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Lessons from Fukushima

Today marks the two-year anniversary of the Fukushima Daichii disaster, when a monstrously powerful earthquake—so big it was felt from space—led to meltdowns at a nuclear power plant. The backlash against nuclear power was swift: Japan shut down all its reactors and to date has only restarted two. Germany, meanwhile, vowed to rid itself of nuclear energy entirely by 2022. Many others concluded that nuclear power was simply too dangerous to use.

The Fukushima disaster was indeed a signal that we need to look carefully at our existing nuclear plants. But some appear to be drawing the wrong lessons on the anniversary of this tragedy. Rather than abandoning nuclear power entirely, we should be looking for ways to ensure that reactors are built as safely as possible. Much of this is a matter of avoiding careless mistakes.

This is particularly true when it comes to mistakes in siting. Location was one of the chief problems affecting Fukushima. Originally, the plant was to be placed on the top of a hill 35 meters above sea level but was instead dug in just 10 meters above sea level, vulnerable to the 13 meter tall tsunami that hit two years ago. By contrast, the nuclear plant in Onagawa was built on an embankment 14 meters above sea level and was able to escape the disaster relatively unscathed, despite being closer to the earthquake’s epicenter.

Bad siting may be a problem at other Japanese plants. It was recently discovered that a potentially active fault line runs underneath its Tsuruga nuclear plant. Japan and other countries with significant nuclear power should carefully review where plants are sited and should shut them down if they are located in areas where the risk is too great.

But it’s a mistake to follow Germany’s lead and discard nuclear energy entirely. Nuclear power has made great strides since the disasters of the 1970s and the 1980s and is incredibly safe when done properly. It should remain a vital part of a well-balanced energy strategy.

[Nuclear power plant image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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