Science in Society Archive

Fukushima Fallout

With the Fukushima crisis still running, many countries are shifting away from nuclear power. India and the UK, however, are still firmly committed Prof. Peter Saunders

It’s more than four months since the explosions and fire at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the earthquake and tsunami [1] (see Fukushima Nuclear Crisis, SiS 50); but the emergency is far from over. As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) latest briefing states  [2]: “Overall, the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains very serious.”

As far as we can tell from statements made by the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric and Power Company (TEPCO), the major problem is to install a stable cooling system to replace the jury-rigged system now being used [3]. The hope is to bring the reactors to a state of cold shutdown by the beginning of next year. They also have to clear the rubble from the tsunami and explosions - a task made especially difficult by the high radiation levels - and decontaminate the radioactive coolant water that has collected under the plant.

After the site has been cleared, a cover will be constructed over the Daiichi 3 reactor to prevent more radioactive material from escaping into the atmosphere. This will not, however, be the end of it; the Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said [3] it will take decades to clean up the damage and decommission the plant. It’s obviously not possible to predict the cost of all that, plus the compensation to people living and working in the area and the loss to industry caused by the interruption to power supplies. The Japan Center for Economic Research has produced a ballpark estimate of US$250 billion [4]. (For comparison, the maximum insurance provision for a nuclear incident in the US is US$12.2 billion; anything beyond that would be left to Congress as ‘insurer of last resort’ [5].)

Global rethink on nuclear power

Fukushima has made many countries rethink their energy policies.


Japan has been producing about 30 per cent of its electricity from nuclear. This made it the world’s third biggest generator of nuclear power after the US and France, and it has been planning to increase the proportion to 53 per cent by 2030.

Four months after the earthquake and tsunami, only 19 of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors are operating. There has been considerable opposition to restarting them, and the government has now decided that those that are not now in operation should first undergo stress tests.  In the meantime, companies in Tokyo and north eastern Japan that are large users of power have been told that they must reduce their peak power use by 15 per cent from last year [6].

For the longer term, Prime Minister Kan has announced that the reliance on nuclear power should be reduced rather than increased. There are no firm proposals yet, but the Japanese parliament has extended its session until August and one of the topics to be discussed is a framework to increase the use of renewable energy; one suggestion is to require, by 2030, that all new building must have solar panels. It will also be discussing compensation for people affected by the Fukushima explosion, which should help keep the members aware of the real cost of nuclear power.


Long before March 2011, Germany had already decided to phase out nuclear and develop renewable energy sources instead. At the end of 2010, however, the government announced that while it was not going to build any new reactors it would extend the lives of the existing ones. In response to widespread public hostility to nuclear power after Fukushima, the government has now decided that there are to be no extensions and that by 2022 there will be no nuclear power generated in Germany [7]. Not only are the Germans confident that they can supply all their energy needs without nuclear reactors, they intend to become world leaders in renewable energy sources and so benefit their economy.


There are five nuclear plants in Switzerland and the government has decided they are safe enough to continue operating.  But in the light of Fukushima, they will neither extend the lifespan of existing reactors nor build new ones. Energy minister Doris Leuthard said that safety was the critical factor but also pointed out that nuclear energy is becoming more expensive. The decision would pay off in the long run because [8] “new jobs will be created and Switzerland will find itself in a good position internationally.”


With little in the way of its own fossil fuels, France has relied more than any other country on nuclear, which generates about 80 per cent of its electricity. But there is now pressure to reduce its dependence on nuclear, and the French government is going to spend €10 billion ($14.26 billion) to build five offshore wind farms. These should generate about 3.5 per cent of the country’s electricity.

At present, renewable energy accounts for 12.4 per cent of France’s energy output. The aim is to increase this to 23 per cent by 2020 [9]. France, like Germany though not to the same extent, is striving to build a strong renewables industry.


Italy has not had a nuclear programme since the 1980s. In a referendum on 13 June, the proposal to revive it was firmly rejected [10]. Observers reported that Fukushima was clearly a factor. Italy, like Japan, is prone to earthquakes.


China has 13 nuclear plants and another 27 under construction. These are to continue, but a delay of at least two years is now expected before any new projects are approved. The government is confident of the safety of the existing plants, but a number of experts disagree. Professor He Zuoxiu, one of the country’s leading theoretical physicists, has warned that China is “seriously unprepared, especially on the safety front”.

A month before the events at Fukushima, the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced that it had decided to develop thorium based reactors. These are claimed to be much safer than the reactors currently in use and to produce far less hazardous waste. Fukushima may lead China to accelerate their thorium programme [11].


The US is the world’s biggest producer of nuclear energy, and while it has not built any new plants since the 1979 Three Mile Island incident, it has recently been planning major new developments. In the wake of Fukushima, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) set up a task force to look into the safety of the country’s 104 reactors . In its first review, the group reported that it was safe to continue operating these plants on the present regulatory system, but made 12 recommendations for improved safety [12]. It also called for an overhaul of the existing regulatory framework, which it described as a “patchwork of requirements”.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the body representing the US nuclear industry gave cautious approval to the review, but it is clearly concerned about the cost of new safety measures. Until recently, they might have expected the government to pick up the tab, but in the present economic climate where everything else is being cut, legislators are becoming less inclined to provide large amounts of money for subsidies.


Despite protests from people living near the sites and scientists like A Gopal Krishnan, a former chair of the Indian Atomic Energy Regulation Board, the Indian government is pressing ahead with the construction of more nuclear plants [13].


The British reaction to Fukushima was swift and decisive. The government and the nuclear industry immediately set out together to put the best possible spin on it, to portray it as an example of the safety of nuclear power, rather than its hazards. An email from the Department of Business, Industry and Skills (BIS) dated 13 March, read [14,15]: “We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it.”

This was sent only two days after the tsunami, when no one could possibly have known how things would go. Yet BIS had already made up its mind. Not that we should be surprised; in 2007,  the then Prime Minister Tony Blair said quite bluntly that his government was going to go ahead with new nuclear build whatever the results of the consultation it was about to hold.

So it came as no surprise when on 18 May the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, said that the report he had commissioned found no “gaps in scope or depth” in the safety assessment measures and that it provided the “basis to continue to remove the barriers to nuclear new build in the UK.” He went on to say that the government “want to see new nuclear as part of a new energy mix going forward, provided there is no public subsidy.” [16]

Of course there will be a public subsidy for nuclear. There always is. And on 9 June, the government showed how serious it is about a new energy mix by reducing the financial incentives for large solar projects.

To conclude

It is too early to judge what effect Fukushima will have on the future of nuclear power. What is significant, however, is that almost every country – the outstanding exception being as usual the UK -- has shifted its position away from dependence on nuclear and towards renewables. Governments all over the world are finally beginning to realise that nuclear power is neither essential nor economical nor safe.

The tsunami was a terrible disaster for the people of Japan. Let us hope that at least some good will come out of it.

Article first published 03/08/11


  1. Ho MW (2011). Fukushima nuclear crisis: Chronicle of a disaster foretold. Science in Society 50, 4-9.
  2. International Atomic Energy Agency (2011), IAEA Briefing on Fukushima Nuclear Accident (2 June 2011, 18:30 UTC). Accessed 17/07/11.
  3. “Japan’s Kan says nuclear clean-up could take decades.” Kaon Kaneko and Kevin Krolicki, Reuters, 9 July 2011.
    Accessed 17 July 2011.
  4. “Japan: Fukushima bill could skyrocket.” International Business Times, 2 June, 2011. Accessed 20/07/11.
  5. World Nuclear Association (2011). Liability for Nuclear Damage.  Accessed 20/07/11.
  6. “Japan considers stress tests for nuclear reactors.” Osamu Tsukimori and Risa Maeda. Reuters, 6 July, 2011. Accessed 14/07/11.
  7. “Germany: Nuclear power plants to close by 2022.” BBC News. Accessed 20/07/11
  8. “Swiss to Exit Nuclear Power after Fukushima Disaster”. Goran Miluk and Markus Germann. Wall Street Journal, 25 May 2011. Accessed 19/07/11.
  9. “France Seeks to Expand Wind Power”. Max Colchester. Wall Street Journal, 11 July. Accessed 13/07/11.
  10. “Italy nuclear: Berlusconi accepts referendum blow,” BBC News. Accessed 20/07/11.
  11. “China’s nuclear ambition not dented by Fukushima meltdown.” Lydia Chen. Shanghai Daily, 24 June, 2011.   Accessed 17/07/11.
  12. World Nuclear News (2011). Task force reports on US plant safety. Accessed 20.07/11.
  13. “Fears rise in India of Fukushima-style nuclear disaster.” Bismillah Geelani. Asia Calling, 7 May 2011.  Accessed 19/07/11.
  14. “Fukushima spin was Orwellian.” John Vidal, Guardian 1 July, 2011.  Accessed 19/07/11.
  15. Guardian (2011). UK government and nuclear industry email correspondence after the Fukushima accident.  Accessed 19/07/11
  16. “UK Nuclear industry gets green light from government inspector”. Guardian, 18 May, 2011. Accessed 17/07/11.

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a tripod?

There are 4 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

artjar Comment left 4th August 2011 00:12:48
“When we research the radiation injury/sickness, we look at the total amount of radioactive materials. But there is no definite report from TEPCO or the Japanese government as to exactly how much radioactive materials have been released from Fukushima. “So, using our knowledge base at the Radioisotope Center, we calculated. Based on the thermal output, it is 29.6 times the amount released by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In uranium equivalent, it is 20 Hiroshima bombs. “What is more frightening is that whereas the radiation from a nuclear bomb will decrease to one-thousandth in one year, the radiation from a nuclear power plant will only decrease to one-tenth. “In other words, we should recognize from the start that just like Chernobyl, Fukushima I Nuke Plant has released radioactive materials equivalent in the amount to tens of nuclear bombs, and the resulting contamination is far worse than the contamination by a nuclear bomb.” Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama is the head of the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo.

Desiree Rover Comment left 8th August 2011 23:11:49
Just as you think 'authorities cannot get any more stupid and disrespectful, they have a ne trick: Day after Sellafield plant is shut, Government told to build another The plant has been a complete technological failure, managing to produce only a little fuel By Steve Connor, Science Editor

Todd Millions Comment left 12th August 2011 18:06:07
France gets 80%of its 'energy from the nucs?This should have read electricity-30 years ago and it was a lie then. but an interesting one-it assumed run times of 80-90%(avalability).No reactor in reality has shown70%.And this is by resceduling the sudden shut downs as 'scheduled'. Simalar wee interesting figure fudgings are found in Japanese official figures(capacity vs electrons travelling thru the lines-figures I've heard for this give the nuc portion around 13%.),but translation problems make anylisis difficult.Remembre that this is just the last time quakes have damaged and caused leaks from Japanese reactors,and the prevous ones were very expensive as well.This time we have major plutonium leaks too cake the enevitable. All power companies and reactor vendors tend too screw around with these figures.Using peak load times too demand capacity subsidy,rather than load shift/defferal or eliminate. Further too screwing around with the figures-is former PM Brown's little brother Andrew still doing PR work for EdeF?That job subsidy only cost the British taxpayer some12B(so if built30B)L in reactor orders-such a profitable privitization of Brit Nuc Fuels!

George Wade Comment left 21st September 2011 18:06:56
artjar's nice link, above, led on to two more: — which you may read in Japanease (;~) or in English. It is a development from a Facebook group that could be called "Lets figure out what the Fukushima fallout means we have to do next." They are doing a survey, starting in and near the Metropolis of Tokyo, extending to a "Nation Wide Soil Survey." That is much more than I ever hoped to find and it should be copied in some sense by us in other parts of the world. This has a text listing of all the US and a map with active links; your choice, to find the states and cities that interest you. Then links to some relevant articles or programs. There are comments from readers, below it all. Then some discussion of what the CPM figures mean, anyway: beginning at 'Dottie says: August 14, 2011 at 11:41 pm Hi – this link on Berkeley’s website has some information on interpreting the gamma ranges:' Happy reading. (If I find ducks with three legs because of the fallout I'm going to fail the Anti-Spam Homo Insapiens question...)