Fukushima’s lessons for a safer nuclear future

Governor of Miyagi prefecture, Yoshihiro Murai visits the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (Dec 24, 2020) Credit: TEPCO

When a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan on 11 March 2011, a tsunami was triggered that devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing one of the worst nuclear disasters since Chernobyl.

To mark today’s anniversary of the event, the Nuclear Energy Association (NEA) has released a report that surveys the aftermath of the disaster and analyses the lessons learned over the past decade.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident, Ten Years On: Progress, Lessons and Challenges analyses the current challenges stemming from the accident and makes policy recommendations to the international nuclear community in nine different areas.

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To discuss the report in greater detail, the NEA last week hosted a roundtable discussion with international experts. After a moment of silence in honour of those lost when the tsunami stuck north-eastern Japan, the discussion focused on the Fukushima Daiichi experience and its lessons.

“Since the accident, the NEA has been working with Japan and our member states on a wide range of issues covering both the technical and non-technical aspects of the Fukushima Daiichi accident and its impacts,” NEA Director-General William D. Magwood IV noted during his opening remarks.

“Today we reflect on what we have learned and what needs to continue to be done.”

There were three key discussion takeaways:

  • Dialogue and communication with local people regarding the past experience are key to rebuild and enhance public trust in nuclear
  • It’s important to enhance post-accident recovery by placing the human and societal dimension at the core of planning – earning public trust is a key catalyst for recovery
  • Stakeholder involvement and public perception are vital on the decommissioning front, in conjunction with the future vision of the revitalisation of the surrounding area.

In the immediate aftermath, and during the past decade, Japanese authorities have addressed on-site and off-site consequences and focused on rebuilding the social and economic fabric of the areas impacted by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.

This endeavour has been greatly facilitated by the co-operation of international organisations, governments and companies.

“There is an effort organisationally to reach out across the world to make sure that lessons learned elsewhere or knowledge learned in other countries is applied in Japan,” said former chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Richard Meserve.

World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) chief executive, Ingemar Engkvist, added that WANO members “have committed to maximise the safety and reliability of nuclear power plants worldwide by working together to assess, to benchmark, to improve the performance through mutual support, exchange of information and emulation of best practices”.

Magwood echoed those comments. “The interaction between operators and regulators has been intensive since the accident; it really is far beyond than we had ever seen before,” he said.

“If there is a bright side to all this, it certainly is the much-enhanced international co-operation.”

Moving forward to a clean energy future

Technical understanding of the accident has progressed significantly over the past ten years, which has led to improved safety, resilience to unexpected events, and preparedness.

Furthermore, environmental, social, political and economic aspects, including safety culture, have been a continued focus throughout the decade, preparing nuclear power’s path in addressing the world’s need for clean, safe, reliable energy.

Many believe that nuclear power will continue to play a major part in satisfying the world’s demand for clean energy. In a recent interview with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, Bill Gates said: “Nuclear has actually been safer than any other source of [power] generation.”

“You know, coal plants, coal particulate, natural gas pipelines blowing up. The deaths per unit of power on these other approaches are ࢀ” are far higher.”

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