Two years ago today, Japan was devastated by eruptions of the land, the sea, and the atom. Nearly 20,000 perished after an earthquake and its consequent tsunami liquified roads and swept away entire villages. In a final blow, the invading ocean wrecked backup cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing three full reactor meltdowns and an explosion that vented radioactive material into the atmosphere. The world’s second-worst nuclear disaster drove thousands of residents from their homes and caused the government to shut down all 50 of the nation’s reactors.
Very few were killed in the reactor disaster itself, but cleaning up will be arduous. It may take up to 40 years to fully decontaminate the area, and a recent estimate from plant operator Tepco pegs the cleanup bill at $125 billion. Worse still, nuclear’s abrupt suspension may further stall Japan’s leaden economy. Nuclear reactors supplied 30 percent of Japan’s electricity prior to the incident; to date only two have been restarted, and power costs are rising as Japan makes up its electricity deficit with imported natural gas. Four utilities have applied for government permission to hike rates, with one company adding 18 percent to bills for its industrial users.