Fukushima, Japan

Nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war are much in the news lately as tensions in the Korean peninsula have risen, with aggressive talk from both US President Donald Trump and further attempts by North Korea to develop a long-range missile system to deliver nuclear warheads. Personally, I have been dismayed and shocked by the almost flippant way in which the possibility of nuclear confrontation has been discussed by some policymakers and media pundits. I am old enough to remember the early 1980s, when the threat of all-out nuclear war was still very real. The US and the Soviet Union remained armed to the teeth under the logic of mutually assured destruction, the terror and irrationality of which were addressed in popular culture through movies like War Games and the tv miniseries The Day After. Today, it seems too many commentators, policy makers, and maybe vast sections of the general public have forgotten or don’t know how to acknowledge the absolute devastation and horrible long-term effects of nuclear weapons. With the US dropping a massive MOAB device on a suspected ISIS underground complex in Afghanistan on April 13, the mainstream news media was aflutter with descriptions of this bomb’s destructive capacity, and even this is far, far less than what the atomic bombs the US dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to end World War II were capable of inflicting. John Hersey’s gripping and terrifying account of the bombing of Hiroshima, which first appeared in The New Yorker in August 1946, should be required reading today.

In that long piece, Hersey, one of the few American reporters to go to Hiroshima, noted the lasting effects that radiation had on the survivors who had been exposed to the blast. Nuclear weapons tests in the western US and on remote Pacific Ocean islands beginning immediately after the war similarly created large amounts of radioactive fallout that demonstrated the geographic reach of even a single nuclear blast far exceeds the local destruction that such weapons wrought. Despite the devastating effects of the atomic bombs dropped in 1945, Japan did embrace nuclear power after the war and on the eve of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, was generating almost one-third of its energy needs from nuclear power plants. Nuclear power was one of the many peaceful uses of nuclear technologies following the development of atomic weapons, with some applications quite beneficial and many others decidedly less so. You can read and hear more about this in this episode of the excellent podcast 99% Invisible, and in geographer Scott Kirsch’s 2005 book Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving. Because of the discussion of nuclear weapons in the news media lately I have thought a lot about Fukushima, as an example of how even the peaceful use of nuclear power can lead to similarly extensive environmental effects. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 also had far-reaching impacts, with fallout from the nuclear reactor meltdown in Ukraine spreading far and wide, first across Europe and then the world more broadly. Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on the northeast coast of Japan was hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, Japan has shut down all of its nuclear power plants, and the area around Fukushima is only very slowly starting to become safe for people again.

This post is not, however, about the pros or cons of nuclear power. There is a case to be made both for and against nuclear power as part of a larger set of options for how we provide reliable energy for our wide array of industrial, urban, and personal consumption, but this requires political debate and discussion and careful consideration of the risks and costs (financial, social, and ecological) of nuclear power. It also means, especially in a country like Japan which was ushered into the nuclear era in the most violent way possible, taking seriously people’s very real fears and concerns about nuclear power. Below then is some link salad, with many of the articles linked published in early March, marking the sixth anniversary of the disaster. All address the questions, what kind of place is Fukushima today, and what should we learn about the production, use, and management of nuclear energy from the Fukushima disaster? This is especially important as we gain a better understanding of how the initially localized effects of the disaster quickly spread far beyond the immediate area hit by the earthquake, tsunami, and reactor meltdown. Though research has now shown that the effects of Fukushima radiation in places remote from the disaster but tied to it by ocean and wind currents have been minimal, Fukushima and its aftermath also demonstrate, as many geographers and environmental scientists argue, that risk and vulnerability are socially produced and mediated, tied to the uneven distribution of power and uneven exposure to risk, and that there is no such thing as a truly ‘natural’ disaster.

  • “Fukushima Radiation” – from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a short but useful background piece on the disaster and the institute’s research on radiation
  • “Fukushima Nuclear Accident” – from the International Atomic Energy Association, March 10, 2016, providing a short 7-minute video on the IAEA’s international response to the disaster
  • “It’s safe to return to some parts of Fukushima, study suggests”Science, March 10, 2017, on the limited exposure to radiation in Fukushima six years later, and the return of several thousand residents, who must now begin the expensive process of rebuilding
  • “The Lonely Towns of Fukushima”The New York Times, March 10, 2017, a photo essay on the widespread destruction in Fukushima caused by the earthquake, tsunami, and evacuation following the meltdown
  • “How the Other Fukushima Plant Survived”Harvard Business Review, July-August 2014, on how the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant, 10 km from the Daiichi plant that suffered meltdowns and explosions, avoided a similar outcome
  • “The Wild Boars of Fukushima”The Atlantic, March 9, 2017, a photo essay on how some residents’ desire to return home has been thrown off by the presence of numerous wild boars among the evacuated ruins
  • “Radioactive Boars in Fukushima Thwart Residents’ Plans to Return Home”The New York Times, March 9, 2017, more on the boars, which can’t be eaten due to radiation exposure, but with insight into how such post-disaster zones rapidly abandoned by humans can quickly become wildlife habitat

Post image is an AP photo from the Science magazine article linked above, and shows the bagging and storage of contaminated topsoil from near the meltdown site in Fukushima.