On 11 March in 2011 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake took place about 70 kilometres east of Japan.
It caused a massive tsunami wave that resulted in enormous destruction. Almost 16,000 people died,120,000 buildings were destroyed and a further million damaged.
But this destruction was almost immediately overshadowed in the news due to an unfolding disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Fukushima was one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants with six reactors.
It was built in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the US energy company General Electric and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco).
When the earthquake hit, the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi shut down automatically and switched to emergency onsite power.
This power was needed to keep essential equipment running—in particular the pumps that circulated water to cool the reactors.
But when, a short while later, the tsunami hit the wave breached inadequate seawalls, destroying infrastructure and flooding the complex.
Onsite power generation failed which meant there was no energy to pump water to cool the reactors.
Workers fought to stop the disaster from escalating but were slowed down by the death and devastation.
They had to hunt through the wreckage for car and bus batteries to connect crucial safety instrumentation to find out what was happening in the reactor cores.
Years of underfunding and mismanagement compounded the disaster.
In 2002 Tepco admitted that it had been falsifying safety records for years included covering up evidence of cracks in reactors at all its plants.
Five years later Tepco admitted that it had falsified records of 200 incidents.
The close relationship between Tepco and the Japanese government was also exposed and in the aftermath of the disaster.
These links helped protect the nuclear industry while the government played down the risks.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in 2012, 22 members of the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission had received over £947,000 from the nuclear industry.
These links aren’t unique to Japan. The nuclear industry arose out of the need to build nuclear weapons. Plants continue to provide material for the arms industry.
The origins of nuclear power in Japan can be found in Cold War politics.
The nuclear industry promised jobs and investment to remote regions of Japan.
From the earliest days of the nuclear industry in Japan there were close links between national and local government, private industry and international politics.
This cosy relationship meant that Tepco could get away with lax safety measures, while the government pushed nuclear as a safe and economically viable energy system.
But the truth was very different because Japan is particularly susceptible to earthquakes.
And as the industry expanded there were growing concerns about seismic activity.
According to a history of the Fukushima disaster written by members of the UCS, “time and again, utilities and regulators downplayed or ignored the threat posed by earthquakes”.
The authors explain that when residents tried to challenge the industry on safety they were often brushed off.
For example, in 1979 residents in Kashiwazaki tried to block Tepco from building a new plant arguing the “government had failed to perform adequate inspections of the geology of the plant site and had overlooked an active fault line”.
In 2005 a court ruled “there was no fault line”. But two years later a 6.8 magnitude quake hit the plant which was designed only to cope with quakes of less than 6.5 resulting in a fire.
After the Fukushima disaster the seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi said that if, “Japan had faced up to the dangers earlier we could have prevented Fukushima.”
The Japanese nuclear industry was guilty of two mistakes.
Firstly they downplayed the potential for seismic events to endanger their reactors. Secondly, they failed to plan for situations where multiple events took place simultaneously.
Their planning for earthquakes calculated it was unlikely that earthquakes would happen together with other disasters.
A tsunami in 2004 forced a re-evaluation of the risks from these events. But even after that, Tepco decided that the types of fault lines near Fukushima would not cause a tsunami. It did not agree to make changes that might have reduced the Fukushima disaster.
When the disaster struck Fukushima the damage caused multiple explosions, repeated radiation leaks and a crisis that threatened to escalate rapidly.
In the end it was the people who stayed at their posts to stop disaster who finally brought the situation under control.
They worked in dangerous conditions, close to lethal levels of radiation and often with inadequate PPE.
Unsure whether they would survive the workers wrote their names on a whiteboard in the main control room to make sure their families knew what had happened to them.
There is no doubt that their bravery in the hours days and weeks after the earthquake prevented a far worse disaster.
Over 160,000 people were forced to flee their homes in the wake of Fukushima.
Today apologists for nuclear power suggest that many of these people had no need to flee.
But outside of Japan, leading nuclear authorities thought that the scale of the disaster warranted a bigger evacuation than the Japanese government was willing to organise.
In the aftermath there was a global revaluation of nuclear power. Huge protests in Japan demanded the closure of the industry.
In the US the industry argued that Fukushima was unique and couldn’t happen there. But this argument is based on a false premise.
Events at Fukushima rapidly escalated because a combination of an earthquake and a tsunami led to a blackout at the plant.
This total failure of power had not been planned for.
While the specific combination of earthquake and tsunami might be unlikely elsewhere there are other circumstances that could lead to the same outcome.
In the US 34 reactors at twenty sites are downstream from large dams.
One such plant the Oconee Nuclear Station in South Carolina is downstream from the Hocassee Dam.
One point four million people live within fifty miles of the complex—the same area US nuclear authorities recommended for evacuation after Fukushima.
Fukushima focused the world on the safety of nuclear power. But there are other important arguments against this form of energy.
For one, the nuclear power industry has close links to the nuclear weapons industry.
A second argument is the problems caused by nuclear waste.
Years after Fukushima the Japanese government still has to deal with 14 million cubic metres of contaminated soil that was collected from areas that experienced fallout. One estimate of the cleanup cost is £480 billion.
As the disaster unfolded workers found ways to pour cold seawater onto the overheating reactors.
Some of this water found its way into the Pacific Ocean. Today a million tonnes of radioactive water sits in special tanks at Fukushima as the government debates releasing it into the ocean.
The nuclear industry and its apologists tell us that new nuclear technology makes accidents unlikely and will produce less waste.
These are hollow arguments. The industry has already left us a legacy of waste and pollution which has a massive cleanup cost.
The British government estimates the cost of decommissioning existing nuclear plants to be at least £131 billion. The taxpayer covers this—not the nuclear companies that have profited from selling the electricity.
New plants take years to build and rightly require detailed safety analysis which explains their high cost.
A new plant at Sizewell C in Suffolk is expected to cost £18 billion and £22 billion for another at Hinkley Point C in Somerset.
The world urgently needs to transform its approach to energy use.
But this cannot mean pouring billions into a nuclear industry that promises much but fails to deliver and puts countless lives at risk.
Instead, socialists must fight for strategies that reduce energy use, increase efficiency, reduce waste and are based on renewable energy.
Energy infrastructure must be taken out of the hands of corporations and put into public ownership.