58. The Future of Nuclear Power: 10 years after the Great East Japan Earthquake

It has been 10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck the Asian country, causing a massive and destructive tsunami.  On this episode of Thinking in English, I want to talk about the events of March 11th 2011, and look at the Fukushima nuclear disaster in more detail. Finally, I will discuss the future of nuclear power, as well as its pros and cons!

(If you can’t see the podcast player CLICK HERE to listen!!)

Vocabulary List

To trigger (v) – to cause something to start

Some people find that certain foods trigger their headaches 

To breach (v) – to make an opening in a wall or fence, especially in order to attack someone or something behind it

Their defences were easily breached

Reactor (n) – a large machine in which atoms are either divided or joined in order to produce power 

How many nuclear reactors does your country have?

Epicenter (n) – the point on the earth’s surface directly above an earthquake or atomic explosion 

Those islands are close to epicenter of the earthquake 

To expose (v) – to put someone at risk from something harmful or unpleasant

It is feared that people living near the power station may have been exposed to radiation 

To evacuate (v) – to move people from a dangerous place to somewhere safe 

The police evacuated the village shortly before the explosion 

Radioactive (adj) – having or producing the energy that comes from the breaking up of atoms

Uranium is a radioactive material 

Footprint (n) – a measurement of the size, effect, etc. of something

We took the decision to invest in new countries and grow our global footprint

To pose (v) – to cause something, especially a problem or difficulty 

Nuclear weapons pose a threat to everyone

I can still remember 10 years ago sitting in my science class at secondary school in a small village in the middle of the United Kingdom watching footage of the Great East Japan Earthquake. For a British person who had never been abroad, natural disasters were something I knew pretty much nothing about. Fortunately the UK is not often affected by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, typhoons, hurricanes, famines, droughts or other similar events. Seeing the enormous waves of a tsunami destroy everything in its path is something that I will never forget. Little did I know at the time that Japan would become an incredibly important part of both my personal and professional life. 

The Great Japan Earthquake struck on a Friday afternoon in March ten years ago. It was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan. It was also one of the most devastating. The 9.0-magnitude quake triggered a tsunami which surged through Japan’s main island of Honshu, killing more than 18,000 people and demolishing entire towns. In addition to this destruction, the earthquake and following tsunami caused one of the worst nuclear disasters in recent years. The gigantic tsunami waves breached the wall and defences of Fukushima’s nuclear power plant, and water flooded into the nuclear reactors. As radiation leaked from the reactor, an exclusion zone was set up by the Japanese government. Around 150,000 people were forced to evacuate from their homes, towns, and villages due to the nuclear disaster. 10 years later they have still not returned. In the rest of this episode, I want to talk more about what happened in the nuclear power plant, before discussing the benefits and disadvantages of nuclear energy!

Where is the power plant? The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is about 220km north of Japan’s capital city Tokyo in the East of Fukushima prefecture. The epicenter of the  Great East Japan Earthquake, also known as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, occurred 100km north of the power plant close to the city of Sendai. It sent massive Tsunami waves, over 14 meters high, towards the plant, while residents only had 10 minutes warning before it hit.

What happened at the Fukushima power plant? As the earthquake struck, the sensors and system at the power plant automatically shut down the nuclear reactors as a form of defence. Reactor cores remain incredibly hot well after the power is shut off, so emergency generators were turned on to continue powering the cooling systems. However, the tsunami waves overwhelmed the power plants defences, flooded the Fukushima plants and damaged the emergency generators. Without generators, the cooling system failed and over the next few days three of the plant’s nuclear reactors overheated and began to melt the cores. This is known as a nuclear meltdown! There were also chemical explosions which damaged the buildings, and radioactive material leaked into the Pacific Ocean, surrounding environment, and the atmosphere. The partial meltdown has been described as a level seven nuclear disaster by the International Atomic Energy Agency which is the highest possible level. Fukushima is only the second disaster to receive this level: the other is Chernobyl. 

Although there were no immediate deaths due to this nuclear disaster, at least 16 workers were hurt by explosions and more were exposed to radiation as they tried to repair the damage and stabilise the reactors. The Japanese government confirmed in 2018 that at least one worker had died from radiation exposure. There is a debate surrounding the long term effects of the leaking radiation, but scientists generally agree that the risks remain relatively low. The exception is the power plant’s surrounding area which is still dangerous. Most people have refused to return to areas which officials have said are now safe. 

Who was responsible for the disaster? Who was at fault? Who deserves to be blamed? There was no real preparation for this kind of event from anybody. The responses from the government and Tepco (the company who owned the reactor) have been widely criticised. An independent investigation by Japan’s parliament found that the energy company failed to meet safety requirements and did not plan for a nuclear meltdown. In 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stated that the Japanese government shared blame for the disaster, and a court in 2017 found that the government should pay compensation to people forced to evacuate.

It is now ten years since the disaster, but the issues around the nuclear power plant are still ongoing. A number of towns in the Tohoku region are still abandoned and are waiting for officials to clean the area. It will likely take another 30 or 40 years, and tens of thousands of workers to remove the remaining nuclear waste and millions of litres of radioactive water still trapped. Recent reports that Japan plans to slowly release radioactive water into the pacific ocean have been criticised by environmental groups. Although it has been ten years, the nuclear disaster is still causing problems for all kinds of people. 

Should we still use nuclear power? In 2011 about 30% of Japan’s electricity was from nuclear reactors, but the disaster caused people to rethink and made the general public distrust nuclear energy. Japan is rethinking its nuclear energy policies and changing their energy plans. Should other countries do so as well? Around 32 countries operate nuclear reactors to generate electricity, with the USA having 95 and France having 57. However, a number of countries are already trying to reduce their need for nuclear energy. Germany, Belgium, Taiwan, and Switzerland are aiming to stop using nuclear power within the next decade. 

On the other hand, China, India, South Korea and the UAE are looking to expand their nuclear power plants, while Belarus, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are planning to build their first ones. What are the benefits and disadvantages of nuclear power? I am now going to introduce a number of arguments surrounding nuclear energy. I want you to listen to what I say, and decide yourself what you think. I want you to be able to think in English and express your own opinions in English!!

Let’s start with the arguments against nuclear power. The environmental charity Greenpeace believes that “Nuclear energy has no place in a safe, clean, sustainable future.” They argue it’s expensive and dangerous, while renewable sources are better for the environment and economy. Instead of investing money into long term nuclear projects, governments should focus on sustainable energy solutions which will be quicker to build and better in the future!

Furthermore, one of the consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor is that Japan’s carbon emissions have dropped below their levels before the accident. Initially, carbon emissions rose as Japan shut down almost all of the country’s carbon-free electricity. However, since then Japan has invested energy efficiency and solar power, which has reduced carbon emissions without using nuclear power. According to Gregory Jaczko, the former Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “It turns out that relying on nuclear energy is actually a bad strategy for combating climate change: One accident wiped out Japan’s carbon gains.” 

In addition, nuclear reactors produce enormous amounts of radioactive waste which will remain radioactive for centuries to come. In countries at risk of natural disaster, such as Japan, nuclear power plants will always pose a serious and devastating risk to human life and the environment. If a wind turbine fails, the damage would be tiny compared to a nuclear meltdown. Although the likelihood of a disaster like Fukushima or Chernobyl is low, the impact of these disasters is devastating. The impact can last for centuries, even thousands of years. We also need to remember that as more countries get nuclear reactors there is more danger that nuclear technology could be used by criminals, terrorists, or unstable governments as weaponry. 

On the other side of the argument, many people still support nuclear power. Nuclear reactors produce carbon free electricity, and can do so on a large scale. If countries want to reduce their carbon footprints, nuclear power will help them do so. Other forms of renewable energy do not create as much electricity as a single nuclear reactor. Until they can, countries may want to combine nuclear and renewable power! Instead of just focusing on renewable energy, countries need to invest in all forms of zero-emission energy, including carbon capture and increased energy efficiency, as well as nuclear and renewable energy. The benefits to the environment may be greater than the small risks.

 Nuclear power plants are powered by uranium, which can create one million times the heat of fossil fuels or other burnable substances. Nuclear power plants produce heat without fire and smoke, so there’s no air pollution associated with the technology. They also require less land than renewable sources.

Finally, even in the worst case scenario, nuclear plants only release small amounts of radioactive material. The risk of meltdown is generally considered incredibly low. The Fukushima meltdown was the result of one of the strongest and most devastating natural disasters in modern history. In many other countries, this kind of event would never happen. 

Final Thought

It has been 10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, killing thousands, destroying towns, and forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes. The Fukushima nuclear disaster is still ongoing, and will take many more years to fully be resolved. In the aftermath of this nuclear disaster, Japan has taken steps to reduce their nuclear power plants. While some other countries are doing similar things, a few countries are actually expanding. But should we still use nuclear energy? What do you think?

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