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Fukushima disaster: What happened at the nuclear plant?

At the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the gigantic wave surged over defences and flooded the reactors, sparking a major disaster. Authorities set up an exclusion zone which grew larger and larger as radiation leaked from the plant, forcing more than 150,000 people to evacuate from the area.

Ten years ago, on a Friday afternoon in March, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan struck off the country’s eastern coast.

The 9.0-magnitude quake was so forceful it shifted the Earth off its axis. It triggered a tsunami which swept over the main island of Honshu, killing more than 18,000 people and wiping entire towns off the map.

At the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the gigantic wave surged over defences and flooded the reactors, sparking a major disaster. Authorities set up an exclusion zone which grew larger and larger as radiation leaked from the plant, forcing more than 150,000 people to evacuate from the area.

A decade later, that zone remains in place and many residents have not returned. Authorities believe it will take up to 40 years to finish the work, which has already cost Japan trillions of yen.

What happened at Fukushima?

Systems at the nuclear plant detected the earthquake and automatically shut down the nuclear reactors. Emergency diesel generators turned on to keep coolant pumping around the cores, which remain incredibly hot even after reactions stop.

But soon after a wave over 14 metres (46ft) high hit Fukushima. The water overwhelmed the defensive sea wall, flooding the plant and knocking out the emergency generators.

Workers rushed to restore power, but in the days that followed the nuclear fuel in three of the reactors overheated and partly melted the cores – something known as a nuclear meltdown.

The plant also suffered a number of chemical explosions which badly damaged the buildings. Radioactive material began leaking into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean, prompting the evacuations and an ever-widening exclusion zone.

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