Skip to Content

Six Years On, Fukushima’s Cleanup Looks Harder Than Ever

And the safety concerns embodied by the disaster still plague the nuclear industry.

It’s been six years since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident—and the cleanup operations at the abandoned plant are beginning to look as dire as the prospects of the nuclear industry as a whole.

When an earthquake and tsunami sent the plant into meltdown on March 11, 2011, thousands of locals were evacuated—and yet, amazingly, no deaths were recorded as a result of radioactive fallout. But the resulting cleanup operation looked to be a formidable task, expected to take decades.

Sadly, years later, it’s not going well, and it looks set to be a far harder task than initially anticipated. This year, radiation levels in one of the containment vessels of the plant’s reactors reached their highest level since the incident occurred in 2011. The conditions would, apparently, kill a human in under a minute.

It had been hoped that a series of specially designed robots would be able to help survey and fix up problems at the site. But two different robots have now been lost to severe conditions in that rector when used to investigate it.

The entire cleanup operation is now expected to cost as much as $189 billion—twice the amount estimated three years ago—and run for up to 40 years.

At the end of this month, locals who left their homes will gradually start to return to the region that surrounds Fukushima, as Japan lifts evacuation orders on nearby towns. Many are concerned about the risks of radiation, but face losing housing subsidies if they refuse to move back. And when they do return they’ll also have to face up to wild boars that have taken up residence since humans moved away.

The picture, then, remains bleak. In fact, safety concerns highlighted by Fukushima and, long before it, Chernobyl, remain one of the reasons why the nuclear industry is struggling to succeed today, despite the fact that it promises a relatively clean source of energy. Toshiba’s nuclear business—which was behind the only new reactors currently being built in the U.S.—recently collapsed. Experts reckon that will have a particularly chilling effect on the industry as a whole—but not, one expects, on the same scale as the Fukushima disaster.

(Read more: Guardian, Reuters, “The Underwater Robot That Will Repair Fukushima,” “Meltdown of Toshiba’s Nuclear Business Dooms New Construction in the U.S.,” “Three Decades On, Chernobyl’s Specter Haunts Nuclear Power”)

Keep Reading

Most Popular

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

open sourcing language models concept
open sourcing language models concept

Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free

Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.