On July 19, I met with Professor Fumihiko Imamura of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS) to talk about the meltdown at Fukushima, nuclear power since then, and disaster-proofing the country.
We first talked about the differences between the Fukushima and Onagawa power plants. Despite being closer to the epicenter of the earthquake, the reactors in Onagawa were left relatively untouched and were shut down successfully. Both reactors were built on regions that were originally hilly. In the case of the Fukushima reactors, they dug down to built the reactors, as they were not worried about the risk of a tsunami. Contributing to the meltdown was a landslide that shut down the main electric grid. Something similar did not happen at Onagawa.
Fukushima Daiichi was also the first commercial power plant. Risk assessments had not been done frequently, so information was old. As that area of Fukushima was not normally disaster prone, it was assumed nothing would happen. Part of the problem in trying to predict the disaster was that the data were incredibly old. While there in theory should have been enough disasters in the past, records on these past occurrences were not very thorough. In that sense, it would have been difficult to predict that things would have gone wrong in Fukushima in exactly the way they did.
We also talk about whether nuclear power should be restarted in Japan. Professor Imamura says, “it is impossible to completely eliminate risks. Even if they are currently shut down, the power plants present a risk just by existing.” If the power plants remain unused, it will be impossible to develop further technology to attempt to lower these risks. As it is, there is not a whole lot of knowledge of nuclear power. Since accidents cost money, power companies have incentives to restart reactors in hopes that better solutions will be found. Despite this, young people are avoiding joining these companies and learning about nuclear power due to both their fear and fears their family members might have.
I ask about how infrastructure has changed since 2011 and whether it is sufficient to protect against further natural disasters. Now there exists real-time monitoring for tsunamis via sensors along the coast. In addition, development of computers has made simulations faster and more accurate. As well, much of the coast of the Tohoku area affected by the earthquake has erected defenses similar to those seen at the Millennium Hope Hills. First, buildings and other major structures were moved to higher ground. Second, trees were planted to serve to deter tsunamis. Finally, sea walls were raised higher.
While Professor Imamura seems confident in these defenses, he points out that it is impossible to predict what the next major disaster will be. While in 2011, it was an earthquake and tsunami, next time it could be landslides or fires-it is inconceivable to prepare for every possible natural disaster. Tsunamis could even eventually surpass sea walls if the sea level continues to rise.
He also believes that education is important as well. He shows me some elementary school textbooks that have been designed to introduce kids to the concept of nuclear power. As the general public tends to know little about it, it is important to teach them. This effort has to be sustained over a long period of time.
However, Professor Imamura believes that some people have not learned from the disaster. He says, “Perhaps Japanese people have a tendency to be forgetful and receptive to change.” People tend to dismiss things until they experience. Just like how we do not know what the next disaster might be, we tend to underestimate the possibility things might go wrong. Psychologically, people tend to underestimate things the have not experienced.
One thing that I noticed consistently is how complex these issues can be. While there is a need for a new disaster response, exactly what a new paradigm would look like is unknown. How rural communities can avoid being taken advantage of by the power industry is unknown.
Professor Imamura wants to convey that there are tons of risks that exist in life, and that through sharing our innovations, we can up with solutions to these problems. These unknowns can only be solved with cooperation. When problems like natural disasters occur, it is important to support people not just when the disaster happens, but in the weeks, months, and years after.