How The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Impacts Climate Change

Five years later, we're still feeling the effects of Fukushima—especially when it comes to our carbon footprint

In this satellite view, the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power plant after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami. — (Getty Images)
Mar 11, 2016 at 4:11 PM ET

Exactly five years ago, on March 11, a magnitude nine earthquake morphed into a tsunami that raged through Japan’s coastal cities, killing an estimated 18,000 people and injuring thousands more. But then, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station lost its core cooling capacity and a far scarier possibility arose—nuclear meltdown. Fukushima exploded several times on March 12, 14 and 15 and, while it didn’t immediately hurt anybody, we’re still learning about the havoc it left behind.

More Japan Four Years After The Tsunami

Despite Fukushima spewing large amounts of radioactive materials into the environment, studies five years out suggest we’re unlikely to see an increase in cancer rates or thyroid conditions (two typical outcomes of such disasters), because most residents were evacuated. As for reports of minor spikes in these very conditions among Fukushima refugees, scientists pretty much agree that it’s no more than what you’d expect after screening an entire population. In other words, if we suddenly decided to screen all New York residents for thyroid disease, we’d also see a minor spike.

One effect cannot be denied, however: Fukushima was disastrous for climate change. Japan, a country that had been gradually phasing out fossil fuels, vowed to end its nuclear power project after Fukushima, and recently released plans to build 47 new coal power plants to make up the difference. Germany also got cold feet after Fukushima and announced an end to its foray into clean, nuclear energy and renewed investment in coal. The irony is that there’s a scientific consensus that these sort of investments contribute to sea level and temperature rise, which endangers Fukushima and thousands of other coastal cities with flooding and, yes, more tsunamis and earthquakes.