Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster


Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster


“The use of renewable, natural energy, and the end of reliance on nuclear energy and fossil fuels, can open a path to a peaceful world. It is my intention to commit myself without respite toward the achievement of this goal” 

        Naoto Kan, Former Prime Minister of Japan (June 2010 – September 2011)

As the negative environmental consequences of greenhouse gas emissions became apparent in the latter quarter of the 20th century, independent scientists and state governments began working to generate ideas for alternative energy sources. One alternative that was devised was nuclear energy, or the energy that arises from the splitting of uranium atoms in nuclear reactors. Because this chemical process does not emit harmful gases into the earth’s atmosphere, it has often been considered a source of “clean energy.” However, the disaster at the Daiishi nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan in 2011, demonstrated to the global community that nuclear power is not the final remedy to the issues of climate change. This event reminded society that renewable or “clean” energy sources come with their own host of challenges and risks that need to be considered.

On March 11th, 2011, Japan experienced the worst earthquake in the nation’s recorded history. With an approximate 9.0 magnitude, the earthquake wreaked havoc on the island’s infrastructure, including on five of the country’s nuclear sites. Four of these five sites retained enough power to safely cool and shut down their reactors in the aftermath. However, the location of the fifth site, that of the Daiishi nuclear plant, made it vulnerable to the tsunami that was brewing in the wake of the earthquake. Nestled on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the sites’ protective walls were no match for the 30-foot waves that bombarded the island and instantly killed hundreds. This flooding also quickly destroyed the powerlines which fed the Daiishi site. Without this vital power source, employees found themselves unable to continue cooling the reactors, leaving the machinery susceptible to over-heating and combustion.

The contemporary Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan has since explained that the government was severely unprepared to deal with this kind of nuclear danger. Neither had the Daiishi nuclear plant been designed with this kind of natural disaster in mind, nor had the government ensured that it had nuclear specialists on hand who could advise in this kind of situation. It took a few days for the government to fully comprehend the scope of the environmental devastation taking place. Not only had an area the size of one-fourth of Tokyo been contaminated with unhealthy levels of uranium, but much of this radioactive gas had been deposited into the Pacific Ocean, impacting both marine life and the country’s food supply.  

Despite the initial confusion, public servants from a wide variety of sectors came together to halt further catastrophe. Employees at the plant, as well as emergency responder teams made up of specially trained firefighters, risked their lives in the days after the tsunami. These public servants willingly exposed themselves to the toxic and cancer-causing levels of uranium that were beginning to escape the reactors. Clad with protective gear and respirators, firefighters have since explained the insufferable heat and exhaustion they faced as they collected car batteries from surrounding vehicles in a vain effort to bring power back to the plant. Government agencies simultaneously worked to evacuate over 200,000 residents of Fukushima Prefecture and its surrounding areas. Although it took nearly two weeks for the site to regain power, these efforts ensured that no known deaths resulted directly from the nuclear meltdown.

Nearly ten years later, the effects of these fateful days in March, 2011, remain as formidable challenges for Japan. A nearly 12-mile radius around Daiishi remains uninhabitable, and it is unlikely that this will change any time in the next decade. Thousands of families have been forced to reestablish themselves in other parts of Japan, or to make the difficult decision to migrate overseas. Scientists and psychologists have since studied the impacts that this string of catastrophes has had on the mental health of evacuees, finding that children in particular have suffered from PTSD and other trauma-related symptoms. Moreover, demolition and disaster relief teams continue the dangerous work of disposing of potentially-contaminated materials throughout this region. In addition to these individual’s plights and sacrifices, the state momentarily suffered from an economic downturn, as the flow of tourists was halted, and the global community lost confidence in goods exported from Japan. 

Japanese citizens and anti-nuclear activists have demanded that someone be held accountable for this disaster. The three CEOs of the private Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) were accused of criminal negligence and placed on trial in 2017. Many individuals feel that these CEOs failure to plan for the possibility of major natural disasters, left the plant susceptible to this kind of nuclear meltdown. However, the court clearly disagreed with this assessment, as they dropped the charges against these three men in September, 2019.  

Regardless of this decision, the 2011 incident has sparked a popular conversation around nuclear energy that continues apace in Japan and around the globe. In the incident's immediate aftermath, various other nuclear power plants around the island were shut down, and scientists declared that “Japan must begin discussions about using electric energy from sources such as solar, wind, natural gas and other designs.” The rise of Japanese consumer interest in solar panels has demonstrated that the public largely agrees with this assessment. Other countries, such as Germany, responded to this disaster by declaring their intention to move away from nuclear energy entirely. 

This incident reminds us not only of the crucial role that public servants play in disaster relief networks, but also of the importance of public service institutions that can plan for the worst contingencies in order to keep their populations safe and healthy. Moreover, we are alerted to the immensity of the task that public servants, particularly environmental scientists and policymakers are currently faced with. Combatting climate change through designing more safe, natural, and efficient ways of powering the globe is the defining task of our generation’s elected and unelected leaders, city planners, private and public scientists and engineers, activists, and so on.



Dooley, Ben, Eimi Yamamitsu and Makiko Inoue. “Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Trial Ends with Acquittals of 3 Executives,” The New York Times, Sep. 19, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/business/japan-tepco-fukushima-nuclear-acquitted.html

Mashiko, Hirobumi, Hirooki Yabe, Masaharu Maeda, Syuntaro Itagaki, Yasuto Kunii, Tetsuya Shiga, Itaru Miura, Yuriko Suzuki, Seiji Yasumura, Hajime Iwasa, Shin-ichi Niwa, Akira Ohtsuru, and Masafumi Abe. "Mental Health Status of Children After the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident." Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health 29, no. 2 (2017): 131S-38S. Accessed March 5, 2021. doi:10.2307/26686362.

Ohnishi, Takeo. "The Disaster at Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after the March 11, 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami, and the Resulting Spread of Radioisotope Contamination." Radiation Research 177, no. 1 (2012): 1-14. Accessed March 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41408640.

KAN, NAOTO. "THE FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR POWER PLANT DISASTER AND THE FUTURE OF RENEWABLE ENERGY." In The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Disaster and the Future of Renewable Energy, 3-22. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018. Accessed March 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt20d89f7.2.

Palliser, Janna. "Nuclear Energy." Science Scope 35, no. 5 (2012): 14-18. Accessed March 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43184528.

Thomas, Steve. “What will the Fukushima disaster change?” Energy Policy 45 (2012): 12-17. Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421512001140.

Further Reading:

Uekoetter, Frank. "Fukushima and the Lessons of History: Remarks on the Past and Future of Nuclear Power." RCC Perspectives, no. 1 (2012): 9-32. Accessed March 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26240348.

Broinowski, Adam. "Informal Labour, Local Citizens and the Tokyo Electric Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Crisis: Responses to Neoliberal Disaster Management." In New Worlds from Below: Informal Life Politics and Grassroots Action in Twenty-first-century Northeast Asia, edited by MORRIS-SUZUKI TESSA and SOH EUN JEONG, 131-66. Acton ACT, Australia: ANU Press, 2017. Accessed March 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1pwtd47.11.

Seconds from Disaster, Season 5, Episode 4. District of Columbia: National Geographic, 2012.




Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster

Cite As

“Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster,” Virtual Museum of Public Service, accessed August 20, 2022, https://vmps.omeka.net/items/show/650.