Implications of the Fukushima nuclear disaster: man-made hazards, vulnerability factors, and risk to environmental health.

Author:Eddy, Christopher


The Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered by the magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, reminded the world that nuclear power plant accidents like the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters can still occur. Cascading electrical systems failures resulted in a massive expulsion of stored radioactive hazards, including varying concentrations of strontium, cesium, plutonium, americium, iodine isotopes, and radioactive noble gases to the environment (International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], 2011a; National Diet of Japan, 2012; Physicians for Social Responsibility [PSR], 2011; Stohl et al., 2012). Foods, agricultural animals, and fish were restricted from shipping in many prefectures, though many Japanese affected by the radiation stated that they did not understand the risk as communicated by the Japanese government (National Diet of Japan, 2012). The disaster is not over: highly radioactive waters are discharging into the Pacific Ocean continuously, and "ice wall" mitigation technologies are faltering (Tokyo Electric Power Company, 2014a). Over 120,000 people remain evacuated from their homes and live with fear of radiation (Sase & Ojino, 2014). Some will never return home (Reconstruction Agency of Japan, 2014). The radiological impact upon environmental health is not certain. Four years from the disaster start, the risk to environmental health continues and the disaster is ongoing.

Therefore, we sought an understanding of the risk of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster to environmental health and to learn how that risk was communicated to the public. Further, we aimed to gain an understanding of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant preparedness and response challenges that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the associated risk to environmental health. We studied the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its effect upon environmental health through an all-hazards lens. We analyzed the known risk of radiation to environmental health, the factors that led to its release, and concepts of environmental health end fate as relational to disaster planning. We cross-examined whether the Fukushima nuclear disaster would apply to disaster planning, risk communication, and consequence management rubrics in other countries including the U.S. This article attempts to clarify disaster planning challenges to all-hazards identification and vulnerability analysis processes. It also discusses how our research led us to understand the risk to environmental health by distinguishing man-made hazards and vulnerability factors from a natural disaster trigger event.


We conducted a literature review of publications germane to the Fukushima nuclear disaster including the following subject matter: national and international nuclear industry standards; the site operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO); international and American nuclear associations; Fukushima nuclear disaster scientific papers; and reports referencing the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and nuclear accidents at other sites in the world.

Research Questions

1) How did the natural disaster trigger event, man-made hazards, and vulnerability factors impact risk assessment and communication capacity and heighten the risk to environmental health?

2) What do the environmental health implications of the Fukushima nuclear disaster add to all-hazards planning and response capacity opportunity, including concepts of environmental end fate, in and outside Japan? From an all-hazards/CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive) preparedness perspective, we sought to understand and differentiate the hazards existing at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. We intended to explore the application of that knowledge to disaster planning processes in and outside Japan, including the U.S., to prevent the risk of radiation to environmental health, defined as air, water, soil, and environmental media (Bisesi, Long, London, Hester Harvey, & Enriquez Collins, 2013).


Our analysis of the Fukushima nuclear disaster found that risk to environmental health profoundly associates with disaster trigger events, man-made hazards, vulnerability factors, and level of preparedness and adequacy of response. The Fukushima nuclear disaster provides insight into the risk of man-made hazards and nuclear plant vulnerabilities.

Disaster Trigger Event

The Fukushima nuclear disaster was triggered by linked natural disasters, both of which were probabilistically analyzed according to geographic and geological metrics by Japanese risk assessment authorities (National Diet of Japan, 2012). TEPCO estimated that the probability of natural disasters (earthquake, tsunami) exceeding plant design safety margins would be low (National Diet of Japan, 2012). Likewise, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) considered a nuclear release a low probability event prior to the Fukushima nuclear disaster (IAEA, 2010). The March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami exceeded estimations, however.

Other international preparedness perspectives such as the Hyogo Framework, which is hailed as the lead international disaster driver, are natural-disaster focused (Maurice, 2013). The Hyogo Framework, predominantly focused on external disaster events (Maurice, 2013), has led to response, or event-based planning paradigms. Other international sources warned that secondary technological and infrastructure failure events can be initiated by a natural disaster trigger event, causing secondary hazards release as its consequence (Cruz, Steinberg, Arellano, Nordviuk, & Pisano, 2004; United Nations, 2005).

The Fukushima nuclear disaster stands apart from the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear disasters: it involved the first-ever reactor core melt (three separate core reactor meltdowns) triggered by a natural disaster. The man-made Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters remind the world that Fukushima nuclear disaster-like scenarios can be caused by intentional (e.g., terrorism), accidental, and natural disasters.

Vulnerability Factors

Specific vulnerability factors heightened the risk of man-made hazards stored at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant early in the disaster event horizon: multi-unit reactor configuration, spent nuclear fuel pools, risk assessment and communication, and incident command system execution.

Multi-Unit Reactor Configuration The near proximity of six nuclear reactor units caused one to directly affect the others, compounding the severity of systems failures and response difficulty (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC], 2011, 2014a). The radiological complexities of the multi-unit reactor configuration and the adjacent spent nuclear fuel pools exceeded the capacity of the on-site sampling equipment placed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) after the disaster (NRC, 2011). The vulnerability dense design configuration also directly impacted reactor unit #3, which contained an additional plutonium content. NRC later ordered U.S. licensees to "modernize monitoring equipment to insure multi-unit site monitoring capability" as a result of the lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster (NRC, 2011).

Spent Nuclear Fuel

The open-water storage vessels containing thermally hot, high-level radioactive spent nuclear fuel were of particular concern early in the event. Spent nuclear fuel is not stored within the fortified containment units that safeguard reactor fuel release. Spent nuclear fuel, the "most hazardous of all man-made wastes," must be managed for 200,000 years, essentially "forever," due to the lack of disposal options presently challenging the U.S. and other nations (PSR, 2011; Rosenbaum, 2014; Taebi & Klosterman, 2008). Dependent upon constant cooling processes that require complex and integrated electrical systems to maintain safe cooling temperatures, spent nuclear fuel pools lost mechanical cooling capacity at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant for over three weeks. IAEA records show that power was restored at least partially to all nuclear reactor units and spent nuclear fuel pools on April 3, 2011 (IAEA, 2011b). Spent nuclear fuel is capable of killing a human within minutes in near-direct contact (PSR, 2011).

Spent nuclear fuel rod assemblies, which contain hundreds of rods, must be stored in carefully spaced containers to prevent a...

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