Fukushima: Ten years onThe Lessons and Legacy of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Published 15 March 2021

A decade after a powerful earthquake and tsunami set off the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in Japan, Stanford experts discuss revelations about radiation from the disaster, advances in earthquake science related to the event and how its devastating impact has influenced strategies for tsunami defense and local warning systems.

On a Friday afternoon in the spring of 2011, the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history triggered a tsunami that crashed through seawalls, flattened coastal communities and pummeled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

More than 19,000 people died and tens of thousands more fled as radiation belched from the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

A decade later, large swaths of land remain contaminated and emptied of most of their former residents. The deadly natural disasters of March 11, 2011, and the catastrophic nuclear meltdown that followed have left a lasting impact on earthquake science, tsunami defense and the politics of nuclear power.

Jody Berger and Josie Garthwaite of Stanford News discussed that legacy of Fukushima, as well as how scientists are continuing to discover new details about the disaster, with Stanford nuclear security expert Rod Ewing and geophysicists Eric Dunham and Jenny Suckale.

Ewing is the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security in Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and at the Precourt Institute for Energy, and a Professor of Geological Sciences in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). Dunham is an Associate Professor of Geophysics. Suckale is an Assistant Professor of Geophysics and, by courtesy, of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a center fellow, by courtesy, at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Jody Berger and Josie Garthwaite: What lessons did the damage from Tohoku provide about preparing for tsunamis?
Jenny Suckale
: The Tohoku tsunami highlighted that even a highly sophisticated and expensive tsunami mitigation system can fail. There has also been increasing interest in alternative approaches to mitigating tsunami risks such as nature-based or hybrid approaches. We need to learn a lot more about these types of approaches, but it’s exciting to see progress in that area. It might not be coincidental that a lot of that thinking comes from Miyagi Prefecture, which was hard hit by the tsunami.