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What in the Fukushima Should We Do? Analyzing the Costs of the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster and Japan’s Reactions

Adam Port



The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which resulted from the Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami on 11 March 2011, has caused much debate about the future of the nuclear power industry.  Japan has shut down all of its 54 nuclear reactors and increased power production through fossil fuel plants to make up the difference (Foster 2012).  This paper analyzes Japan’s decision to shut down its nuclear reactors and investigates the environmental, economic, and health costs of this decision. Nuclear power is compared with other forms of power in regards to life cycle cost, land use, CO2 emissions, and deaths on respective normalized scales.  This paper expands on previous studies by analyzing the effects of using other forms of power to replace nuclear power in Japan.  It is concluded that replacing nuclear power in Japan with any of the other power sources examined will increase cost, land use, CO2 emissions, and deaths.



The Tōhoku earthquake in northern Honshu, Japan, on March 11, 2011, which measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, was the largest recorded earthquake ever to hit Japan (“USGS Updates Magnitude of Japan’s 2011 Tohoku Earthquake to 9.0” 2011).  It is also tied with the Kamchatka earthquake of 1952 as the world’s fourth largest earthquake in recorded history (“Largest Earthquakes of the World Since 1900” 2010).   The Tōhoku earthquake’s epicenter was 30 km (18.6 miles) beneath the sea floor and 177 km (109 miles) from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (“Magnitude 9.0 – NEAR THE EAST COAST OF HONSHU, JAPAN” 2011).  There are six reactors at the plant, one of which had been previously defueled, and two of which were in cold shutdown for planned maintenance, which means they were not producing power (Black 2011).  The other three reactors automatically shut down when the earthquake happened, and emergency generators went online to power the water pumps that cool the reactors.

One hour later a 50-foot high tsunami struck, washing over the 18.7-foot tsunami wall protecting Fukushima Daiichi and disabling the emergency generators and therefore the water pumps (Mitchel 2012).  The reactor core temperatures began rising, and eventually the three reactor buildings were damaged.  Water was pumped into the reactors in an attempt to keep the fuel rods cool, but the attempts were unsuccessful and the three reactors underwent meltdowns (Wheeler 2011).  In the process radiation was released into the atmosphere and into the ocean from cracks in the reactor buildings.  The crisis was rated at a level seven on the international scale of nuclear crises, which is the same level as that of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in Russia (Wheeler 2011).

In the days, weeks, and months following the disaster, countries around the world raced to measure the radiation release and investigate the possible effects of the catastrophe in their own homelands.  In Japan, people were advised not to give tap water to infants after radiation was found in drinking water (Wheeler 2011).  In many western states of the United States, including Alaska, Arizona, and California, atmospheric radiation levels showed evidence of the Fukushima Daiichi radiation fallout (Wheeler 2011).  As a result, Japan announced that it would abandon its plans to build 14 new nuclear reactors by 2050 (Wheeler 2011). India announced it would not accept any food imports from Japan (Wheeler 2011).  On 15 March, Germany announced that it would shut down seven of its 17 nuclear reactors in response to the Fukushima disaster (Wheeler 2011).

On 5 May 2012, Japan shut down the last of its 50 nuclear plants (Foster 2012).  Japanese people and environmentalists around the world celebrated Japan’s liberation from a 40-year nuclear history (Foster 2012).  However, this loss of nuclear power in Japan requires new sources of energy.  Japan has saved some energy through encouraging more efficient energy practices among its citizens, which accounts for a total power consumption reduction of approximately a 15% (Foster 2012).  To compensate for the remainder of Japan’s power needs, Japan has increased its oil and coal power production, which Japan’s Ministry of Environment estimates will result in production of 15% more total greenhouse gas emission in FY 2012 than in FY 1990 (“Country Analysis Briefs: Japan” 2012).  Before Fukushima, Japan had been a world leader in its reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and prior to the earthquake in FY 2010, it had greenhouse gas emissions close to 1990 levels (Foster 2012).

What will be the cost in economic, environmental, and health terms of Japan’s shutting down its nuclear reactors?  Will Japan be safer without nuclear power? This paper will attempt to answer these questions by comparing nuclear power to coal and oil in the following areas: cost, CO2 emissions, land use, and deaths.


A literature review was conducted to acquire the data for this paper.  Previous studies of the cost, CO2 emissions, land use, and deaths associated with various power sources are used to provide data and parameter estimates.  The study used for cost, CO2 emissions, and land used was conducted by Evans at Macquarie University in Australia (2010).  This study was chosen because it analyzed and averaged several other studies that examined these three areas over the life of various generation types.  A study by Wang was used for life cycle deaths (2008).  The Wang study compiled data from various sources including the WHO, OSHA, and the European ExternE study.  In all studies used, the entire timeline of production was considered including acquisition of materials, construction, operation, accidents, pollution, and decommissioning.  All of these factors were considered, and the results for various production methods were each normalized to a per-kilowatt-hour (kWh) or per-terawatt-hour (TWh) basis.  The data was then applied to the documented pre-Fukushima meltdown nuclear power production in Japan to determine the effects of replacing nuclear power with various generation types.  The effects of using other forms of power to replace nuclear power in Japan were analyzed.

Data Sources

A.    Japan’s Power Use
The U.S. Energy Information Administration was the source for Japan’s power use data [9].  The study states that in 2010, before Fukushima, Japan generated a total of 1 TWh of power.  Of that, 27% (or 270 gigawatt-hours (GWh)) was produced by nuclear power sources and 63% (or 630 GWh) was produced by conventional thermal fuels (coal and oil).  Throughout 2011 and the early part of 2012, Japan shut down all 50 of its remaining nuclear reactors, the last of which was shut down on 05 May 2012 (Foster 2012).  During the first quarter of 2012, Japan generated 186 GWh of power from oil and coal (“Country Analysis Briefs: Japan” 2012).  Since during that first quarter, some nuclear power was still being generated, it is safe to say that throughout 2012, Japan will produce at least four times the amount of power from oil and coal that was produced in the first quarter.  That will total 744 GWh, or a 114 GWh increase in oil and coal power production from the pre-Fukushima levels.  For this study, Japan’s nuclear power production of 270 GWh prior to the Fukushima meltdown will be used to determine the difference in cost, emissions, land use, and deaths between the various production sources.

B.     Life Cycle Cost of Various Energy Sources
The data for life cycle cost of various energy sources was compiled in a study by Macquarie University in Australia (2010).  The study gathered worldwide data on various power production sources.  Figure 1 shows the average cost throughout the life cycle of various technologies.

Nuclear was the cheapest method of electricity production at $43 M/TWh.  The cost of oil and coal each averaged $48 M/TWh.  Hydro and wind were $51 M/TWh and $66 M/TWh respectively.  Solar was more than five times the cost of nuclear, at $240 M/TWh.  In parenthesis is the increased cost of other sources over nuclear.

C.     Life Cycle CO2 Emissions of Various Energy Sources
Data for life cycle CO2 emissions were also collected from the Macquarie University study (Evans 2010).  The study states that while there has been a push for renewable energy technologies in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these forms of energy are not completely carbon neutral.  It states, “…although wind turbines and photovoltaic cells do not emit CO2 during operation, there are CO2 emission associated with construction, installation, and disposal/recycling of each system.  Hydro dams have greenhouse gas emissions…during operation as a result of the decay of organic material within the dam.”  Much of the decay in dams results in the formation of methane.

Figure 2 shows the life cycle average metric tons (mT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per TWh.  Nuclear was the lowest greenhouse gas emitter with 16,000 mTCO2e/TWh.  Next came wind and solar at 25,000 mTCO2e/TWh, and hydro at 41,000 mTCO2e/TWh.  Oil and coal were the largest emitters with 543,000 mTCO2e/TWh and 1,004,000 mTCO2e/TWh, or 34 and 62 times the CO2 emissions as nuclear respectively.  In parenthesis is the increased emissions of other power sources over nuclear.

D.    Life Cycle Land Use of Various Energy Sources
Additionally, the data for life cycle land use was collected from the Macquarie University study (Evans 2010).  The direct and indirect footprint area required for each type of technology was measured.  The study had limitations in that it did not take into account how “the land is used, for how long it is used or how much damage is done to the sight as a result of the technology [10].”  The Macquarie study cited two separate studies, Fthenakis and Kim (2007), and Bertani (2005).  Both studies showed similar results, except that the Bertani study did not have a value for gas.  For that reason, this paper uses the data from the Fthenakis and Kim study as shown in Figure 3.

Nuclear had the lowest land use at 0.05 km2/TWh, followed by solar, oil, coal, and wind with 0.3 km2/TWh, 0.3 km2/TWh, 0.4 km2/TWh and 1.5 km2/TWh respectively.  Hydro used the most land at 4 km2/TWh, which is 80 times the land use required by nuclear.  The data in the Bertani study yielded similar results and indicated that nuclear uses 304, 144, 90, and 8 times less land than hydro, wind, solar, and coal respectively (2005).

E.     Life Cycle Deaths of Various Energy Sources
Data for the life cycle deaths associated with various energy sources were collected in a study by Brian Wang in June 2008 and updated in June, 2012 after the Fukushima disaster.  The study compiles statistics from the European study ExternE, the World Health Organization, and several other epidemiological studies.  It takes into account factors of material extraction, construction, operation, accidents, and pollution caused fatalities (such as “black lung” and deaths rates from coal air pollution published by the WHO.)  The study does not take into account factors like drought caused by global warming.  Forbes also published a similar study on 10 June 2012 with some slightly different numbers (Conca 2012).

Figure 4 shows the results of the study in which nuclear is responsible for .04 Deaths/TWh (.09 Deaths/TWh in the Forbes study).  Wind, Solar, and Hydro cause .15 Deaths/TWh, .44 Deaths/TWh, and 1.4 Deaths/TWh respectively.  Oil is responsible for 36 Deaths/TWh, and coal for 161 Deaths/TWh (170 Deaths/TWh in the Forbes study).  Oil and coal are 900 and 4025 times more deadly than nuclear respectively.

Results and Discussion

Results were calculated using the data above and the increase of oil and coal power production by Japan following the post-Fukushima nuclear shutdown.  The results show the cost, CO2 emissions, land use, and deaths that would be expected if Japan kept its nuclear on compared to what can be expected from shifting to other forms of power.

A.    Expected Post Fukushima Cost of Various Energy Sources
Based on the pre Fukushima 2010 nuclear power production of 270 GWh, maintaining nuclear power would cost $430M over 10 years.  The cost of Japan replacing all nuclear power production with hydro, wind, or solar would be $510M, $660M or $2.4B respectively.  That is an increased annual cost of $80M, $130M, and $1.97B to switch to hydro, wind, and solar respectively.  Japan’s current path of switching to a combination of oil and coal will cost $50B more than nuclear over the next decade.

B.     Expected Post Fukushima CO2 Emissions of Various Energy Sources
Japan’s decision to shut down all of their nuclear reactors also has an environmental cost.  Over the next 10 years, Japan would have produced 160 million kgCO2e.  If they shift all of that production to wind, solar, or hydro, the annual emissions would be 250 million kgCO2e, 250 million kgCO2e, and 410 million kgCO2e respectively.  This is an increase over the CO2e emission from nuclear power in Japan of 1.56 times more CO2e emissions if Japan used wind or solar to replace their nuclear production, or 2.56 times more CO2e emissions with hydro.  By switching from nuclear to oil and coal, Japan will emit between 5.43 billion kgCO2e and 10.04 billion kgCO2e over the next decade.  That is an increase of between 33 and 62 times more CO2e emissions over the next decade if the nuclear reactors remain shut down.

C.     Expected Post Fukushima Land Used by Various Energy Sources
Japan’s no-nuclear strategy will also use more land.  The 270 GWh that nuclear would have used 0.135 km2 of land during the next 10 years.  Switching to solar, wind, or hydro would use .081 km2, 4.05 km2, and 10.8 km2over the next decade.  By switching to oil and coal, Japan will use .081 km2and 1.08 km2 of land respectively per decade, which is between 6 and 8 times more land used each year.

D.    Expected Post Fukushima Deaths from Various Energy Sources
Perhaps the most important cost will be the cost to human life.  Running their nuclear reactors would cost Japan 0.243 deaths over the next 10 years, or approximately 1 death every 41 years. Wind, solar and hydro cost 0.405, 1.188, and 3.78 deaths annually, or a death every 24.5 years, 8 years, or 2.5 years respectively.  Japan’s decision to replace nuclear with oil and coal will cost between 97.2 and 459 deaths annually or a death somewhere between every 8 and 37.5 days. 



                  There are several limitations to this paper.  This paper does not review several factors that necessitate consideration when determining nuclear power policy.  These include water use, what to do with nuclear waste, the effects on the Fukushima disaster to the surrounding land and ocean ecological environment, nuclear proliferation, energy industry subsidies, nuclear proliferation, social implications, and non-fatal human health.  Another limitation is that there are multiple conflicting studies on the cost, environmental impacts, and health impacts of nuclear power.  Care was taken with this paper to attempt to find sources that are not biased toward nuclear.  The Macquarie study that was used for the cost, CO2 emissions, and land use was a study that was not in favor of nuclear power overall because of water use and public opinion.  Future research would include analyzing these other factors, and to examine further the methodologies of the Macquarie and Wang studies.



The Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami on 11 March 2011 and the resulting meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was a tragedy.  From this tragedy there will be lessons learned, and safety improvements will be made to the world’s nuclear plants.  Two comprehensive, independent studies have been conducted on the health risks of those exposed to radiation as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  Both the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and the World Health Organization conducted studies on the health impacts of the disaster.  Both studies found that while 167 workers at the plant received doses that were high enough to slightly increase their long term risk of developing cancer, the increase is so low that it will not even show up statistically (Brumfiel 2012).  It is clear that nuclear power is not to blame for the majority of devastation when compared with the non-nuclear impact of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which killed close to 20,000 people (Devine 2012). The data shows that a hasty response based on fear may actually end up costing more money, wasting more land, polluting more air, and killing more people than a careful plan of improving Japan’s well-established nuclear infrastructure.



I would like to thank the Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program for funding and guidance on this project and for giving me the opportunity to present this research at the 18th Annual SAEOPP McNair/SSS Scholars Research Conference in Atlanta.  In addition, I could not have completed this project without tireless guidance and feedback from my faculty mentor, Dr. Kevin Elliott, my McNair Program Coordinator, Ms. Melissa Kupfer, and the other faculty members from the McNair Program who all gave me invaluable feedback throughout the research and writing process.  I would also like to thank my fellow McNair Program participants who shared long nights and sneaky deadlines with me throughout the process.  The McNair Program transformed me from a typical undergraduate student into a published researcher.  Thank you all for the miracle you performed.



About the Author


Adam PortAdam Port

I am a Junior Honors Chemistry major at the University of South Carolina Aiken. I completed this paper while participating in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program during summer 2012. I was awarded the Ronald E. McNair Distinguished Scholar Award for my participation in the program. I presented this research project at the 18th Annual SAEOPP McNair/SSS Scholars Research Conference in Atlanta, where I was awarded 2nd place in the Social Science category. I am the sole author of this paper, and I designed this project with guidance from Dr. Kevin Elliott. This project gave me invaluable experience in the entire research process from designing a project, to literature review, to presenting the findings at a conference. This has given me good insight into graduate studies. In the future, I plan to attend graduate school in the field of Biochemistry. This submission will help show the schools I apply to that I am serious about research, and that I understand the research process.



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