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?
According 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.
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