On 11th March 2011, a tsunami off the coast of Japan triggered one of the worst nuclear accidents in history. At the time we wrote the following piece on our blog:
“It is reported that the current perilous situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant is the result of the failure of backup generators to supply power to the cooling system. You would imagine that in such a safety-critical application the design, maintenance and testing of these backup systems would combine to make the risk of such a failure infinitesimal but somehow it has happened.”
It is particularly poignant to look back at this incident as we hear reports of power loss to the Chernobyl site as part of the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine.
Three reactors at the Fukushima plant were operating at the time of the incident. Although all three were successfully shut down, the failure of the cooling system led to a series of partial melt-downs and explosions resulting in releases of radioactivity. Initially an area of 600 sqkm was evacuated and residents within a 30km radius of the plant were advised to stay indoors. Later in March the evacuation was extended out to a radius of 20km. The leakage of radioactive material began to be brought under control in April but it was not until December that the facility was declared to be “stable”. Evacuation orders began to be lifted in July 2013, and by March 2017 they had been lifted everywhere but an area of 370 sqkm.
Official reports state that 573 people died as a result of the evacuation, most of these in older age groups; but other estimates put the figure somewhat higher. Whilst this is a very small proportion of the overall deaths from the tsunami, it is still a terrible tragedy. The long-term health effects of radiation exposure are less clear: compensation has so far been paid to the family of one nuclear worker (who died of cancer) and 43 evacuees, but other cases may come to light in due course.