March 11 marks the 6th anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami. In the immediate aftermath of the 9.1 magnitude earthquake, the active reactors of Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant automatically shut down their sustained fission reactions. However, the tsunami destroyed the emergency generators that would have provided power to cool the reactors. The insufficient cooling led to three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air chemical explosions, and the release of radioactive material in Units 1, 2 and 3.
The meltdown and resulting leak led to the largest nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the second disaster to be given the Level 7 event classification of the International Nuclear Event Scale.
6 years on, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station is still leaking. The facility’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) recorded “record high levels of radiation” inside a damaged reactor. Atmospheric readings as high as 530 sieverts an hour had been recorded inside the containment vessel of reactor No 2. For perspective, one sievert is enough to cause radiation sickness and nausea; exposure to 5 sieverts would result in death within a month, and 10 sieverts would prove fatal within weeks. TEPCO’s latest announcement will further complicate the already monumental task of decommissioning the plant and containing the leak.
Today, Japan is still experiencing the effects of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report estimating an increased risk of specific cancers for residents living in Fukushima Prefecture. A 2013 WHO report predicts that for populations living in the most affected areas there is a 70% higher risk of developing thyroid cancer for girls exposed as infants, a 7% higher risk of leukemia in males exposed as infants, a 6% higher risk of breast cancer in females exposed as infants and a 4% higher risk, overall, of developing solid cancers for females.
To date, a 20km exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear power station is still in effect. Towns that were hastily evacuated now bear the resemblance of Chernobyl. Nature has consumed the once occupied towns.
Cleaning up the plant and the nuclear fallout is expected to take 30 to 40 years, at a staggering cost of 21.5tr yen ($189bn) as estimated by Japan’s ministry of trade and industry .