years. He previously worked at Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.