When Power Flows into the Sea: the Aftermath of the “3.11” Nuclear Disaster

Andrew Littlejohn and Carola Hein

Ten years ago, three nuclear reactors run by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) melted down after a tsunami struck Japan’s northeastern coastline on March 11, 2011 (known, today, as “3.11”). Since the disaster, TEPCO has been continuously pumping water into the reactors to cool their melted fuel and prevent further reactions. They collect and store this water in large steel tanks on-site whose number now exceeds 1000 (Normile 2021). On April 13, 2021, the government of Japan announced it had approved the gradual release of 1.25 million tons of treated water from these tanks into the ocean near the plants. Andrew Littlejohn and Carola Hein assess the culture and policies that led to this decision, but also the protest of the people from Fukushima to whom the sea is their livelihood.

TEPCO representatives and government officials claimed that the discharge will be safe because they will first reduce levels of the radioactive isotope tritium to lower than that permitted for drinking water. The United States, International Atomic Energy Agency, and various independent scientists have supported their arguments. Environmental groups and other scholars have questioned them, however, arguing that no environmental impact studies have been made public, unilateral discharge decisions set a dangerous precedent (Brown and Darby 2021), and the impact on marine life of isotopes other than tritium—which TEPCO acknowledged in 2018 are present in 71% of the water tanks—is not fully understood (Normile 2021).

Discharging polluted waters into the sea is yet another example of how humans have treated the oceans since industrialization. Discussing ocean space through time and space, Phil Steinberg argues that modern, Western nations have conceived the ocean as a “great void” (2001), which replaced what used to be considered marine spaces cared for by people living on the coasts and working in and with the sea. Over the last 150 years, as land masses have become more and more developed, this void became a space of industrial occupation. Maritime transportation from sites of production to consumption, drilling for oil, and the construction of pipelines have come to occupy the sea. The increased shipping of oil, containers, and other goods has transformed coastlines, ports, and cities, the perceived emptiness of the seas disguising the rapidness of maritime occupation. Energy production sites—like the nuclear plants—other industrial facilities and their leftovers such as CO2 storage (Koster and Obheikens 2021) that are not desired near urban clusters have also been pushed out to the apparent edges of the land, the coastal areas and waterfronts.

Today, the sea itself and its natural ecosystems remain far from the public eye and imagination in many parts of the world. As Couling and Hein have discussed (2018, 2020), the concept of blankness, first formulated by Roberto Mangabiera Unger and further discussed by Jeffrey Kipnis, is a useful framework for interrogating the architecture of energy logistics near, on and in the sea, its apparent invisibility, and global impact. As coastlines and ports are used to establish polluting and potentially dangerous energy infrastructures, decision-makers ignore the inherent risks—like tsunamis as in Fukushima—or the future challenges of sea-level rise and other maritime issues. The disconnection of sea and land also means that many actors consider the sea as a potential dump for everything not desired on the latter. Rethinking the sea, the coastlines, and in general the relation between land and sea is particularly important in Japan, an island nation where farming and consumption of fish, bivalves, and algae are part of the daily diet and ways of living of a great many citizens.

In Fukushima itself, representatives of the fishing industry immediately condemned the discharge policy. For them the sea is not blank or void. Rather, it is their livelihoods, a part of their everyday space, and more. They argue the discharge will deal a knockout blow to the fishing and aquaculture industry still reeling from what some call “damage by rumor” (fūhyо̄ higai), or the unwillingness of consumers in the South and South-West to buy products from the region. Responses like “If it’s [safe], then you drink it first”—with the “you” meaning the entire cabinet of prime minister Suga—also proliferated on Japanese social media (Yahoo! Japan News 2021). Such comments, mirrored by officials in neighboring countries (Taylor 2021), highlight another crucial issue: the disparity between elites making the decision in Tokyo, who will never feel its effects, and the residents whose lives depend directly on the waters of Fukushima where TEPCO will discharge their irradiated by-product.


Prime Minister Sugo at Fukushima
Fig. 1. “If it’s safe, you drink it first” - Prime Minister Suga inspecting TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (内閣官房内閣広報室, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons).


This imbalance between the center and the local communities bearing the actual risk has a long history. Since at least the 1980s, and possibly earlier, the state has pursued a policy that social scientists Akasaka, Ōguma, and Yamauchi characterize as “national development based on ‘what’s necessary for cities’” (‘toshi ni totte hitsuyо̄’ na kokudo-zukuri). Within this framework, they write, rural areas existed to provide “things like human resources, foodstuff, water, and power to the major cities” (2011, 56). They functioned, in other words, as the hinterland infrastructure of the urban—but an infrastructure that could be “cut off and thrown away” (Love 2013, 114) if something went wrong.

The decision to release irradiated water into the Pacific may or may not be damaging to life, human or otherwise. But whatever else it does, as a choice it highlights how the story of 3.11 and its aftermath is fundamentally one of power: of power imbalances between state and society (Aldrich 2019), city and region (Akasaka et al 2011), and perhaps “nature” and “culture.” In a world without such inequalities, one could well imagine a scenario in which the irradiated water was carted off to Tokyo. The latter, after all, reaped most of the benefits of nuclear plants, which rarely delivered the financial stimulus they promised to host cities (Aldrich 2019, 146). Now that things have gone wrong, why should they not also bear the costs? Perhaps, in a world where TEPCO executives had to drink the waters they make, they might have prepared disaster contingency plans for a power plant in an area whose vulnerability to tsunamis was no secret.

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team. It reflects the evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Sabine Luning.


Aldrich, D. 2019. Black Wave. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, A, and Darby, I. “Fukushima Water Discharge Plan Sets a Dangerous Precedent.” The Japan Times, April 25, 2021. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2021/04/25/commentary/japan-commentary/fukushima-radiation-3-11-nuclear-energy-radioactive-water-iaea/

Couling, N. and C. Hein (2018). "Blankness: The Architectural Void of North Sea Energy Logistics." Footprint (23): 87-104.

Couling, N. and C. Hein, Eds. (2020). The Urbanisation of the Sea: From Concepts and Analysis to Design. Rotterdam: nai010/BK Books.

Kipnis, J and A. Maymind (2013), A Question of Qualities: Essays in Architecture. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Koster, R. and T. Obheikens (2021, 9. May). "Miljardensubsidie voor CO2-opslag onder Noordzee is rond." NOS. from https://nos.nl/artikel/2380052-miljardensubsidie-voor-co2-opslag-onder-noordzee-is-rond.

Love, B. 2013. “Treasure Hunts in Rural Japan: Place Making at the Limits of Sustainability.” American Anthropologist 115(1): 112-124.

Normille, Denis. “Japan Plans to Release Fukushima’s Wastewater into the Ocean.” Science, April 13, 2021. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/04/japan-plans-release-fukushima-s-contaminated-water-ocean

Steinberg, P. 2001. The Social Construction of the Ocean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Adam. “China to Japanese Official: If Treated Radioactive Water from Fukushima Is Safe, ‘Please Drink It.’” The Washington Post, April 14, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/04/14/china-japan-fukushima-water-drink/

Mangabiera Unger, R. (1991)‘The Better Futures of Architecture’, in  Cynthia C. Davidson (ed.) Anyone, New York, New York: Rizzoli. 

’Genpatsu no osensui ha nomeru no de wa nai ka’…Asо̄ fuku-sо̄ri, shuchо̄ wo kurikaesu (‘The Irradiated Water Is Probably Drinkable’: Deputy Prime Minister Asо̄ Repeats His Claim).” Yahoo! Japan News, April 16, 2021. https://news.yahoo.co.jp/articles/9aaa0cb3a7734384ea50859c7e3c875443f73948


内閣官房内閣広報室, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20200926fukushima01.jpg