top of page

Black Swan

  • March 11, 2011: Fukushima nuclear plant systems detected an earthquake. The reactors automatically shut down and emergency diesel generators were activated to keep coolant pumping around the cores, which remain extremely hot even after reactions stop due to the radioactive decay of fission products in the core,

  • 9.0: the Richter Scale magnitude of the earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful in the world since the inception of modern record-keeping in about 1900

  • 0.56, 0.52, 0.56: ground g-forces detected at units 2, 3, and 5 respectively during the Tōhoku earthquake, exceeding the seismic reactor design tolerances for some of the reactors. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors were General Electric boiling water reactors of a 1960s design. (G-forces: gravitational force equivalent is one measurement of force per unit mass.)

  • 46 ft (14 meters): the height of the tsunami wave that hit Fukushima, triggered by the earthquake. The water breached the surrounding sea wall, swamped the plant and drowned emergency generators and backup batteries. Despite efforts to restore power, the nuclear fuel in three of the reactors overheated, leading to three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and a significant release of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean.

  • Level seven: The classification of the Fukushima nuclear disaster event by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Seven is the highest level possible and only the second disaster to meet this classification after Chernobyl.

  • 1,864: the number of people ordered on March 11 to evacuate within a distance of 1.2 mi (2 km) from the plant

  • 5,800: the number of people then ordered to evacuate within a distance of 1.9 mi (3 kilometers); and residents within 6.2 mi (10 kilometers) were directed to stay indoors

  • Over 50,000: the number of people ordered on March 12 to evacuate within a distance of 6.2 mi (10 km), and then to 12.4 mi (20 km)

  • 170,000–200,000: the number of people ordered to evacuate on March 13, after officials belatedly voiced the possibility of a meltdown

  • 12.4 mi (20 km): the zone around the plant where any remaining people were ordered to leave on March 15

  • 50 miles (80 km): the zone around the plant where the U.S. Embassy advised Americans to leave on March 16

  • 20 MBq/m2: the amount of Iodine-131 (a radioactive isotope of iodine) in samples taken from March 18 to 26 in Iitate, a town 40 km northwest of the reactor in Fukushima Prefecture. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommended expanding the evacuation area, based on its criteria of 10 MBq/m2. (A megabecquerel is a multiple of a becquerel, a unit of radioactivity.)

  • 320,000 gallons (almost 1.2 million liters): the amount of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant that will be released into the ocean, likely in 2022. The contaminated water has since been used to cool the destroyed reactor blocks to prevent further nuclear meltdowns. It’s currently being stored in large tanks, but those are expected to be full by 2022.

  • 79,000: the number of people who were still displaced by the disaster as of February 2017, of which 50% stayed inside Fukushima prefecture and 50% remained evacuated outside of it

  • Ten years this week. Several towns in northeastern Japan remain off limits and clean up continues the area with the hope that residents can return. But tens of thousands of workers will be needed over the next 30 to 40 years to safely remove nuclear waste, fuel rods and more than one million tons of radioactive water still kept at the site.


In other news: “Nuclear power will 'absolutely' be politically acceptable again — it's safer than oil, coal, natural gas”

Andrew Ross Sorkin talked with Bill Gates on CNBC. “Nuclear power has to overcome a baneful reputation garnered by association with the atomic bomb and radioactive disasters, but it's a necessary, worthy and surmountable challenge,” Gates told him last month.

But will it be safe? The next generation technology Gates is talking about is called a Traveling Wave Reactor, and it’s never been built. Many are skeptical it ever will. If proven, it will use spent fuel rods and other non-fissile material (i.e., not capable of sustaining a chain reaction). Only a small amount of enriched uranium would be needed to begin processing the fuel, like a match to light a candle.

In theory, TWRs could self-sustain for decades without refueling or removing spent fuel. TerraPower, a TWR company that Bill Gates co-founded and invested in, estimated that one Kentucky stockpile of depleted uranium represents an energy resource equal to $100 trillion worth of electricity. At that rate, they estimated that projected global stockpiles could sustain 80% of the world's population at U.S. per capita energy usages for more than 1,000 years.

But the “in theory” disclaimer is worth paying attention to. Remember, there was a time when cigarettes were “prescribed” to patients with irritated throats, with the claim “every case of irritation cleared completely or definitely improved.” And Coca Cola was first sold as a brain tonic.

Personally, I’m one hundred percent behind any and all efforts to de-carbonize our planet and meet the ambitious goals (such as a carbon-free U.S. power sector by 2035) designed to stave off human annihilation by climate change effects. That said, a functioning new-and-improved nuclear power solution is far from a sure thing—many technical and safety problems remain to be solved—and are, optimistically, fifteen years off.

What with 2035 being fourteen years away, we obviously can’t count on this technology to solve our climate disaster, even if we could rely on it not to cause another nuclear disaster.


A Black Swan is an unpredictable event, beyond what is normally expected of a situation, that has potentially severe consequences. Black Swans are characterized by their extreme rarity, devastating impact, and the widespread insistence it was obvious in hindsight.

By that standard, anyone would say the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima was a Black Swan event.

But given the facility’s location in an extremely active subduction zone and the terrible consequences of a nuclear reactor meltdown, shouldn’t the safeguards to prevent it be abnormally stringent? Even more so, given Japan’s unique, bone deep knowledge of the effects of a nuclear disaster on a human population.

A scathing report from an independent investigation commissioned by Japan's parliament found that the nuclear accident was "a profoundly man-made disaster."

Tokyo Electric Power, the plant operator, repeatedly ignored estimates, including from company experts, that the plant’s 16.7 ft (5.1 meter) seawall was insufficient, given historical tsunami data.

The report found that the meltdown’s causes had been predictable, and that TEPCO had failed to meet basic safety requirements: risk assessments, plans for containing collateral damage, and evacuation plans.

“The accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators, and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly ‘manmade.’”

The organization of the emergency response at Fukushima was also criticized in the report. There were no response measures in place for severe accidents and every action needed prior approval by people who weren’t present at the reactor, in some cases even by the prime minister.

Confusion flourished as about 154,000 nearby residents were evacuated from surrounding communities. The commission found “the government, the regulators, and TEPCO management lacked the preparation and the mindset to efficiently operate an emergency response to an accident of this scope.” The report concluded that “the residents’ confusion over the evacuation stemmed from the regulators’ negligence and failure over the years to implement adequate measures against a nuclear disaster, as well as a lack of action by previous governments and regulators focused on crisis management.”

The IAEA also faulted lax oversight by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, saying the ministry posed an inherent conflict of interest as the government agency in charge of both regulating and promoting the nuclear power industry.


I read that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group that equips decision makers with information to reduce man-made threats to human existence, noted that the Japanese government has since made important efforts to improve the nuclear industry’s safety culture and ensure the independence of the Japanese nuclear regulatory agency. As of mid-2018, five plants with nine reactors, out of the 54 in operation at the time of the accident, met the new standards.

The Bulletin also said many other countries have revised their nuclear power programs and strengthened safety rules, with independent regulators, stricter safety standards, and replacing obsolete reactors with modern ones; and improved safety measures in the design and construction of reactors. Personnel training has also become an integral to safety-culture programs.

But for all the human cost and environmental damage, only one criminal case came out of the Fukushima disaster, a Japanese court in 2019 cleared all three former Tepco executives who were accused of negligence. When corporations are to blame, apparently no-one is responsible.


© 2021 Su Cummings. All rights reserved.

Image credits

  • USGS: subduction zone map

  • Black swan image: CCO public domain


Receive future essays

Search by tags
My other sites
  • instagram
bottom of page