Fukushima Cleanup: Slow Progress

A tsunami flooded the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant eight years ago.

Fires, explosions and meltdowns followed.

Folks living within 20 kilometers were told to leave the area.

Radiation levels are dropping. A few folks are moving back. Clearing debris and removing radioactive fuel rods is taking more time than expected.

Yesterday, April 15, 2019, engineers started removing fuel rods from Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3’s storage pool. Unit 3 is one of six reactors hit by a tsunami in 2011.

TEPCO says they’ll finish the Unit 3 job by April of 2021.1

By the time I’d finished writing about the cleanup, I’d talked about natural law, ancient history, and what Thomas Aquinas said about making sense.


Rules and Principles

Loving God and my neighbor, seeing everyone as my neighbor and treat others the way I’d like them to treat me makes sense. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2537; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1789)

That hasn’t changed, and won’t.

Rules we make up are another matter. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. When they no longer apply to our circumstances, it’s time to change them. The same goes when they’re not in line with natural law: unchanging ethical principles like ‘love your neighbor.’ (Catechism, 19541960)

Respect for legitimate authority is another one of those principles. Ideally, folks in authority would be consistently wise, just and all the rest.

We don’t live in an ideal world. Sometimes the king, president, CEO or other boss is incompetent or worse. That’s why unthinking obedience is a bad idea. None of us is above the natural law, and we’re all expected to use our brains. (Catechism, 17761782, 18971917, 2155, 22422243, 2267, 2313, 2414)


The Fukushima-Daiichi Disaster, Eight Years Later


(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Fuel will be lifted from the crippled reactor and taken away for storage elsewhere”
(BBC News))

Fukushima: Japan begins removal of nuclear fuel from damaged reactor
BBC News (April 15, 2019)

The operator of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant has begun removing nuclear fuel from one of the reactors that melted down after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“Remotely controlled equipment is lifting fuel rods from a storage pool inside reactor number three.

“The delicate work at the contaminated site is expected to take two years….”

I suspect that we know more about the Chernyobyl nuclear disaster than the Fukushima-Daiichi one. Mostly because Chernobyl happened about 33 years back.

It’s only been eight years and a month since the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. That was the biggest earthquake recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful since 1900. Top place goes to the 1960 Valdivia quake.2

That doesn’t mean that earthquakes were comparatively mild until wireless telegraphy and heavier-than-air flight offended Mother Nature.

Maybe someone’s blamed Marconi and the Wright Brothers for post-1900s disasters. But not recently, I suspect.

Conspiracy theorists and angst merchants use other hot buttons these days, and that’s another topic.

History, Records, and Estimates

We’ve got records for earthquakes going back for millennia.

Some of them may have been more powerful than the Tōhoku or Valdivia events. We don’t know exactly how powerful, since somewhat-precise seismometers weren’t developed until around 1900.

We can make educated guesses about earlier events, based on written records and physical evidence. We’re getting better at finding and analyzing both.

My guess is that some ancient disasters didn’t get recorded. Not in writing.

Written records aren’t made unless at least a few survivors were close enough to be eyewitnesses. And have time to write down what happened, or talk with someone who’s literate and interested.

A Minoan Digression

The Minoan/Thera eruption, roughly three and a half millennia back, may be what’s behind tales that inspired Plato’s Atlantis.

Minoan civilization was on Crete about 110 kilometers, 68 miles, south of Thera. Tsunamis from event were between 35 and 150 meters, 115 and 492 feet, high when the washed over Crete’s northern coast.

At least some Minoans were most likely abroad when Thera exploded. Someone rebuilt a scaled-down version of Minoan culture that lasted for centuries.

We’re pretty sure Linear A, a writing system that’s apparently unrelated to anything else, is in the Minoan language

We’ve got the equivalent of about two typewritten pages of Linear A. Maybe it includes a record of the “violent earthquakes and floods … a single day and night of misfortune” Plato describes. (May 26, 2017)

Another mostly-unrecorded disaster is the Late Bronze Age collapse, a few centuries after Thera exploded and before Plato’s day.3 Survivors returned to the Aegean-Egypt corridor rebuilt, eventually, but I suspect a great many records were lost. (November 3, 2017)

Bad News

The Fukushima nuclear plant disaster was bad news, but comparatively minor compared to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake.

The quake and tsunami killed nearly 16,000 folks, left over 6,000 injured and about 2,500 missing.

The Fukushima-Daiichi power plant disaster killed or will kill between a handful and hundreds of folks. Maybe 1,600.

Death toll numbers depend on who’s talking. Also on whether they’re looking at folks who were killed in the incident, died later, or may die over the next few decades.

About 37 folks were injured. Maybe more. We’re more certain about how many were relocated: 160,000.

Speculation and Decisions

A 2017 risk analysis said that the evacuation and relocation was unnecessary and killed 1,600 refugees.

Maybe so. Folks at the Universities of Bristol, Manchester and Warwick — six and a half years later — had a Monday morning quarterback’s advantage.

Their scholarly analysis will probably help folks whose job is keeping other safe fine-tune how they handle future disasters.4

Even assuming that the academics were right, I don’t feel like writing a screed aimed at local and regional authorities.

My guess is that emergency responders and folks in charge had only a little more information than the rest of us. They’d have known that a tsunami had hit, and that there’d been an explosion at a nuclear power plant.

In their position, maybe I’d have started getting folks away from the area before experts had time for a thorough analysis.

Or maybe I’d have waited until after official investigators arrived, studied the situation and made a preliminary report.

That’d likely be after cleanup crews plowed paths through what was left of the city. And cleared space for a helicopter to land. Roads between cities wouldn’t have been particularly passable.

Then, if the experts said that radiation levels were off the chart and evacuation should have started immediately, I’d start looking for a good lawyer.

Or, if I’d gotten a lethal dose, put my affairs in order.

Official Estimates

(From Shigeru23, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A – Plant building, B – Tsunami’s peak height, C – Ground level of site, D – Average sea level, E – Seawall. Fukushima Unit 1 diagram.)

The good news is that TEPCO’s Fukushima power plant was mostly above average sea level and had a seawall.

The not-so-good news is that the seawall was nowhere near high enough to stop the 2011 tsunami. I’m not sure why so many of the plant’s backup generators were housed in basements.

And accessible from spots low enough to let seawater from the tsunami flood them.

Another blank patch in my knowledge is why TEPCO executives ordered an in-house study of tsunami risks. And ignored the results.

The study said that 10.2 meter tsunamis were possible, said that such a wave would flood key parts of the plant. In 2008, the execs said that waves 10.2 meters tall wouldn’t happen. In 2011, a wave at least 12 meters high arrived.

Maybe they didn’t feel like acknowledging that an official maximum wave height of 5.6 meters, reported in 2004, was overly-optimistic.

TEPCO’s decision-makers eventually started admitting that they’d lied about inspections and repairs. Many government officials didn’t come out looking much better.5

I figure most folks have an inner Monday morning quarterback. I certainly do. With my background and attitudes, I might feel that the TEPCO executives and government officials were incompetent, greedy, stupid, or all of the above.

But I won’t claim that the Fukushima debacle shows that regulations never work or decide that nuclear power is evil. Or dismiss disasters that don’t support my views as fake news.

Or something even less reasonable.

(Slow) Recovery


(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Fuel from reactor four at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was removed in 2014”
(BBC News))

Eight years after the disaster, radiation levels are lower in towns like Okuma. Folks are being allowed to move back.

Some are returning to their homes. Many or most of the town’s former residents probably won’t.

Can’t say that I blame folks for being cautious about official assurances.

Assertions encouraged Japan’s government to showcase their new and improved safety standards arguably haven’t helped boost confidence.6

It’s a plausible claim. Tokyo’s hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics. I’d like to think that embarrassment, if nothing else, from a now-public list of remarkably dicey decisions would encourage good sense. And that’s almost another topic.


Using Our Brains


(From WiNG, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

No technology is absolutely “safe.”

Even fire, something we’ve used for maybe a million years, can cause damage. All it takes is someone ignoring or forgetting what we’ve learned.

St. Thomas Aquinas had a few words to say about living in a world where we can get hurt, and who’s to blame for falling into a fire. Quite a few, actually:

“In the words of Augustine (Super. Gen. contr. Manich. i): ‘If an unskilled person enters the workshop of an artificer he sees in it many appliances of which he does not understand the use, and which, if he is a foolish fellow, he considers unnecessary. Moreover, should he carelessly fall into the fire, or wound himself with a sharp-edged tool, he is under the impression that many of the things there are hurtful; whereas the craftsman, knowing their use, laughs at his folly. And thus some people presume to find fault with many things in this world, through not seeing the reasons for their existence. For though not required for the furnishing of our house, these things are necessary for the perfection of the universe.’ And, since man before he sinned would have used the things of this world conformably to the order designed, poisonous animals would not have injured him.”
(“The Summa Theologica,” First Part, Question 72; St. Thomas Aquinas [emphasis mine])

“…Now action is properly ascribed, not to the instrument, but to the principal agent, as building is ascribed to the builder, not to his tools. Hence it is evident that use is, properly speaking, an act of the will….”
(“The Summa Theologica,” First Part of the Second Part, Question 16, Article 1; St. Thomas Aquinas)
(translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947))

I think St. Thomas Aquinas was right. Stumbling around a workshop, falling in the fire or getting cut isn’t the tech’s fault. That’s what happens when we don’t pay attention or use our brains. I’ve said that before. (February 10, 2017)

We don’t live in an ideal world. Unthinking obedience is a bad idea. No king, president, or other boss, is above the natural law. We’re supposed to use our brains. (Catechism, 1778, 1902, 19541960, 2155, 22422243, 2267, 2313, 2414)

More, mostly technology and making sense:


1 Eight years later:

2 Earthquakes and disasters:

3 History and lore:

4 Looking back:

5 Admissions and image:

6 Cleanup and controversy:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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