Fukushima's shadow.

Author:Davies, Lincoln L.
Position:Evaluating Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident's impact to global energy policy
 
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ABSTRACT

The March 11, 2011 tragedy at the Fukushima Daiichi power station in Japan immediately etched its place in history as arguably the most noteworthy of the three nuclear energy disasters to date. This Article surveys the response to Fukushima both in Japan and worldwide. It observes that rather than stopping what many thought was a burgeoning "nuclear renaissance," the global policy reaction post-Fukushima was more varied. Using the examples of Germany, the United States, and China, the Article examines the three general approaches to nuclear energy that nations have followed since Fukushima: abandonment, status quo, and expansion. The Article then uses these different responses to highlight core tensions in energy policy, namely, between markets and planning, between resilience and path dependence, and in values. The Article concludes by summarizing Fukushima's likely impact on nuclear power going forward, noting the inherent complexity in energy and energy law and policy systems.

TABLE OF CONTENTS I. INTRODUCTION II. THE CLOUD: THE FUKUSHIMA DISASTER AND ITS AFTERMATH IN JAPAN III. THE SHADOW: GLOBAL REACTIONS TO FUKUSHIMA A. Abandonment B. Status Quo. C. Expansion. IV. SOME LIGHT: FUKUSHIMA AS A LENS INTO GLOBAL ENERGY POLICY. A. Markets vs. Planning B. Path Dependence vs. Resilience C. Values vs. Values D. Implications: Nuclear Energy Post-Fukushima V. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

"That place is finished. It's only fit for ghosts." (1) That is how one former resident of Japan's Fukushima Prefecture now describes the area that, on March 11, 2011, suffered the triple devastation of a 9.0 earthquake, its ensuing tsunami, and, then, a triple meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. (2) Indeed, the meltdown at Fukushima undeniably changed the place--so much so that, in an effort to assure the public of the government's rehabilitation efforts, national politicians in Japan, including the Prime Minister, have taken to television, drinking water from the site and eating peaches grown in the region, to advertise the area's safety. (3)

The fateful events of March 11 began simply enough. A massive earthquake in the middle of the Pacific Ocean unleashed an equally enormous tsunami that quickly reached Japan's coastline. (4) The earthquake itself automatically disabled Fukushima Daiichi's reactors, just as they were designed to do. But when the tsunami's waves struck, they engulfed the facility's backup diesel generators, which had been located in the basement and on the ground floor. (5) Then all havoc ensued. Unable to restore power to the facility--and thus to keep coolant water flowing--plant operators worked bravely but in vain to stop what quickly became unavoidable: a meltdown of three of the facility's reactors and a fire in Building 4, which housed spent fuel rods. (6) Much in contrast to the disaster's beginnings, its aftermath was, and continues to be, vastly complex. Japan established exclusion zones around the facility, evacuated scores of residents, stopped producing electricity using nuclear technology nationwide (until only recently), and eventually began cleaning up the site, a process that is expected to take decades. (7) As one worker put it at the time, "[i]f we're in hell now all we can do is to crawl up towards heaven." (8)

Of course, the disaster unleashed on Fukushima--an area that before the devastation was described as "picture-postcard," (9) "a placid landscape of fishing villages, rice paddies and dairy farms," (10) "a place with the 'feel of Maine: organic farms, pine forests, coastal towns where the air is spiked with sea salt'" (11)--is not limited to Japan alone. In the weeks and months after the meltdowns, calls that the disaster would unalterably shift the way energy is produced on this planet were not uncommon. As 2011 began, many eyed nuclear power as a key tool to mitigate climate change, with some saying its importance for this purpose would lead to a "nuclear renaissance." (12) By March 11, however, all that changed. As the scope of destruction at Fukushima Daiichi became clear, many more said the tragedy would be the death knell for the nuclear industry. (13)

This Article surveys the impact that the disaster in Japan has had on nuclear power and energy policy across the globe--Fukushima's "shadow." The core point is that while common sense might predict that a disaster as devastating as Fukushima would fundamentally alter the global energy landscape, in fact the opposite is true. Rather than halting the growth of nuclear power, the paths that nations have chosen diverge. Post-Fukushima, a few nations decided to abandon nuclear energy, but many others have stayed the course, and some are expanding their investments in this resource. Thus, from an energy policy perspective, the story of Fukushima's aftermath is more complex and nuanced than might be expected.

As such, Fukushima's aftermath also provides insight into global energy policy. Specifically, the disaster at Fukushima--and countries' reactions to it--exposes three key tensions that undergird energy policy worldwide: those between markets and planning, between path dependence and resilience, and in energy values. These tensions in energy policy, in turn, highlight why energy decision making is so difficult. Energy systems form the basis of modern life, from economic security to industrial expansion. At the same time, modifying how energy is produced, transported, and used is a key target for constituents interested in protecting the basic ecological systems on which life relies. There are thus strong reasons for governments to intervene in how energy markets function, depending on what aim--or aims--they want to promote. Yet, the sheer massiveness of the energy system makes planning and change difficult. As a result, those who want to foment change may try to seize on a disaster like Fukushima as a key opportunity, but the fact that even great disasters do not always yield hard turns in energy policy should not be surprising. The energy system is incredibly complex, and so too are the legal and policy systems that govern it, as often must be the case. When one system's complexity increases, the complexity of those around it typically must as well in order to interface. (14) The variety in global responses to Fukushima is yet one more manifestation of this.

This Article proceeds in five parts. Part II describes the response in Japan to the Fukushima disaster since March 11, 2011. Focusing on the examples of Germany, the United States, and China, Part III summarizes three categories of global reaction that followed in nuclear policy: abandonment, status quo, and expansion. Part IV then uses the lens of Fukushima to briefly explore the three core tensions in energy policy. Part V concludes.

  1. THE CLOUD: THE FUKUSHIMA DISASTER AND ITS AFTERMATH IN JAPAN

    Time will tell, but odds are good that the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi may eventually assume the place of the most significant nuclear energy disaster in history, eclipsing even Chernobyl. This is because, quite simply, the disaster is not yet over. "[T]he nightmare continues." (15)

    In the four years since the tsunami struck, the scope of the havoc that Fukushima's failure unleashed on Japan has not diminished. Rather, as more study is done, and as efforts to clean up the region continue, the full impact of the disaster has continued to be revealed. In many ways, then, the cleanup efforts are much like a slow-motion autopsy--the full scope of the disaster's effects are discovered only iteratively, over a long period of time.

    Thankfully, scientists believe that the meltdowns will not have any lasting health effects for the populace at large, with no known "deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident," (16) even as 20,000 died from the tsunami itself. (17) A 2013 UN report thus concluded, "[r]adiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects" and is "unlikely" to result in "any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers." (18) Other experts agree. A "sweeping" $958 million public health survey being conducted by Fukushima Medical University determined that almost all evacuees from the disaster received very low radiation doses--maxing out at 25 millisieverts (mSv), "well below the 100-mSv exposure that has been linked to an increased risk of cancer." (19) Likewise, the World Health Organization has observed that "no observable increases in cancer above natural variation in baseline rates are anticipated" from Fukushima. (20)

    That is the good news. The other side of the story is that Fukushima Daiichi's detrimental effects are both far-reaching and severe. The meltdowns forced an estimated 150,000 people to evacuate their homes to avoid radiation, and today nearly 120,000 remain displaced because of the disaster. (21) The government has drawn a twenty-kilometer (12.4 mile) exclusion zone around the power station and continues to limit entry to areas farther outside that. (22) Many of these evacuees "now subsist in prefab units" that are "more evocative of a third-world disaster zone than the world's third largest economy." (23) The evacuation has both split families and caused measurable mental anguish for the displaced. (24) According to one assessment, roughly 15 percent of evacuated adults "showed signs of extreme stress, five times the normal rate, and one in five showed signs of mental trauma--a rate similar to that of the first responders to the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States." (25) Meanwhile, evacuated children "showed stress levels about double the Japanese average," a result perhaps hardly surprising given that nuclear refugees in Japan continue to receive regular thyroid examinations and health checks, and some have decided to wear dosimeters on a daily basis. (26)

    The disaster...

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