Four years ago, after a devastating tsunami left 18,000 Japanese dead, Japan faced another, potentially bigger, catastrophe: 300,000 people had to be evacuated as several reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant started to melt down on March 11, 2011.
In 2015, has the world forgotten the threat that was posed by Fukushima? Here are three ways the disaster is still having an impact today.
1. The Fukushima disaster itself is far from being over
Although about 6,000 employees have returned to the Daiichi power plant to work there daily, its ruins still pose a significant threat. Nuclear radiation remains dangerous in and around the destroyed reactors. Villages in its proximity will remain a no-go zone for inhabitants for an unpredictably long time.
The nuclear power plant itself is far from being secured: Its owner TEPCO has so far been unable to remove hundreds of fuel rods stored nearby because the 2011 earthquake destabilized or destroyed large parts of the buildings. Furthermore, radiation continues to contaminate underground water.
Despite the contamination of large swaths of land, agricultural products and water resources, Japan's government remains convinced that nuclear energy will be an inevitable energy source for the country in the future.
According to some surveys, 70 percent of Japan's population opposed a reliance on nuclear energy. However, the Japanese government under the leadership of Shinzō Abe has decided to restart many of the country's troubled nuclear power plants.
In the wake of the catastrophe and the shutdown of several power plants, power outages had forced the nation to slow down its economic output. Four years later, the Japanese government seems to have put economic growth above nuclear safety: The country's GDP growth rate remains low, with some analysts calling it "underwhelming at best," according to CNBC.
Abe won a majority in last December's general elections, despite his declared goal to continue to rely on nuclear energy to fuel the economy. Before 2011, nuclear energy had accounted for about a third of Japan's energy supply.
2. Fukushima has provided opponents of nuclear power with strong arguments
Industrialized countries such as the United States or France have seen consistently high levels of support for nuclear energy. However, in other countries its growth has drawn skepticism.
As The Post's Tim Craig reported last week, Pakistan is constructing a nuclear power plant in an area vulnerable to tsunamis near Karachi — a city with about 20 million inhabitants. If one of the plant's reactors were to melt down, large parts of the city would be directly affected.
India also opened a nuclear power plant in Koodankulam in 2013, a facility that is also potentially threatened by tsunamis. The opposition of citizens against such plans seems to have proliferated, amid the catastrophic repercussions of Fukushima, according to a report by German broadcaster ARD.
So, why do many countries keep pushing nuclear energy? The most important reason is its cheap and reliable production. Nuclear power plants also do not immediately pollute the environment — although questions have arisen over the safety of storage sites for used fuel rods. Hence, nuclear energy can help developing countries to keep up with a rapid rise in energy demand, whereas the likelihood of a nuclear disaster appears to be low. However, at least in one case the Fukushima disaster has led to a major decline in nuclear energy.
3. Germany has decided to abandon nuclear energy
Only days after the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, it became clear that the most long-lasting policy repercussions may not emerge in Japan, but far away in Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously defended nuclear energy, rapidly reversed her stance and announced that Germany would gradually turn off all nuclear power plants forever. Nearly 60 percent of Germans said in a 2011 survey that they considered it plausible that a similar disaster could occur in their own region.
Eight of the country's 17 nuclear power plants were shut down within days after the Japanese catastrophe. Since then, the German government has worked on a long-term strategy to make it independent from nuclear energy as well as coal in the future.
Somehow surprisingly, most Germans were skeptical about the ability to replace nuclear energy and coal after the 2011 disaster, according to a BBC Globescan survey. Some still fear that abandoning nuclear energy could cause a rise in energy prices or power outages, but support for Merkel's decision has always been high.