Crises In Comparison: Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima Daiichi

Tokyo Electric Power Company, the parent company of the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, admitted this week that they have been unable to halt the damage done to the plant by the disaster in 2011 and are currently unable to control the leakage of contaminated waste water into the ocean. The announcement comes after more than two years of denial and inept handling of the disaster and the necessary recovery and repair that should have followed. Hearing the company admit its own failings reminded me of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the rigmarole that followed that disaster.

In many ways the situations are quite similar. Both cases involved a large corporation operating an energy-producing system that suffered severe physical and structural damage, the result of cut corners that hadn’t been so obvious before. The accidents that happened at both facilities took the lives of several employees, affected the health and daily lives of many more, and negatively impacted the surrounding community and ecosystem.

NOAA satellite image of radioactive cesium leaking into the ocean from Fukushima Daiichi

NOAA satellite image of radioactive cesium leaking into the ocean from Fukushima Daiichi

There are, however, some major differences between the two disasters, the most glaring point being the interaction between the private industry and the government. After the BP oil spill, the Obama administration was quick to hold BP accountable and to oversee the cleanup efforts. In Japan, events unfolded very differently. After the tsunami and earthquake, damage to the plant was obvious and severe. Control of the plant and protection of its workers, however, was left in the hands of TEPCO. The Japanese government did not move in to monitor the operations or to make the company pay for the damage it caused to its employees or to the environment. They were not even compelled to double check the findings on plant safety that TEPCO produced. Instead, the prime minister launched a campaign to restart nuclear power operations across Japan and to sell nuclear materials around the world, in the face of protests from his own citizens.

NOAA satellite image of oil concentrations in the Gulf as a result of the BP spill

NOAA satellite image of oil concentrations in the Gulf as a result of the BP spill

Watching damage control for Fukushima Daiichi has been like watching the fallout from the BP spill in slow motion. Government action hasn’t been swift, safe and effective cleanup efforts have been slow to come, and real consequences for the party at fault have been almost nonexistent. The news that contaminated wastewater from the plant has been leaking into the ground and out into the ocean is devastating, but it may be the push needed to accelerate the process of cleanup and accountability that has been so desperately lacking in this case. The fast-forward button has finally been pressed, and hopefully in the direction of real progress and change.


Image 1 via

Image 2 via NOAA Education Resources



  1. Dear Erica,
    I have been trying to find a NOAA photo showing the path of the radioactive spill. I find this picture labeled as showing the tsunami wave heights. I really need a NOAA link showing the are receiving the radiation contamination. Thank You

  2. Sure Kathy, thanks for asking. Here is a link to the site on which I found the original image: If I’ve made any error, please let me know so I can make any corrections. Thanks!

  3. I delight in, lead to I found just what I was taking a look for.
    You’ve ended my four day long hunt! God Bless you man.
    Have a nice day. Bye

    • Hi Richie, Thanks for your comment! I went and checked out your Fukushima Answers video and really enjoyed it. I’m happy to see another regular citizen-journalist doing the research and trying to understand what’s happening with Fukushima.

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