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Trish And Traci Podcast Hero
Trish And Traci Podcast Hero
Trish And Traci Podcast Hero
Trish And Traci Podcast Hero

Podcast: Fukushima Disaster 10 Years Later -- What Have We Learned?

March 9, 2021
The catastrophic incident at the Fukushima power plant 10 years ago started in 1967 when the plant was built in a tsunami-prone area.

In this episode of Process Safety with Trish & Traci the duo discuss lessons learned from Fukushima and what other facilities can do to keep their workers safe.


Traci: Welcome to this edition of "Process Safety with Trish and Traci," the podcast that aims to share insights from past incidents to help avoid future events. I'm Traci Purdum, senior digital editor with Chemical Processing. And as always, I'm joined by Trish Kerin, the director of the IChemE Safety Centre. Hey, Trish, what have you been working on lately?

Trish: Hi, Traci. Oh, it's been a busy week so far and lead into next week as well. So, the 4th of March was actually World Engineering Day, which is where engineers have a moment to focus on the sustainable development goals, which is an incredibly important thing we need to be doing. And on the 8th of March, is International Women's Day. I'll be speaking on the first event of Women in Health and Safety. And that's a really important event to try and really focus on equality, diversity, and inclusion. It's actually not just about women, it's about equality, diversity, and inclusion.

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Traci: Wonderful. I'm looking forward to that event as well. I will be watching you from the audience cheering you on. So, I'm looking forward to it. In terms of what I've been working on, I've been actually adding some links to make it easier to subscribe to our podcast here. So, if you go to, you can pick your preferred platform and be alerted every time we launch a new episode. You can also access all of the episode transcripts via this link. The transcripts feature links to things we discuss during our talks, and folks can dig a little bit deeper into that. So, I'm happy that I finally got that task completed to make that easier. So, we've been busy, haven't we?

Trish: Yeah, we have. And that's great news that it's easier for people to subscribe. Always important to be able to get access to really good quality information.

Traci: And it is. Really looking back at... This is our 21st episode we're on now.

Trish: Wow.

Traci: And looking back, we've really covered a lot of ground. So, I'm pleased with it. And in terms of our discussion here today, the news of a pretty significant earthquake in Japan in mid-February had everybody really holding their breath as they remembered what happened 10 years ago in nearly the same area. Of course, I'm talking about the Fukushima disaster on March 11th, 2011. During that, there was a 9.0 earthquake that caused the country's worst nuclear disaster on record, where three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant melted down, releasing radioactive materials into the air. Trish, can you give us a little bit more insight into what happened that day?

Trish: Yes, certainly, Traci. First of all, I just want to acknowledge as well that, in addition to the earthquake that did happen in February, in Japan, overnight, the North Island of New Zealand was struck by an earthquake too. So, certainly, the Pacific Ring of Fire is quite agitated at the moment. I think it was a 7.0, from memory, in New Zealand, in the last few hours. So, hopefully, everything's okay over there. And certainly sending my thoughts over to anybody over there in that situation. Just important to note also, so, we're going to be talking about Fukushima, we're going to be talking about nuclear reactors. I just want to acknowledge Dr. Zsuzsanna Gyenes, who is a colleague of mine who has helped me prepare for this because she is actually more of a nuclear expert than I certainly will ever be. So, I'd like to just acknowledge her in this podcast as well.

I think it's really important to realize that the incident didn't start on the 11th of March, in 2011, in Japan, it began when they designed and built the plant. And we need to go right back to that very stage because it was built in an earthquake and tsunami-prone area. Now, they knew about these natural hazards, and they did consider them in the early stage design. But they didn't reflect the possible magnitude that could have happened, and that's a really big issue that occurred here. So, if you put that in context, research has shown that since the year 1498, there have been 12 tsunamis with wave heights of greater than 10 meters in the Pacific Ocean. So, it doesn't say it's very frequent, but actually, that's still quite a large number of significant tsunamis occurring within that region.

Now, the issue was that when the plant was being built in 1967, they estimated that the wave height might exceed the seawall that they were building, once in 50 years. And we've got to be really careful when we talk about those sort of statistics, you know, it's a 1 in 50-year risk, that doesn't mean you've got to wait 50 years for it to happen. It could happen today and tomorrow, and then they'll happen for 100 years. So, we can't sort of, you know, guarantee that it's going to be so many years apart. But given the facility was built in 1967, you probably start to wonder whether maybe it was overdue for a wave of that sort of height when the incident actually occurred. But there was the Great East Japan Earthquake that did occur, as you said, 9.0 on the Richter scale. Now, it was actually so large that it's estimated it actually shifted the Earth's axis by 10 to 25 centimeters at the time. It was such a substantial shake that occurred. And it caused the death of more than 16,000 people because we need to remember, the earthquake is not just about Fukushima, there were other implications to it too, other impacts.

So, there was 1 million buildings, over 1 million buildings were destroyed or severely damaged, estimated to be US$235 billion in damage. Now, what happened at the nuclear plant was the tsunami caused the cooling system failure at the power plant. And that resulted in what's known as a level 7 nuclear meltdown and a release of radioactive materials. That also then resulted in some fires that occurred. But there were also a number of other impacts as well. There were oil refineries that were damaged and had fires and explosions. There were all sorts of other chemical plants that were impacted, too. So, we remember this as all about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, but there were many other related incidents that occurred at the same time. We need to remember that it wasn't just the power plant that had the problem, the entire area, the entire prefecture of Fukushima suffered significant damage as part of this earthquake.

Traci: And just incredible devastation. And I've never been in the occasion to be in a nuclear power plant when some sort of event like this is happening. What happens? Are there alarms? Does it start early? Do they start looking out for things? Are there automatic safety protocols in place that need to be in place within... You said they built within the area that is prone to this. So, do they build in those safety protocols?

Trish: They certainly do. And there were automatic shutdown systems in place to stop the reactors. And that occurred. The reactors shut down. But we actually need to talk a little bit about what nuclear reaction is to understand why that didn't stop the issue itself. The nuclear reactors use nuclear fission. And so that means that we can't actually just instantly stop the reaction that's occurring. Normally, what happens is the fuel is uranium-235, and it gets bombarded with neutrons within the reactor, and that splits into smaller parts. And that splitting releases energy. And it's important to recognize a nuclear energy per atom can release 1 million times more energy than chemical from fossil fuels, the chemical reaction. So, it's a very substantial energy release that occurs. Now, the decay will continue for some time before it can be stopped. And that's why the cooling systems on nuclear reactors are so important. They actually maintain the temperature, so you don't lose control of that reaction and have a meltdown. They have to keep taking that heat away.

So, in the most simplest of terms, what happened was the seismic sensors at the facility did what they were meant to do, and they shut down the nuclear reactors. And that was all working fine. Then, the internal cooling loops were activated to make sure that the facility and the reactors didn't overheat. And that all worked fine as well until the tsunami hit. And the tsunami actually took out the diesel backup generator, because we need to remember that not only did the seismic detectors shut down the nuclear reactors, but the entire power grid of the region was shut down as well because of the earthquake. So, there was no electricity. So, they were generating their own electricity with their diesel generators to run their cooling loops. The tsunami flooded their diesel generators, and then lost backup power, and then they lost control of their cooling loops. And that is what eventually led to the explosions, the fires, and the meltdown that we actually saw.

Traci: It wasn't a quick incident, it went on for days. How was it dealt with, and in your opinion, was it dealt with properly? And what would you have done differently, if anything?

Trish: I think back to that original design, in the situation that we saw, it was destined to happen because of where the generators were placed in relation to the seawall and those sorts of things. I think we need to also remember the people involved in the incident at the time, and they did their absolute very best under such incredible stress that they were going through. And I certainly would not ever dare to second guess the activities and the tasks that they undertook because they did the best they could with the equipment and the information they had. So, they'd lost all power, which meant that they couldn't provide power to their various different gauges to tell them what was going on in the reactor.  They were essentially blind for a period of time. They got incredibly creative and did things like scrounging car batteries from the car park to try and power their instruments so they could see what was going on. They really did amazing work in the pressure that they were in.

And keep in mind, these people went to work that day. They said goodbye to their families, they went to work, and then this happened. And they worked through these four days without knowing whether their families had even survived, without knowing what was going on with the rest of the country.  I think we need to be very careful about judging what they did. At the end of the day, this was a design failure. And they were left trying to deal with that design failure in the best way they possibly could. And, you know, the automatic shutdown worked, and it was all going well up until the tsunami. It really was a classic design failure. And, at one point, they were using their fire engines to pump cooling water into the reactors to try and manage it as well. The ingenuity they had in dealing with that incident, I think we need to take a moment and just reflect on what it must have been like for them, and the heroic actions that those individuals that day, and in subsequent days too.

Traci: Absolutely. Great points that you make there and something to really think about going to work and not knowing, you know, that this is going to happen and then having to work through, it's just incredibly... I don't know how I would have dealt with it, obviously. And reading about this 10 years later, it was brought up that there was maybe some poor communication and delays in releasing data on dangerous radiation leaks at the facility, which compounded the disaster. And some folks think that Japan's government tried to downplay it a little bit, downplay that catastrophe. What are your thoughts on that?

Trish: Well, I think there's an enormous amount of activity that goes on in an event like this. And again, we do need to remember that whilst the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant was suffering, the meltdown that they were experiencing, there were refineries on fire, there was utility systems broken all over the country, there were people being evacuated from all sorts of areas because of the magnitude of the earthquake. And that's one of the challenges of natech incident, so they're natural hazard-triggering technological disasters, they don't just affect the plant, they affect the community, the society, and everything is under stress at that point in time. And so there are so many things going on that it is truly a catastrophic event when these things take place. And we need to remember that it can be very tempting at times to just, well, if you want the information, we'll just give you the information, but information is not communication. And we need to remember that, that we can't just dump enormous amounts of data on people, on the community, and expect them to understand it. We actually need to communicate the issues.

And that then will come down to trust and how we communicate with regard to whether the community trust the people sharing the communication. And I think in this instance because there was so much data and so little communication, it did create a trust deficit between the people and the government, and the science community as well, because the scientists weren't effectively trying to communicate at the time either. And those that were, were not necessarily trusted for a range of reasons. And so that really becomes one of the big things that we need to figure out how to manage. And it was interesting, I actually read an article from the Woods Hole Institute. And they actually talked about this particular issue and the lack of communication, and just the huge amounts of data. And they actually quoted John Stein, who is the director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. It's a really long title. Now, he went to the Gulf of Mexico, after the Deepwater Horizon spill. But he said, and I quote, "Down on the Gulf Coast, being a federal scientist, I was, by definition, untrustworthy. If there's one lesson we took from that experience, it's that communicating the science is an incredibly difficult issue. You very much have to acknowledge what happened. People are hurt by an event like this. Rebuilding that trust and rebuilding the public and consumer confidence takes a long time."

And that's one of the things that we just don't really think about because we're too busy managing the crisis, that we don't think about the trust deficit. And without the trust, we're actually not going to be able to effectively communicate with people. And so that's something that we need to really try and focus on. One of the things that they said works quite well in Japan was that scientists from other countries were trusted, when they were talking about Fukushima. And in fact, a lot of trust was regained, the government regained a lot of credibility at one point when Greenpeace started to measure the airborne radiation around Fukushima, and their results matched the government results. And so all of a sudden, we've got a massive non-governmental environmental organization saying, here's the results, and then that's what the government's saying. So, the government wasn't lying. It was all about how they were communicating the information. And it's all about communication in a crisis.

Traci: Great insight there. It's been 10 years, what's next?

Trish: Well, look, the entire decommissioning process for the Daiichi power plant will take 30 to 40 years. This is not a short project. There's so much work to do. There's going to have to be specific tasks prioritized. Basically, what they need to do is work on continuous risk reduction to protect people in the environment. So, they need to start to do things like remove the spent fuel and the fuel debris from the reactor building. Keep in mind that's radioactive, they then need to reduce the risks associated with the contaminated water and radioactive waste, so, you know, stopping the radiation flying into the Pacific, those sorts of things. And to put that in context, this incident also has changed Japan's energy mix. So, up until 2011, Japan was generating about 30% of its electricity from nuclear, and were planning on reaching 40% by 2017. Their plan is now most likely 20% by 2030, so they're pulling back on their nuclear capability at this point in time. And so that's been a really significant thing.

There's also an International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety that happened in June 2011, and that resulted in a declaration on nuclear safety. And it outlined a number of measures to further improve nuclear safety, and emergency preparedness, radiation protection of people and the environment worldwide. It also expressed a very firm commitment that the countries would ensure that the measures were taken. And that's a really important part of it. So, the countries that use nuclear power will continue to take those actions. And, you know, things like in the European Union, for example, they're formulating a number of stress tests that they're going to apply to their nuclear facilities to make sure that they can have confidence in extreme natural events that the facility can withstand what's going on.

So, it's led to a lot of development activity that's really quite substantial, but very, very important to help us manage the risk of nuclear technology. And we do need to remember, nuclear technology can be managed safely, but whenever people say nuclear, most people around the world, three things, three words, or three facilities spring to mind, we think about Chernobyl, we think about Three Mile Island, we think about Fukushima, we don't think about the hundreds and hundreds of nuclear plants all over the world that quite safely operate 365 days of the year, providing us with electricity as well. So, it's not a good-bad argument, it's about a risk management argument and how we can do it effectively. And there's actually a really good book that was released back in 2016, that helps focus on how to look at natech risk assessment, so that natural hazard-triggering technological disasters. It's called "Natech Risk Assessment and Management: Reducing the Risk of Natural-Hazard Impact on Hazardous Installations." And it's by Elisabeth Krausman, Ana Maria Cruz and Ernesto Salzano. It's an excellent book on how to assess the risk. And that's really I think, where we need to make sure we focus and get better at.

Traci: You pointed it out, it's easy to play Monday morning quarterback with these types of incidents. But what can facilities, not just power plants, but what can other facilities learn from these types of missteps?

Trish: Yeah, there is a lot of learning out there now and a lot of great things that we need to really embrace. One of them is that better understanding of the natech risk assessment because that actually gets us to focus on the consequence, more than the likelihood. We actually have to rule out the likelihood as being a driver of driving the risk down so we don't have to think about the horrific consequences that we might see because in natech, we need to be willing to accept that consequence could occur, regardless of how it could occur. And if we think about... You know, I mean, again, Houston and then Texas has just suffered a massive natech-related event within the last month. The freeze that occurred in Texas, in a state that typically doesn't winterize its facilities, like where you're from, you know, your state winterizes all of its facilities because you know you're going to have below-freezing temperatures, you know, you're going to have ice and snow, you prepared for it, you managed for it. You have to build for it too though. In Texas, it's not built for it, because it's such a ridiculously unusual phenomenon that occurred. And so we need to start to understand those things a little bit more and get used to those. You know, it is incredulous that, what, several podcasts ago we were talking about hurricane management in Texas. Now, we're talking about sub-freezing temperature management in Texas. It's really quite a strange climate we're living in.

Traci: Bizarre.

Trish: But what has also happened is a framework has been released by the United Nations called the Sendai Framework. And it's developed to try and help bring together the risk assessments between disaster risk reduction and the sustainable development goals with the climate emergency focus. So, it's trying to bring all these things together to try and create a framework for countries and organizations. That framework was actually agreed and released in 2015. It has a 15-year lifespan. And it proposes four priority areas for action. It's understanding disaster risk, strengthening disaster risk governance to manage the risk, investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience and enhancing preparedness for effective responses, and to build back better in recovery so that we actually improve the systems. We don't just build the same thing that we always had, we actually have a chance to build the right thing next time, from the lessons of what we've learned. And there's a whole series of targets that they've got focused on that.

So, you know, looking at reductions in disaster mortality, the number of people affected, direct economic losses, damage to critical infrastructure, and disruption of basic services. That significantly happened within the Great East Japan Earthquake. And increase national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020. So, focusing on getting better plans in place, enhancing cooperation with developing countries as well, because we do need to remember, this is not just a developed world issue, this is an issue that affects all countries in the world, and a substantial increase in multi-hazard early warning systems. So, for example, I mentioned earlier this morning, in my time there was an earthquake in the North Island of New Zealand, there was a tsunami warning issued for that, for various different areas and to seek higher ground. The tsunami warning was subsequently withdrawn about five hours later. But there was slight...slightly higher than normal waves. It wasn't a 10-meter tsunami by any stretch, but there was rippling that did occur at the time. So, there's a lot of different things there that we need to think about. To mark the anniversary, the tenth anniversary of Fukushima, in IChemE, we actually released an anniversary edition of our Loss Prevention Bulletin that's available now. It's Edition 277. And it explains the Sendai Framework, but it also goes into a lot of detail about Fukushima, as well as other natech-related events. So, it's a really good read if people are interested (access it here).

Traci: Well, you've given us a lot of great resources so far, so, I will be sure to link all of those in that transcript. Is there anything you want to add, any straggling pieces to this puzzle you want to bring forth?

Trish: I think the key really is, we need to make sure that we do proper risk assessments to understand what the consequences are and how we can mitigate them because we can't actually necessarily prevent the natural hazard aspect of it. So, we need to be into mitigation, we need to understand that. And part of that mitigation has to be effective communication through the community and the surrounding society. And that, I think, is an area that we do constantly fall down in, how are we communicating what's going on with people? The idea that, you know, we don't want people to panic so we won't tell them how bad it really is, maybe is not such a great idea, because, first of all, eventually people will figure it out, and then there is no trust, they'll never trust you that you're telling them the truth going forward. And that is a problem. But also we need to think about it, how do we need their help? What do we need them to do to help us deal with this? And, you know, we could draw a parallel here with COVID. You know, we need people to practice good hygiene, to socially distance, to wear masks. We need to tell them why. We can't just tell them to do it. We need to explain and communicate effectively the science why masks actually do help reduce, they don't eliminate but they help reduce. Good hygiene will help reduce, keeping a distance will help reduce, and these are things we need to do. So, it's around how we actually manage the communication of getting the people involved, getting them engaged because they can actually help us deal with the issue as well, in some instances.

Traci: Well, you always prove to be the great process safety communicator. Your ability to dissect incidents, put humanity behind it, and really come out with lessons learned, and how others can benefit from these catastrophic events is just incredible. So, I appreciate all that you do for us. And unfortunate events happen all over the world, and we will be here to discuss and learn from them. Subscribe to this free podcast so you can stay on top of best practices. On behalf of Trish, I'm Traci and this is "Process Safety with Trish and Traci."

Trish: Stay safe.

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Trish Kerin, director, IChemE Safety Centre, Institution of Chemical Engineers, spent several years working in design, project management, operational, safety and executive roles for the oil, gas and chemical industries. She currently sits on the board of the Australian National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) and is a member of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center steering committee. You can email her at [email protected].
Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, joined Chemical Processing as senior digital editor in 2008. Traci is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. You can email her at [email protected].

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