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An Accidental Disaster

Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children imagines nuclear physicists grappling with the effects of a fictional environmental disaster, similar to that of the real nuclear accident that took place at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in northern Japan.

On March 11, 2011, the largest earthquake in Japan’s history (also one of the most powerful ever recorded, at a magnitude of 9.0) hit the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island. The quake then triggered a massive tsunami, with waves reaching over 30 feet high.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was prepared to withstand an earthquake, but was damaged by the tsunami waves. Nuclear power plants in the area shut off automatically at the start of the earthquake; however, the Fukushima Daiichi reactors’ power shut-off resulted in the cooling systems failing. Without the cooling system, the reactors began to melt down, causing explosions, releases of radiation, fires, and more devastation. The disaster was named a level 7 nuclear emergency, on the same level as the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

About 14,000 times more cesium 137 (a radioactive isotope) was released from the Fukushima accident than the Hiroshima atomic bombing in 1945. Over 47,000 people were forced to evacuate and abandon their homes. In 2017, six years after the accident, the power station was still struggling with how to store radioactive waste from the plant, including 3,519 containers of radioactive sludge, nearly 64,700 cubic meters of discarded protective clothing, debris from 220 acres of deforested land, and 3.5 billion gallons of soil.

Three former executives of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) who were accused of not taking preventative measures to protect the plant against a tsunami were found not guilty in 2019, despite scientists having issued warnings about the risk of tsunamis in Japan’s northern regions. As of September 2019, over 1,000 tanks holding 1 million tons of contaminated water are being held on the Fukushima site, and TEPCO has said that it will run out of available tank space by summer 2022.