At 2:46 pm on a Friday afternoon in March last year, residents in the prefecture of Fukushima in Japan were jolted by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake centered off the Pacific coast at a depth of approx 15 miles. Almost immediately, three of the six reactors which were in operation at that moment in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant - located on the eastern shore of Honshu Island - automatically shut down as a result of the shaking.
The plant automatically switched to its backup diesel-fueled generators to supply the uninterrupted electric power required to keep the plant's reactors cooled. Approximately one hour later, a 46 foot tall tsunami wave swept over the seawall between the Fukushima plant and the Pacific Ocean, flooding and disabling the backup generators and washing away their fuel tanks. The seawall had been designed to withstand a 19 foot wave and was considered sufficient to protect the plant from the worst possible tsunami that could ever happen.
We know now that within days, fuel rods in three of the reactors melted and breached the reactor containment structures designed to keep radioactive material from escaping into the environment, though nothing of the sort was revealed at the time. We are still not certain how much airborne radioactive contamination escaped.
There were violent explosions and multiple fires at the plant which some observers now indicate were far more serious than how they were initially portrayed. There were, and continue to be, unspecified large releases of extremely contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean, but no data on what the results of that might be. It took several months for TEPCO, the Japanese utility company running the plant, to publicly admit the severity of the accident. There have been repeated 'explanations' that downplayed, understated or outright ignored the risks to the public and hid the reality of what was actually happening at any given time.
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