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The Story of a Nuclear Disaster

By David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan and the Union of Concerned Scientists
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Fukushima by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan and the Union of Concerned Scientists

Fukushima (2014) tells the story of how one of the biggest tsunamis in Japan’s history combined with government neglect, corporate interest and propaganda to create the most serious nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The book was written by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit that brings together science and political advocacy.

Key idea 1 of 7

The 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan was one of the biggest in the country’s history and caused terrible destruction.

In ancient times the Japanese thought that the earthquakes typical to the region were caused by the movements of a giant catfish under the islands that make up Japan. Today, we have much more precise scientific knowledge of earthquakes, but the effects of the earthquake that rocked Japan on 11 March 2011 and the following tsunami surpassed even our current understanding.

The 2011 earthquake was one of the biggest in Japan’s history. It hit roughly 40 miles east of Japan, as one tectonic plate slid under an adjoining plate, a process called “subduction,” which released enormous energy – so great it even tilted the earth’s axis by a few inches!

After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, which claimed 5,000 lives, Japan developed one of the most sophisticated earthquake warning systems in the world. It is powered by a network of some 1,000 motion sensors all over the country that pinpoint the exact location where an earthquake takes place.

After the 2011 earthquake hit, initial estimates put it at 7.9 on the Richter scale, a metric used to measure an earthquake’s magnitude. Over the next few days the Japan Meteorological Agency discovered that it was actually 9.0 – that’s 45 times more energy than their first estimate.

This meant it was the biggest earthquake ever detected by Japanese instruments, and among the five biggest in the world since we began to measure them.

The resulting tsunami was enormously powerful, far exceeding all previous calculations. When the waves from the tsunami reached the Antarctic (roughly 8,000 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter), they were still powerful enough to break off a mass of ice-shelf the size of Manhattan.

The human cost of the earthquake is just as staggering: in the end, the Fukushima disaster, as it became known, claimed over 18,000 lives.

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