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Crisis Comparison: Fukushima & Chernobyl

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Nuclear power—having been around for less than a century—is a fairly new human innovation, and thus there are limited cases to examine when it comes to nuclear power crises. A nuclear emergency usually results from a fission nuclear reactor malfunction; while nuclear weapons are far more deadly than reactor incidents, they are generally acts of foreign aggression that do not release nearly as much radiation into the atmosphere, and thus they are handled very differently by governments. In this paper, I will examine the differing government responses to two nuclear power plant explosions: the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union—both of which have received the highest possible rating on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (NEI 2019).

To analyze the differences in the respective government responses to Fukushima and Chernobyl, we must first look at the outcomes of each incident. In Fukushima, just ten years after the reactor meltdown, Japanese authorities are beginning to let people back into the formerly contaminated area. While there are still some restricted areas of high radiation, Japan’s containment efforts have proven effective at making Fukushima sustainable for life once more (WNA 2021). The same cannot be said for Chernobyl’s nearby city of Pripyat, which is still mainly off-limits to unauthorized visitors over 30 years after the incident (IAEA 2021). This raises the question: Was Japan truly better at managing nuclear crisis than the Soviet Union? Why?

The most commonly highlighted difference between the two countries’ responses is the economic investment. According to National Geographic, the USSR spent an estimated $235 billion [adjusted for inflation] on damages from the Chernobyl disaster (Blakemore 2019). The Associated Press reports that Japan has spent an estimated $300 billion on containing the Fukushima plant and decontaminating the surrounding areas (Yamaguchi 2021). The Soviet Union may have spent less money on physical containment because the former power was in the course of bureaucratic failure, and was dealing with a failing economy. Japan’s leaders also had a precedent advantage when approaching Fukushima; they were able to watch as the USSR struggled to contain Chernobyl just three decades prior, and learn from the Soviets’ vital errors and underfunding.

Another key difference between the two countries’ responses was publicity. According to Masanobu Ohmori, a researcher at Hiroshima-Kokusai Gakuin University in Japan, the Fukushima emergency received considerable coverage and explanation in the days, weeks, and months following the meltdown; Japanese officials were fully transparent with the public about the details surrounding the incident (Ohmori 2013). Chernobyl, on the other hand, was initially hidden from public knowledge according to Mark Stern, a reporter for Slate. Stern writes, “It took two days for the explosion to be announced, in vague terms, on the national news; not until Sweden discovered a radiation cloud that had drifted across Europe was the true extent of the Chernobyl explosion revealed” (Stern 2013). Because of government transparency, Japan received an outpouring of support from allies immediately following the Fukushima incident, but the Soviet Union did not have this option; the Soviet Union was one of two major players in a bipolar balance of power during the Cold War, so there was no global hegemon to come to its aid.

The last key difference I will examine is population displacement, and specifically how the government of each country managed the displacement of entire cities of people. Population displacement is a commonality among many different national crises—natural disasters especially. What distinguishes displacement in the case of a nuclear incident is the extremely low chance of human survival; within a certain radius of each incident examined here, it is impossible to survive for any extended length of time due to radioactivity. Because of the grave threat that radiation poses to human anatomy, it is imperative that governments evacuate and shelter at-risk individuals with urgency and efficiency (CDC 2018). According to Elise Hu, a reporter for NPR, Japan “could have done better” at managing displaced citizens. Hu explains that Japan quickly and effectively evacuated Fukushima, which reduced the potential injuries significantly; they struggled, though, to provide effective long-term housing for victims. It took over five years for people in temporary housing to be moved into more permanent accommodations. (Hu 2016). In her book Forced Migration, Dr. Silva Meybatyan argues that the Pripyat evacuation was objectively worse than in Fukushima. Meybatyan writes, “Local government officials and Communist party leaders were told that people would be evacuated for only three days. The official announcement was very short, with no information about the dangers of exposure to radiation… Many ignored the announcement and stayed in the exclusion zone” (Meybatyan 2014). Because of the relatively botched Pripyat evacuation, close to 30 people died of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) or associated health effects, while only 1 person died from radiation exposure in Fukushima (CDC 2018).

While the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters are comparable in size and caliber, the key differences highlighted above ultimately show that Japanese officials handled the Fukushima incident better than the Soviets handled Chernobyl. Many scholars of comparative politics point to Japan’s structured democratic complexity, which likely proved more effective at handling nuclear crisis than the Soviets’ more centralized loyalty to their leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev. As we have seen with global health crises such as COVID-19, governmental structure can play an important role in the efficacy of national crisis response. As we see with Chernobyl, authoritarian states do not always act in the best interest of the victims in a crisis; in the aftermath of Chernobyl’s explosion, the incident was covered up and made to look like a small mishap. Gorbachev acted slowly and impulsively, knowing that he couldn’t be deposed or held accountable by his people. Japan, having been built on democracy and accountability, had a more effective approach to spending, informing, and managing population displacement; the decision-makers in Japan can and were being held accountable—Prime Minister Naoto Kan was removed from office following the 2011 earthquake that triggered the Fukushima crisis. The Japanese response to Fukushima was not perfect—there were important missteps by the government in handling long-term population housing—but because of its different and effective approaches, Japan exists as the current paradigm for future nuclear emergency response plans.


Blakemore, E. (2021, May 03). The Chernobyl Disaster: What Happened, and the Long-Term Impacts. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/chernobyl-disaster

CDC. (2018, April 04). Radiation Emergencies & Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/emergencies/arsphysicianfactsheet.htm

Hu, E. (2016, March 11). 5 Years After Japan Disasters, 'Temporary' Housing Is Feeling Permanent. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/03/11/469857023/5-years-after-japan-disasters-temporary-housing-is-feeling-permanent

International Atomic Energy Agency. (2016, November 07). Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/chernobyl/faqs

Meybatyan, S. (2014, February). Nuclear Disasters and Displacement. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from https://www.fmreview.org/crisis/meybatyan

Nuclear Energy Institute. (2019, October 01). Comparing Fukushima and Chernobyl. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from https://www.nei.org/resources/fact-sheets/comparing-fukushima-and-chernobyl

Ohmori, M. (2016). Looking Back on Media Reports on the Nuclear Accident. Annals of the ICRP, 45(2), 33-36. doi:10.1177/0146645316666757

Stern, M. J. (2013, January 25). How a Nuclear Catastrophe Undermined an Entire Empire. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://slate.com/technology/2013/01/chernobyl-and-the-fall-of-the-soviet-union-gorbachevs-glasnost-allowed-the-nuclear-catastrophe-to-undermine-the-ussr.html

World Nuclear Association. (2021, April). Fukushima Daiichi Accident. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-daiichi-accident.aspx

Yamaguchi, M. (2021, March 12). How dangerous is the Fukushima nuke plant today? Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://apnews.com/article/world-news-japan-tsunamis-5a5a70d852d2290d527123d3ec300c57