Fukushima as the Tsunami Hits

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Bad Luck Or Bad Management?

Group 8

On March 11, 2011, a catastrophic earthquake happened in Japan, triggering the emergency shut down of reactors in Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The earthquake was followed by a 15 meters tsunami some minutes later, destroying emergency generators and other facilities, and causing the reactor cores to overheat, leading to multiple hydrogen explosions and releasing radioactive materials in the atmosphere. Why was the plant built there? What went wrong, what caused the catastrophe and who was responsible?

Reasons and purposes of the project.

The story of Japan nuclear energy started from 1954, when the government assigned 45 billion yen (equivalent to £1 billion in 2018) for a nuclear program In nearly total absence of natural resources in Japan, development of nuclear energy was to become a source of energy independent of other countries and economic stability. Also, the government, making a decision about developing nuclear energy instead of renewable energy or export of fossil fuels, shared utilitarian point of view. The choice was mainly dictated by the low cost and high efficiency of producing electrical energy, as well as the absence of greenhouse effect in case of proper operation.

Main beneficial of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were the local and state government, and a public energy company Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The plant became the third built plant in Japan and was commissioned in 1971. According to Japanese Times, TEPCO considered the region of Fukushima as suitable for building the plant because of several reasons.

Economically, the increasing demand of energy resources in nearby regions. Also, the region near the coast was barren and less populated. Therefore, building a plant could bring new stable jobs and tax revenue to the local economy and add to the civilisation of the area. In terms of the technical aspects, when the investigation of the location was done, the result was that the surface of the bedrock in the Fukushima region was solid enough to mitigate earthquake threats. Moreover, building plant near the coastline could provide significantly cost saving cooling system, taking seawater for cooling down the reactor.

TEPCO did not have any experience in building a nuclear plant, so the technical project was developed in collaboration with an experienced American company, General Electric. The technical stakeholders did abide by their code of conduct, as well as their responsibility to the people in their respective work. The design engineers of the plant made sure that the design met the standards according to law.

Following the common sense, the citizens were initially against the initiative of the potentially dangerous plant to be built. The government approved building after they assured the citizens of the safety of the project. The ethical motives of the government to approve building the plant was, that of the theory of Kant, beneficial for all, the government, the company and the citizens in the long-term perspective. The construction of the plant was in accordance with the safety rules of the time and had been serving the people up to 40 years before the disaster, so there was no way for the founders to predict such outstanding nature cataclysm. But they underestimated the impact of natural disaster occurring later on.

How the disaster was preventable?

Crisis at Fukushina Nuclear Power PlantAccording to a subsequent study, TEPCO and Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which represents regulators by government, severely underestimated the tsunami threat while the plant was proposed. Their studies estimated the highest tsunami-wave to hit the region was 3.1 meters only in order to decrease the operating costs. The plant and sea water pumps were built 10 meters and 4 meters above sea level respectively, instead of the original plan to build on a hill 35 meters above sea level. The equipment used to evaluate the risk at the time had low processing capacity that could not simulate the data and possibility of severe tsunami.

As reported by experts, the design of the plant, which was the responsibility of GE, could not protect the plant against tsunami. The emergency diesel generators and backup batteries were placed in the basement of the turbine building and tsunami threat was not taken in consideration. TEPCO and GE did not consider the peculiarity of Fukushima location as against that of the USA because the conditions in the USA are different from Japan. Even when Toshiba and Hitachi took over to design and build more units, TEPCO insisted to follow the same basic design by GE and do not change the location and types of emergency generators, ignoring the concerns raised by TEPCO engineers. The disaster buttressed the engineers to be right when the basement flooded.

In 2002, TEPCO re-evaluated the risk, the sea wall was reinforced up to 5.7meters. However, based on a study made by TEPCO in 2008, it was still not enough to withstand higher tsunami-wave, which could reach more than 10 meters. The logical reaction after discovering this kind of risk is to study it further and share the data with stakeholders.
Nonetheless, the headquarters of TEPCO neglected the study, avoided spending more resources on further research and reported the study to the NISA only few days before the accident.
TEPCO ignored the huge impact for the serious tsunami threat based on the low possibility. Had TEPCO and NISA acted upon the study, reinforcing sea wall and firmly securing the pumps in place, the plant would have overcome the accident later in 2011.

Since TEPCO followed the regulations of NISA, NISA had a share part of the responsibility being self-assured and bureaucratic in regards of updating safety measures to keep the population safe and well-advised about the hazards related to the industry. Nuclear professionals in Japan refused to accept proposals from experts both in international parties and local organizations. As a result, they failed to achieve their moral duty by improving safety rules for the plants after some accidents happened in the other countries. International regulators had assessed the risk of a station blackout and acute flood hazards and made more strict safety principles.

Cover Image Courtesy of cadincadout.com ©

24 thoughts on “Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Bad Luck Or Bad Management?

  1. An interesting article, highlighting the importance of risk-management. The facts outlined in the article imply, that the necessary EIA (environmental impact assessment) was not taken into fully consideration, neglecting the important environmental precautionary principle. The Fukushima-accident must be a horror example of the tragedy risk-management neglection can lead to.

  2. A good article explaining how the disaster came to occur. Can you develop the ethical arguments please?

    For example, you say “TEPCO neglected the study,” why would they have chosen to do that? Was it because they felt that their duty was to adhere to the current regulations or that alarming residents could cause undue upset?

    You mention that TEPCO ignored the concerns of their own engineers, which parallels the Challenger disaster. You can develop this angle too.

  3. Great article, but a bit biased in my opinion.

    The article claims citizens were initially against the construction of the plant…were there protests at that time?, or is something that people is saying once the worst has happened.

    Additionally, it is also claimed that if TEPCO and NISA had acted following the new study, the plant would have overcome the accident, but… what if after taking the proper measurement the tsunami had been stronger?… there is no certainty about this, and in engineering projects, risk probabilities are a very important factor to take into account.

    What is certainly true is that this is probably the worst way to learn from our mistakes.

    Great research job!

  4. Well written article, emphasizing how economic rationale can undermine the importance of risk and directly impact the population’s safety.

    One of the causes that led to the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima seemed to have been the design inflexibility when adapting the construction blueprints provided by the US, with redundant safety systems being placed in facilities with improper quake resistance ratings. Although the problem was signalled early on by construction engineers on site, it was ignored by TEPCOs management, probably due to economic and time restraints.

    In my opinion, knowing the severity of the implications and the nature of their role, the engineers had the most power to question the decision to carry on with this plant’s construction and the ones that followed. Although they acted deontological, by raising the problem internally, their voice was muted, contained and thus unimpactful, only for the public to find about it after the accident, when it was already too late. In this case, the engineers could have formed a coalition to demand reengineering the plant’s design and even engage the public into debate.

    Prior to the government agreeing with the national nuclear power initiative in 1954, the public was understandably concerned over potential radioactive fallouts and leakages that may result in adopting the new technology, in the light of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, they did not vehemently protest against the construction of nuclear plants until the mid-1990s, following multiple nuclear plant accidents that were allegedly covered up by the government.

    It was only after a massive protest in 2012 that the government fundamentally revised its policy on nuclear energy, so I believe that the public voice can indeed enforce change in a way that satisfies the principles of care ethics.

    1. On the historical side and adding some context, it is worth noting that by the 1950s, Japan was still recovering after severe devastation following World War 2. Yet, with an economy growing faster than ever before, what heavy industrialization translated into was an ever increasing energy demand and independence. It was this energetic insecurity that made the country consider nuclear power so quickly, turning to the US, which offered post-war financial aid and expertise through initiatives like “Atoms for Peace” and the “Manhattan Project”. In the article, it is argued that Japan could have opted for renewable energy sources and fossil fuel exports instead. However, the only viable renewable source known at the time was hydroelectric power, which was expensive, environmentally disruptive and just not efficient enough as an alternative. As for the export of fossil fuels, Japan is known for significantly lacking domestic reserves, let alone their availability for export.

      According to the source cited in the article, the Japanese government agreed in 1954 on a 235 million yen nuclear research budget that would kick-start the Japanese nuclear program, as opposed to the 45 billion yen mentioned, which represent the minimal subsides from the government to put a single nuclear plant in operation. Moreover, taking inflation into account, 45 billion yen in 1954 would equate to about 280 billion yen in 2018, so £1.8 billion, well over the £1 billion mark mentioned (https://yaruzou.net/historical-prices-1932-en ; https://www.inflationtool.com/japanese-yen/1956-to-present-value?amount=46170000000). Some information in the first part of the article needs revision

      I found the topic particularly engaging and I very much enjoyed reading it through. Nicely done!

  5. The article has clearly illustrated how the accident happened and the hidden problems in the project, revealing the significance of importance on risk management in reality.

    However, there is still some questions risen after reading on the risk management over the accident, which might need some strong details to support the argument.

    For example, there might be different stakeholders’ voice during the past several decades, how did TEPCO persuaded whose stakeholders with doubt on the potential risks? Besides, why TEPCO insisted to follow the same basic design by GE? Did TEPCO improve their management over the years in operation? Apart from that, the role of NISA in the participation of risk management is also worth exploring.

    Overall, this is an interesting and thought-provoking work.

  6. This is a really interesting article about the professional responsibility and risk management, it clearly states the relationship between these two concepts during different faces of a project like this power station.

    It was interesting to read about the concerns of the citizens and the owners at the moment of designing the site, it caught my attention that Japan government wasn’t more involved in this situation as it’s a big project and one of the first nuclear plants of the country.

    The article was clear about the development of the problem through the time, which was useful to understand how the problem was progressing and how the situation changed, those changes and factors were mentioned and help to analyze the position of the different parties involved in the decision making process.

  7. Cognitive and interesting article. I was surprised that in Japan there was no technology for the construction of power plants.
    In my opinion, indeed it was a mistake to ignore the local potential. Japan is a country with its own traditions and a special worldview.
    It should be noted that even after the disaster, some of the city residents negatively perceive the precautionary measures applied to the Tsunami. According to surveys of Japan Times erected 12-meter fortifications around the cities prevent local residents from enjoying the view of the sea to which they are accustomed and moreover now they feel as in prison.
    Excellent job group!

  8. Very interesting article with relevant information, if you ask me if the fukushima disaster was bad management or bad luck I would say both:

    Bad management because TESPO and GE when they decided to build the nuclear plant at the shores of fukushima, they should have put more emphasis on the security of the plant against possible natural disasters. I know the area was convenient because of the soil and sea water available but that does not mean the security should be disregarded.

    For bad luck because is a natural disaster, but once again, what were the persons that authorised the building of the plant expecting? Is like the flood disaster of Chennai; water and tsunamis have been occuring in the pacific and around the world for millions of years, and if you prioritice money against security, disasters like this will happen.

    I would finally like to say, that we are entering the 21st century with a lot of environmental problems carried from the 20th, we should have already learned the lesson and don’t have an utter disregard to natural phenomenons. We should stop prioritizing short term high income projects and start thinking of long term high durability and sustainable solutions. The one that does not know its history is condemned to repeat it.

  9. This is a very good article explaining the problems that may arise at the beginning of the construction of nuclear power plants from various aspects and the research on the humanities, society and industry. However, there is no discussion on the environment, but all in all, this is a very great article!

  10. Very interesting article!

    Although there’s not much we can do to prevent natural disasters, there’s a lot we can do to reduce their potential damage, great working showing the human error in the design considering that a tsunami threat was not taken in consideration by placing the emergency diesel generators and backup batteries in the basement.

    It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century nuclear professionals didn’t want to take any safety advice or proposals, and now they don’t want to take responsibility arguing that they followed the NISA regulations.

  11. Japan is reported been strike by average 1500 earthquake each year, with safely operated for four decade, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had survived around 60 thousand earthquakes before the disaster happened in 2011, when Japan was hit by the fourth largest earthquake recorded in the human history. As a consequence, neither the government nor corporation are the one to be blame for, since the magnitude of Fukushima Earthquake is beyond the avoidance by simply conduct risk assessment.

    Certainly that Japanese government can not abort such project which has significant contribution for the adjacent area and even the whole country, because of the diminutiveness of the risk that a natural disaster at this scale could happen.

    As the improvement that can be made in the future, more implementation of renewable energy should be considered. Even though the cost per unit energy can be predicted facing inevitably increases, in a more long term perspective, it is more beneficial for the sustainability of the environment and the welfare as well as the progression of the human race as an entirety.

  12. Earthquake and Tsunami are natural disasters but the plant would have been salvaged if the right design for the plant based on feasibility study, location and other factors was executed. It was a waste of resources for the stakeholders (TEPCO) not to have properly supervised the design by GE to determine the flaws associated with it.
    Power plants are sited after a proper feasibility study is carried out to know the suitable location and suitable design for the plant. I believe this (feasibility study and suitable design and location) wasn’t done.

  13. Compared with other articles I read, this essay provides me with a different view and deeper background knowledge. Personally speaking, after encountering this disaster, the government from Japan, indeed, will not ignore this issue again. This is a good sign since it can prevent the similar accident happen again and lead this industry to new height. However, even if nuclear power has certain advantages, such as low cost and high efficiency, I strongly disagree with the usage of it, especially constructing it around “Earthquake zone”. Although the possibility of such kind of earthquake is low, it’s not worth risking it because it will leave long-term negative impact to our environment. Under this situation, I believe that it’s not true to use “trial and error” to make better project toward the usage of nuclear power. Instead, I believe that it is, certainly, better for us to use renewable energy, such as wind farms, solar panels and tide power. The cost of those might high now; the price will go down if we keep pushing the boundaries of those environment-friendly technology. After all, when cell-phones were invented in their beginning stage, only small part of people used them. Nonetheless, everyone has their smart-phones nowadays!

  14. This is a great and thought-provoking article. It described in detail the accident process and hidden dangers in the project, and stressed the importance of risk management.
    Perfect job group!

  15. Well-written article! It highlights the importance of risk management in a project quiet effectively.
    Talking particularly about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, I think its a consequence of both bad management and bad luck. Bad management on the part of stakeholders for not paying attention to the security standards during design process and bad luck as one can never predict with certainty about the magnitude and impact a natural disaster can pose.

  16. It is certain that measures on safety were out of the range assumed. If the accident happened, if we were able to discuss more about what influence the surrounding might be affected, I think that the safety aspect was naturally strengthened. There are many people in Japan who claim to lose nuclear power. However, it is also true that listening to opinions from various directions has lost the way to face nuclear power plants.

  17. Great article.That is true we rely on nuclear power generation, because of our county is poor in natural resources. But the world’s worst accident happened occured due to they have underestimated the risks at the earthquake.
    It’s been 7 year since then, Fukushima hasn’t still fully recovering from the earthquake even now.
    Also,Fukushima Nuclear caused health damage to many people, and some people still live there under threat the risk of pollution.
    Nuclear power plants which had been stopped after the earthquake resumed operation. We have to think many lisk and take steps various countermeasures to prevent similar accidents.

  18. Good article, depends on energy demands every country must make a lot of electricity from some energy resources. Nuclear is very good energy sources but it must be clear what is the harmful things in the nuclear power plan. So in this article, we can see clearly what dangerous of the nuclear if we make some error.

  19. Quite interesting because it points out the uncompromising place risk assessment takes in engineering projects. The risk probability of the tsunami is high but the severity would have been less had the impact was reduced by going on the initial proposal to site the project at the hilly location, really, this would have reduced the escalation to the barest minimum.

  20. Pretty good article! Fukushima-accident is the the typical risk-management accident indeed and consider the duties as an engineer. But I also have some points to mention if the article could contain more information about whether there is something happening after being opposed by the residents, or how the government weighs it, and whether the disclosed information is comprehensive and then contacts the choices and responsibilities of engineers.

  21. The opinion from one of my Japanese friends, Kiyoshi Onoe, who went through the disaster. This is his opinion:

    In my opinion, the disaster was caused more by Bad Management than by Bad Luck.

    As it was mentioned in the article, we have scarce natural resources both inside and around the country. Nuclear energy had high efficiency, additionally. Those are the main reasons of introducing nuclear energy.

    However, it is also true that the company and the government got the grasp how much impact would be brought when disaster happened. Not only the companies but also every citizens know how dangerous to introduce nuclear energy plant around us.

    They just neglected to consider safety and put priority on convenience and efficiency. Actually, it was thought that the crazy scale of tsunami would happen once in 1000 years, so of course we can say it was just because of bad luck, seeking convenience is an usual thing.

    However, we already experienced the big pollution accidents that is called “the four major-pollution caused illness” almost 40 years ago and that was caused by seeking convenience with ignoring safety.

    Therefore, we must have paid too much more attention against safety than convenience or cost. Of course we need the plants, but with safety first. Or we just repeated the same things as 40 years ago.

  22. Good article from a different perspective! In my opinion, when doing engineering work, investment return is an unavoidable issue that should be considered. It’s subtle to balance the cost and risk. Anyway, people will never ignore security after such a disaster.

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