Experts who talked to us said the Fukushima plant did amazingly well, considering the magnitude of the disaster. The 40-year-old plant withstood an earthquake that measured a 9.0 on the Richter scale, even though it was designed for an 8.2 (because those numbers are measured on a logarithmic scale, that’s nearly a 10X difference). The earthquake was then followed by a 15-m high tidal wave -- about 10 m higher than called for in the plant’s original design.
”I try to remind people that there were 20,000 people killed by the tsunami and the earthquake,” Stubbins told us. “There were basically no people killed by the Fukushima power plant.”
Ultimately, those numbers are bound to change. One study predicted there will still be between 15 and 1,300 cancer fatalities worldwide as a result of the accident, and approximately two to 12 cancer cases among the plant’s workers over many years.
Still, experts point out that whatever the ultimate number of deaths, it will only be a small fraction of the total fatalities associated with the earthquake and tsunami. And it’s far less than the number of automotive fatalities on American roads every year.
”We have to remember, this accident was caused by one of the worst earthquakes ever known,” Ahmad Hassanein, head of the nuclear engineering department at Purdue University, told us. “The reactor was 40 years old and it stood up well. Given the situation, it did better than expected.”
Terry added that the Fukushima plant was safer for the public than comparable coal-burning plants. “People like the idea of being perfectly safe,” he said. “But you’re never going to get that. When you convert one form of energy to another, nothing’s ever going to be perfectly safe.”