10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. Creation of New Industries and the Fukushima Innovation Coast

The Great East Japan Earthquake struck at 2:46 PM on a Friday, the March 11th in 2011, which is 10 years ago. It was very nice weather with blue sky.  The earthquake whose epicenter was 130 km off the Sanriku coast and 24 km deep in the Tohoku...

The Great East Japan Earthquake struck at 2:46 PM on a Friday, the March 11th in 2011, which is 10 years ago. It was very nice weather with blue sky.  The earthquake whose epicenter was 130 km off the Sanriku coast and 24 km deep in the Tohoku region of Japan had a magnitude of 9.0. After that, huge tsunami of 14 m high hit the Pacific coast, and the inundated area was as wide as 561 km2. According to the National Police Agency, over 15 900 people have died and still over 2 500 people are missing.

In Tokyo, the quake measured 5 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7, and trains and subways stopped running. There was a heavy traffic jam on the roads, and many people were on foot to go home, so the roads in Tokyo were very crowded. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, 94 000 people stayed overnight at public gymnasiums and temporary shelters. There were victims of falling objects at the time of the earthquake. It was a large-scale earthquake that hit the whole eastern Japan.

In the afternoon of the day after the earthquake occurred, Unit 1 of TEPCO’s (Tokyo Electric Power Company) Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station exploded with hydrogen. The power supply was lost by the huge tsunami, and the cooling function was lost due to the failure of cooling by the emergency condenser. The core damage progressed that resulted in nuclear meltdown and hydrogen explosion. 10 years later, decommissioning work is underway. The temperature inside the reactor has been maintained at 15 to 35 degrees Celsius by continuous water injection, but the increasing treatment of contaminated water is another challenge. Last year, the company succeeded in removing fuel from some of the spent fuel pools, and by the end of fiscal 2021, it plans to take out fuel debris from the Unit 2 reactor on a trial basis and expand the scale of disposal. However, it is expected to take about over 30 years to decommission the reactors, and different technological developments and studies are underway.

The population of Fukushima Prefecture, which had been on a declining trend even before the earthquake due to the declining birthrate and aging population, was further reduced by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, but since 2013, the number of people from outside the prefecture who are working has been increasing. The number of evacuees in 2011, when the disaster struck, was 165 000, but as of February this year it was 28 000. Due to the policies of the Reconstruction Agency, there are areas where population growth can be seen. One of them is the “Fukushima Innovation Coast”.

After the earthquake and the nuclear accident, evacuees have shown little interest in returning to Fukushima. The government has drawn up a budget, revised laws, and taken various measures to increase the number of people interacting with Fukushima. This is the national project called “Fukushima Innovation Coast”, which based on the government’s basic policy for reconstruction of Fukushima that aims to build a new industrial base by innovation creation in order to recover industries in areas lost due to the Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear disaster. In 2020, for sustainable development of the industry in the area, the government revised the core priority fields. They are decommissioning, robotics, energy/environment, and agriculture/fisheries etc.

In research and development concerning decommissioning, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) has already established several research centers to promote decommissioning, which is indispensable for the reconstruction of Fukushima. There are: 1) the Naraha Center for Remote Control Technology Development, which is a facility for robot research and training of workers in decommissioning; 2) the Collaborative Laboratories for Advanced Decommissioning Science (CLADS), which promotes decommissioning of nuclear power plants by establishing a system for promoting research and development by industry, academia, and government as well as human resource development in an integrated manner, while forming a network for exchange of human resources from universities, research institutes, and industries in Japan and abroad for environmental restoration; and 3) the Okuma Analysis and Research Center, which analyzes rubble, incinerated ash, secondary waste, etc. caused by the accident. About 70% of employees of these JAEA related centers live in 12 cities affected by the nuclear accident. As for Robotics, the Fukushima Robot Test Fields opened last year and already 22 companies and universities have research labs in the facility, conducting demonstration test, performance evaluation and operation training of robotics for land, sea and air.  As for the energy and the environment field, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science Technology (AIST) opened Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute AIST (FREA) in 2014 and research area includes Hydrogen and Photovoltaic system.

The government, prefectures, municipalities, universities, research institutes, and companies are gathering to develop such facilities and to promote efforts in different kinds of fields positioned in the initiative, and to establish promotion corporations and cooperative bodies among local industry, academia, and government for the early realization of the Fukushima Innovation Coast. It is expected that the revitalization of local communities and relocation of younger generation including researchers and engineers to Fukushima will be accelerated by specific business development and job creation based on the core priority fields such as robotics, as well as international industry-university collaboration.

These projects and activities at the Fukushima Innovation Coast are expected to promote international research cooperation, and research centers and laboratories are positioned as “Fukushima Innovation Coast” which are international research innovation and educational hubs. The planned number of researchers and staff at the international collaborative research center after its completion should be 400, the planned number of residents related to the Innovation Coast is 13 000, and all facilities of the international collaborative research center and education center are scheduled to be opened by 2024.

Fukushima was severely affected by the earthquake and the challenge in restoring the area is huge. What is clear is that there will be new innovations and technologies brought forward with the Fukushima Innovation Coast initiatives and the high level research institutes, and that these new solutions most likely can find a use in other areas and other countries. Such new solutions to address the challenges of decommissioning the power plants, can very well serve as a future source for increased competitiveness and growth. Together with the forward-looking technology initiatives in the Fukushima area, not least for developing sustainable and renewable energy, the very tragic accident may result in a new and prosperous future for Fukushima.

Noriko Ogawa, Science and Innovation Officer, OSI Tokyo