Fukushima Incident: Revisiting Human and Environmental Safety

Written by Devyani Bissa and Kunjal Arora*

Abstract

Environment and development usually do not go hand in hand. Whatever developments are made, it somehow affects the nature and damages the environment. Nuclear power is one such development.

This essay talks about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster and its environmental impact. It also elaborates on the laws which were neglected, the present legal framework and what changes should be made in the present environment legal framework to protect it from the future disasters.

Keywords: Fukushima, Environment, Disaster, Law, Society

INTRODUCTION:

Human being is an evolved creature. And like itself, it likes to evolve its surroundings too so that they match its needs and wants. Development is a major part of human development. From centuries, the world has developed and evolved to the way it is now. Economic development is given a keen importance in the world today however, economic development cannot be an end in itself.

The environment is affected with every change, every development made in the surroundings and nature. Nuclear power is one such development in the list of human developments which have affected the environment on a large scale. The setting up of a nuclear power plant is a big step which requires a lot of work and it also affects the environment. However, if there is an accident in the nuclear and radiation field, the consequences are very widespread.

Nuclear accident is defined by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) means, ‘any accident involving facilities or activities from which a release of radioactive material occurs or is likely to occur and which has resulted or may result in an international trans-boundary release that could be of radiological safety significance for another State’[1].

Thus, it means such a disaster or accident which causes widespread and significant consequences to people, facility or the environment because of the release of nuclear or radioactive material. Fukushima nuclear disaster was considered as a 7 in the scale of world’s biggest disasters.

This essay deals with the environmental impacts of the nuclear disaster, the laws that were not followed and the steps which should have been taken to prevent this. The authors also try to give suggestions regarding the future of nuclear energy.

FUKUSHIMA DISASTER: FACTS

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was a disaster occurred in the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant in Japan which on 11th March 2011 which resulted in nuclear meltdown of 3 reactors of the plant. It all started with an earthquake on 11th March 2011. During that time, 3 units out of 6 of the plant were working. Due to the earthquake, these units went into an automatic shutdown causing power cut. So, emergency generators were used as the only source of power at that time.  The tsunami hit the shore approximately 50 minutes later. The tsunami waves overtopped the seawall, causing flooding in the basements of the building. This led to disabling of the emergency generators and the plant was fully out of power. TEPCO notified this to the authorities as ‘first level emergency’. The government started the evacuation procedure for the people nearby to protect them from radiation harm. The reactors were overheated which caused an explosion in reactor 1. Later, another explosion happened in reactor 3 which injured 11 people. There were several spills from the plant which leaked into the surroundings. The plant’s way to prevent leakage was building chemical underground walls which were not fully successful in its objective.  Although it was short term radium exposure, 30,000 people were evacuated from the area. According to a linear no-threshold model (LNT risk model) this energy accident’s release of radiation into the surroundings would most likely cause a total of 130 cancer deaths in the years and decades ahead.[2]

IMPACT OF INCIDENT ON VARIOUS STAKEHOLDERS

Every disaster leaves after itself some or the other harmful effects and the intensity of the harm done depend upon the type of disaster. The Fukushima daichii’s nuclear plant‘s destruction resulted in radioactive contamination at a greater level. These radioactive elements were released from vessels containing the reactor. The effect of this can be seen on both the living things and the environment.

A report given by the World Health Organization says that the people residing in mostly affected areas, there is a threat among 70% of females of thyroid cancer and 6% of breast cancer exposed as infants. Also, there is a 7% risk of leukemia in males exposed as infants.[3]  As of August 2013, 40 new infants ad been diagnosed with thyroid cancer in Japan. The disaster had not only affected the physical health but also the mental health of people. A survey conducted by ligate which showed that the respondents which were residing around the area of incident only said that though there has been no physical injury but the people living over there experience  anxiety and instability. These behavioral changes sometimes become more dangerous than the physical injury. Many people had lost their homes during that time so the stress and the behavioral changes will be there for a long time. Professor Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that the Lancet series showed that “the psychological and social consequences of nuclear accidents are more profound, long-lasting, divisive and difficult to manage than the more direct consequences of radiation leaks.” [4] The disaster had also affected the animals and the ecology. “A growing body of empirical results from studies of birds, monkeys, butterflies, and other insects suggests that some species have been significantly impacted by the radioactive releases related to the Fukushima disaster,” says Dr. Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina, lead author of one of the studies.[5]The various species such as butterflies and birds showed major declines three months after the radiation and there was also an increase in mutation in reproductive and non-reproductive cells.

The radiation also affected the agriculture sector. According to Japanese Ministry of Health, the radiation had also affected milk and vegetables produced in that area and had reached beyond the legal limits. The disaster not only affected the land but also the water bodies. Fishing was banned in Fukushima as high amount of radioactive elements were found in the fishes over there.

The disaster’s effect can also be seen on a worldwide basis. For instance, soon after the Fukushima incident the German Government decided to close down it’s very old 17 nuclear plants and had from that time started moving towards a nuclear free country and had started developing strategies for using coal in future. The reactions were most notable in Germany, where the planned complete phase-out of domestic nuclear generation by 2022 was reaffirmed.[6]Many countries like Germany are doing the same. The Overall global nuclear power output has declined to 10% in 2012 and its share of global commercial primary energy production dropped to 4.5% percent, a level last seen in 1984. This is partially due to Japan’s stall on nuclear energy, but also a result of the shutdown of reactors in the U.S.

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL LAW VIOLATIONS IN FUKUSHIMA DISASTER

There are many laws that govern the nuclear scheme. One such law is Atomic Energy Basic Law which was passed in 1955. It establishes the basis guidelines for monitoring the nuclear energy in Japan.[7] After that there are many laws passed and many agencies have been formed. One such commission is Nuclear Safety commission which looks out for basic policy of nuclear safety. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency governed by Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors or Electricity Business Act, had also issued threat under the incident which was not paid heed to. Thus it violated that act. When the problem occurred neither of the commission and Ministries were able to control it as there was a lot of overlapping of responsibilities between many ministries. The major problem of these agencies was that they lacked quick and efficient response when the incident occurred.  Also, the plant continued to rely on design and features that were not in compliance with the current industry standards. So, it had also violated the standards laid down

When the incident originally happened people believed that it was a natural disaster but there were many investigations conducted which shows that it was a man-made disaster. This was inferred from the fact that prior to the incident an in-house study was conducted by TESCO in which it was found out that there was a possibility of tsunami in future but the officials ignored it and said it to be unrealistic. The incident not only violated Japan’s national laws but International laws were also violated Though we can see that the leak caused in the nuclear plant was unintentional as it was caused by the tsunami but the dumping of the effluent of radioactive water by TEPCO was intentional. Japan is a signatory to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes under which this type of dumping is not allowed.  Also, the government which had although taken responsibility along with TEPCO for the incident can also be made liable under the Vienna Convention and Convention on Nuclear safety which requires the state to take necessary steps to assure the safety of installed nuclear plants which in this case the government failed to do.

SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS

The disaster of such magnitude not only has environmental issues but also have a societal impact. Same had happened with the Fukushima incident. The people who considered nuclear power as a great achievement and development were distressed after the incident. The same people who were previously excited are now afraid of its long term radiation caused due to the disaster. Many people had lost their livelihood, their families their home. Though no one died due to the incident but future diseases were predicted among the affected people. These things create a mental trauma inside a person which lives with the person for a long time and is more dangerous than physical harm. This incident had not only affected the people of the Japan but had also forced many other countries to look upon their own nuclear energy laws and safety procedures.

This incident had also affected the economy of the country. Japan is the major player with regards to the nuclear energy but due to this incident its nuclear energy generation had been slowed down. Also, the other countries are also deciding to close down their nuclear industries. Due to this there is 10% decrease in nuclear power plants and the economy gets affected.

CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS

Whenever any natural disaster happens everyone just abstains from their liability by saying that they had no role in that incident. But sometimes a natural disaster may lead to a man-made disaster which had happened in the Fukushima nuclear power plant. This incident happened due to fault on the part of both the government and the company handling the plant. There was no quick response by both the parties at the time occurrence.

The point to be noticed here is how an incident of such kind affects all the spheres of life: humans, animal, plants and ecology. Not only they affected the policies of Japan but also had grave impact on other countries as well. The international conventions were also violated by the same. The incident had many social implications as well. It affected the policy making, conventions, economy, and mental conditions of the people. Many agencies had informed about the possibility of such occurrence but all the information went into deaf ears.  The disaster could have been avoided by taking safety measures and the authorities should have taken more safety measures knowing that they are dealing with dangerous radioactive element which have potential to destroy many lives. There is a need for a system of check which checks that the rules are being followed, the requirements are being fulfilled etc. Preventive steps are needed to be taken to stop the world from having another such disaster.

 

*4th Year Students, Institute of Law Nirma University, Ahmedabad.

[1] IAEA Safety Glossary, Terminology used in Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection, 2007

[2] John E. Ten Hoeve & Mark Z. Jacobson, Worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, 5 (9) Energy & Envtl. Sci. (2012).

[3] Stephanie Nebehay, Higher cancer risk after Fukushima nuclear disaster: WHO, Reuters, Feb. 28, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/28/us-japan-nuclear-cancer-idUSBRE91R0D420130228.

[4] Charlie Kooper, Psychological impact of nuclear disasters like Fukushima more damaging than the risk from radiation, experts say, Independent, Jul. 31, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/psychological-impactof-nuclear-disasters-like-fukushima-more-damaging-than-the-risk-from-radiation-experts-say-10428096.html.

[5]Chris Pash, The Crushing Effects Of Radiation From The Fukushima Disaster On The Ecosystem Are Being Slowly Revealed, Business Insider, Jul. 9, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-serious-biological-effects-of-fukushima-radiation-on-plants-insectsand-animals-is-slowly-being-revealed-2014-8.

[6] Masatsugu Hayashi, Larry Hughes, The Fukushima nuclear accident and its effect on global energy security, 59 Energy Pol’y 102, 108 (2013).

[7] Atomic Energy Basic Act, 1955, art. 1, 2 (Japan).

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