It has been one year since the magnitude 9.0 Great Japan East Earthquake struck off the coast of the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan, killing 16,000 people and leaving more than 3,000 missing. Despite the enormity of the disaster, Japan has made a remarkable recovery over the past year. Still, ongoing problems with Fukushima and debris removal limit the pace of reconstruction. Japanese officials are still debating the lessons learned from this disaster to allow them to be better prepared in future. The fact is that implementation of these lessons learned, as well as the speed of recovery, has potentially reached a limit until some important political decisions are made.
If there’s one image of the March disasters that remains in the global consciousness, it is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Today, we know that fuel melted in three reactors, ranking Fukushima on par with Chernobyl in terms of the seriousness of the disaster. One year later, although major progress has been made, problems persist.
Over the past year, efforts have focused on stabilizing the reactors. In December, the government declared them to be in cold shutdown. Although the situation in the reactor cores is now stable, the nuclear fuel requires constant cooling. This has generated a lot of contaminated water that requires storage, prompting Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to construct a nearby storage area of 1,100 tanks that can hold 180,000 tons of water. Aside from this water and the area in the immediate vicinity around the plant, the amount of radioactivity in the air or the ocean remains below levels that pose a threat to public health or marine organisms. It’s now believed that as much as 70 percent of the radioactive material released during the height of the disaster, by some estimates, was released into the Pacific Ocean, either by blowing out to sea or leaking from the plant. As a precaution against further leakage, TEPCO plans to seal about 17 acres of seabed near the cooling water intakes of the reactors this spring. While work will continue on the damaged reactors, decontamination efforts, infrastructure rebuilding, and a phased-return of residents are now underway.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Despite its mismanagement of the disaster, TEPCO remains an active entity responsible for providing electricity to as many as 45 million people. Still, public anger against TEPCO remains high. Earlier this month, shareholders of TEPCO filed a lawsuit against its executives. Suing for a historic amount of 5.5 trillion yen ($67.4 billion), the shareholders hope to use the money to compensate those affected by the disaster.
Getting less attention, but just as important, is the fact that other nuclear plants have been slow in preparing protective measures to prevent similar Fukushima-type disasters. Shortly after the March disasters, the government called on plant operators to install/reinforce coastal levees and install strategies to prevent hydrogen explosions. Yet, according to the Asahi Shimbun, only three nuclear facilities will have levees by the end of 2012, while none will have measures to prevent hydrogen explosions. Given that Japan’s seismic activity means another earthquake and/or tsunami is only a matter of time, this lack of preparation is surprising.
Aside from Fukushima, there has been significant progress in other sectors. Consider first the economy. The disasters destroyed or badly damaged Japan’s supply chains and infrastructure throughout Tohoku. According to the Cabinet Office, this led to an annualized 6 percent contraction in the nominal GDP in the second quarter (April-June). Because the government and private sector worked to rapidly restore the supply chains and infrastructure, companies could quickly resume manufacturing. This led to Japan’s nominal GDP to grow at an annualized 5.6 percent in the third quarter (July-September), leading the economy back to pre-disaster levels. By the end of FY2011, although the economy slowed, economic indicators showed that industrial production, private consumption, machine orders, and automobile production have all returned to pre-disaster levels. While full-blown reconstruction efforts are still in their initial phase and exports remained hampered by a high yen, the Cabinet Office expects nominal GDP for FY2012 to grow at about 2 percent. This is because it’s believed that the economy will be driven by domestic demand as reconstruction efforts increase, thereby creating demand and employment.