Fukushima, One Year After

On the somber first anniversary, Japan still has a lot of work ahead

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Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

On the morning of March 11th last year, the hallways at Spectrum were already buzzing with the news that an earthquake and tidal wave had struck coastal Japan. It quickly became clear that Japanese authorities had a full-scale nuclear emergency on their hands, so the staff here put all hands on deck for what was obviously going to be the technology story of the year, as well as the humanitarian story of the year.

Senior News Editor Sam Moore quickly renegotiated our contract with a Tokyo-based freelance correspondent, John Boyd, and for a while was editing almost a story of his a day. Associate Editor Eliza Strickland, who has the Asia beat here, worked almost full-time on the story and made two trips to Japan.

The entire staff pitched in—this show had six Fukushima-related episodes, for example. Over the next six months, Spectrum published scores of stories, some of them in print, most of them online. All that reporting culminated in a November special report, “24 Hours at Fukushima,” that’s a finalist for a National Magazine Award.

This Sunday marks the one-year anniversary. I thought we’d drag those two lead editors into the studio and find out where things stand. Eliza, Sam, welcome to the podcast.

Sam Moore: Hi, Steven.

Eliza Strickland: Thanks for having me.

Steven Cherry: Eliza, it’s only been about three months since the reactors were declared “stable.” And I guess it’s a big step between that and fully decommissioning them. What’s still to be done, and how long is that going to take?

Eliza Strickland: So TEPCO, the utility that owns the plant, did succeed in bringing the plant to what they call a “cold shutdown” by the end of 2011, so they met their target for that. But that just basically means that the water temperatures in the damaged reactors are below the boiling point, so the melted nuclear fuel will be kept covered by water and will be relatively safe there. So basically, cold shutdown means that the situation is stable enough that they can begin to think about what happens next. And so to fully decommission the plant and clean up the site, TEPCO has mapped out a plan that will take about 40 years to finish. In the next two years they’re going to start removing the spent nuclear fuel from these pools, these spent fuel pools, and that’s just fuel that had already been used in the reactors in the course of normal operations and was being stored on the site. So the first step is to remove all that material, and then in the next 10 years or so they will start to remove the actual melted cores from the damaged reactors, and that’s a massively complex task. So, yeah, they plan to finish the whole operation maybe in about 40 years.

Steven Cherry: Wow. So what about the area surrounding the plant? Is life getting back to normal for those people?

Eliza Strickland: No, and it won’t in the course of the foreseeable future. So people were evacuated from towns within about 20 to 30 kilometers of the plant. Some of those areas will be repopulated; a few towns in the outer ring are coming back to life now. But the nearest towns, the ones just a couple kilometers from the plant, have been declared permanently off limits by the Japanese government. So maybe that will change in a few decades, and maybe it won’t—it’s really hard to say.

Steven Cherry: Okay. Sam, looking at Japan as a whole, the country was pretty dependent on nuclear power. So first, have they been able to meet their energy needs? And second, are they doing any rethinking about nuclear energy?

Sam Moore: Yes, they have been able to meet their energy needs, but it has been quite a stretch. As of January they had just 3 of their 54 reactors generating, and with a series of mandatory safety stress tests planned, they might have zero operating by this summer. And it gets hot in Japan in the summer, and electricity requirements go up—it was about 180 gigawatts peak demand in 2010 summer, so they’re in a bit of a bind. So last August, again during the heat of the summer, they put together a bill that would make it easier to add generation from solar and wind power. Unfortunately, things have not progressed very far with that. The bill was passed, but most of the key provisions that would actually get things going on the ground have been stalled due to some completely unrelated political problems, so that’s kept things from moving ahead. But there are other things that are going to also get in the way, and these are more fundamental. Japan is about 70 percent covered by mountains, and that really makes flat land for living and agriculture a premium, and that also hinders what you can do with solar and wind. The installed and the planned solar farms are usually like one-tenth to half the size of the largest sites in the United States and Europe. They just don’t have the land to actually make big power stations for solar power, and that really makes them less cost competitive. A similar story for wind: The vast majority of Japan’s wind-power sites have fewer than five turbines, which is just not how you see it in Europe and the United States and elsewhere. And what’s worse is the sites they do have are in remote, hilly, mountainous areas where it’s just hard to get the electricity from the generators to the people. So this really puts Japan in a bind in terms of green energy. They’ve had some political problems, but they also have a more fundamental geographic problem that’s going to make it hard to make renewable energies a bigger fraction of their power-generation scheme.

Steven Cherry: Now Eliza, there are some countries that are actually ditching nuclear power, right?

Eliza Strickland: Yeah, there’s been a lot of turmoil and talk around the world in response to Fukushima. The strongest reaction has really come from Europe, where Germany has decided to shut down all 17 of its reactors by the year 2022. Which means they’re going to need some new ideas for energy, because those reactors provided about 28 percent of the country’s power. Switzerland and Belgium have also declared that they will phase out their programs, and Italy, which was gearing up to start a nuclear power program, has reversed course. China also had a strong reaction to the Fukushima accident. The government had the most ambitious nuclear program in the world; the country had 14 reactors operating at the time of the Fukushima accident. They were building 26 more, and they had plans to have about 100 nuclear reactors feeding the grid by the year 2020. When Fukushima hit, the government put a halt on all approvals of new plants and new reactors, and to date they have not resumed that approval process, but most people expect them to ramp up again pretty soon—it’s just a matter of time.

Steven Cherry: And they’re going ahead with the ones that are already under construction. You actually visited one of those sites, right?

Eliza Strickland: Yeah, they are going ahead with the ones that are under construction. The one I visited was an advanced reactor design, a pebble-bed reactor, and they were about to start construction when Fukushima hit. So they have not been allowed to actually start pouring concrete, but they’re just waiting for the say-so. And then around the world there are also some countries that are undeterred, countries that were about to start nuclear power programs and that are forging ahead. The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] just announced that they expect to see five countries building their first plants this year—that’s Vietnam, Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Belarus.

Steven Cherry: Sam, the disaster had a big impact on technology, I guess in chip making, consumer electronics. I guess the earthquake and the tsunami would have, even without the nuclear power plant disaster, so this caused some shortages around the world, right?

Sam Moore: It really did. The earthquake really underscored how connected the global economy really has become and how potentially vulnerable wide swaths of it are to catastrophe in a specific location. Just in the semiconductor industry, according to the firm Objective Analysis, the main island of Japan was responsible for some 25 percent of global semiconductor production—that’s just on the island itself, and this is a [US] $300 billion global industry. There’s some 42 fabs on that island. Now most of the fabs themselves weren’t too shook up by the earthquake, but the two near the epicenter kind of stood out. One was owned by an American company, Freescale, that had been planning on shutting it down; they just chose not to repair it. But the other that was owned by a Japanese company, Renesas, makes much of the world’s microcontrollers, and that company lost nearly 12 billion yen as a result of the damage. They did manage to get things back together pretty quickly; they thought it would take six months to repair their fab, and they managed it in about half the time, and they were able to shift a lot of their production to other facilities. Pretty much all the damage to the semiconductor production has been repaired, but the insult to the supply chain has had lasting effects even now. Elpida Memory, which supplies a little over a tenth of the world’s DRAM computer chips, was already on the brink of fiscal difficulty when the earthquake struck. With the earthquake and tsunami, and combining that with some floods in Thailand later in the year, that pushed it over the brink, and it was forced into bankruptcy just a few days ago. The earthquake really made people stop and think about their supply chain and the durability of their suppliers. And that sort of examination apparently smells like opportunity in Taiwan and some other places. In Taiwan, the government there has actually made a big push to attract Japanese firms looking for a second manufacturing site. They’ve actually set aside a large swath of expansion site in their three science parks just for Japanese firms looking to do this. Their first takers have actually been mostly makers of the chemicals and materials needed to make semiconductors and other electronics, but there’s definitely some change in the air.

Steven Cherry: So Taiwan invited these companies to come and make these backup production facilities, but is that the only reason for [choosing] Taiwan?

Sam Moore: No, there’s actually an ulterior motive there. Japanese firms were also faced with supply shortages of rare earth materials. China, which is the only source for many of these materials, cut back on its exports, and that really scared some Japanese firms. If you are located in Taiwan, however, you can take advantage of certain cross-Strait agreements and get your access to your Chinese materials.

Steven Cherry: Very interesting. Well, it’s really quite an involved story still, and it’s clearly not done yet. So I guess you guys will still be doing a lot reporting, and we’ll still be reading about it for months and months to come. Thanks for talking with us today.

Sam Moore: Thank you, Steven.

Eliza Strickland: Thanks. My pleasure.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Spectrum editors Sam Moore and Eliza Strickland about Japan’s long and difficult recovery from last year’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 1 March 2012.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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