Worldwide Lessons from 11 March

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Science  09 Mar 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6073, pp. 1147
DOI: 10.1126/science.1221277

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It has been 1 year since a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan, a disaster that continues to be analyzed by many people around the world, from different perspectives. There are important lessons to be learned as Japan faces critical decisions not only about rebuilding but also in planning for the nation's future energy needs—lessons that are also relevant to many other countries.

Japan is no stranger to natural disasters. The Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of January 1995 destroyed much of Kobe and killed more than 6000 people. Most of the fatalities were caused by building collapses. Since that incident, scientists, engineers, and architects have greatly improved the construction of buildings, bridges, and roads using technologies that make human-made structures earthquake-resistant. Because of such efforts, few buildings collapsed in the 11 March 2011 earthquake, demonstrating that the stricter measures applied since 1995 have improved safety. Similarly, lessons should be learned from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station accident to guide future investments.


In the earthquake last year, most of the approximately 19,000 fatalities were caused not by the earthquake but by the tsunami that followed. When the earthquake struck, all 11 nuclear reactors in operation in Japan's northeastern Tohoku district successfully shut down, and their emergency cooling systems worked according to design. At the Fukushima Daiichi complex, the cooling was maintained by emergency diesel power generators, but the tsunami that arrived 40 minutes later destroyed those cooling systems and the external electricity supply line. The result was a core meltdown (the collapse of fuel elements) in three of the nuclear reactors that released large amounts of radiation into the air and sea (see the Review by Burns et al., p. 1184). Some areas near the Fukushima Daiichi complex still have such high levels of radiation in the soil that the inhabitants have not been allowed to return home. By the end of 2011, the temperature inside the reactors had dropped to below 100°C, making the situation there manageable.

Public attitudes toward nuclear power are changing, and today there is an understandably greater concern about nuclear safety worldwide. The events of 11 March have created public fear and confusion. But humankind must retain the nuclear power option, given its growing demands for energy. The lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster will guide better and safer decisions regarding nuclear power plant design for this important energy resource. We need to analyze last year's disaster at Fukushima rationally, and the time has come to make decisions using the best science and engineering technologies. The power station was damaged not by the earthquake but by the tsunami, because the height of a possible tsunami had been underestimated and the protection was inadequate. Certainly, it will be crucial to prevent future tsunamis of great magnitude from threatening coastal nuclear power stations throughout Japan.

A statement issued in October 2011 by the Science and Technology in Society forum, of which I am founder and chairman, said that “Any future energy supply should include a wide range of options that adhere to the best standards of safety and environmental and social compatibility and are available at competitive prices. Different countries may choose different paths to an energy-secure future. Nuclear energy will continue to play a significant role for the foreseeable future.” Development of alternative renewable energy sources—solar, wind, biomass, and others—should be encouraged, but these should be combined with nuclear power to meet future energy needs. The global energy supply must respond to concerns about global climate change, and from the perspective of environmental preservation, nuclear power makes sense. Two hundred years ago, no one believed that powered flight was possible. About 100 years ago, the Wright brothers successfully flew the first aircraft. Today, flying is safe, ordinary, and indispensable, and few view it as hazardous. This is an example of what science and technology can achieve.

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