EDITORIAL: Concerns about evacuations in nuclear emergencies continue unabated
The 2011 nuclear disaster resulted in a horrifying scenario in which nuclear fuel inside reactors melted down, triggering a massive release of radioactive materials into the environment outside the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has proposed a system of five layers of safety measures for nuclear power plants. The nuclear watchdog urges each country operating nuclear power plants to adopt this approach, known as “defense-in-depth,” to ensure the facilities operate safely.
The final barrier in this system is prevention of radiation exposure to people living in areas around nuclear power plants.
Specifically, this fifth and final stage of defense-in-depth should be implemented in the form of plans developed by the central and local governments to mitigate the consequences of nuclear accidents and evacuate local residents.
When the Fukushima disaster occurred, however, no effective plan existed for the mass evacuation of local residents in Japan. This is because the possibility of a severe nuclear accident had been ruled out.
As a result, the accident triggered utter chaos in local communities around the Fukushima plant.
Now, more than four years since the disaster unfolded, Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture is expected to restart its No. 1 reactor as early as Aug. 11.
But the mitigation and evacuation plans currently in place are far from reassuring to local residents. The responsibility to establish the “final barrier” and ensure the safety of residents rests with the local government. There should be no headlong rush toward restarting the reactor when serious safety concerns persist.
SERIOUSNESS OF EVACUATION PLANS QUESTIONED
After the Fukushima accident, the central government made it mandatory for all local governments within 30 kilometers of a nuclear power plant to develop disaster mitigation and evacuation plans.
All the nine municipalities within 30 km of the Sendai plant have drawn up such plans. The total population of the areas covered is about 210,000.
Takuro Eto, 58, who operates a daytime care service for the elderly in Ichikikushikino, a city located about 17 km from the Sendai plant, is deeply skeptical about the evacuation plan crafted by the municipal government.
“Are they really serious about protecting the lives of people?” he said.
Many of the 10 or so elderly people who regularly come to Eto’s facility are suffering from dementia. If a serious nuclear accident occurs, they are required to return to their homes before being evacuated, according to the city’s evacuation plan.
One of these patients lives alone in a house located within 10 km of the plant.
“Are we supposed to have this patient return home, which is located closer to the plant?” Eto said indignantly. “How can we ask our staffers to escort the patient home (in such an emergency)?”
How to evacuate people who cannot move on their own, such as the residents of nursing homes and hospital inpatients, also poses a challenge.
The Kagoshima prefectural government has secured evacuation destinations for the 17 nursing homes and hospitals within 10 km of the Sendai plant. As for the 227 facilities located between 10 and 30 km from the plant, however, the local government has decided to do computer searches after an accident happens to find facilities that can accommodate those evacuees.
An employee at a home for elderly people requiring special care located within a 30-km radius of the nuclear plant voices anxiety about the plan.
“We have only one staff member on night duty," the employee said. "How can the staffer deal with evacuating the residents to an unfamiliar place in an emergency?”
Despite such concerns, the prefectural government has no plan to carry out an evacuation drill involving local residents to test the effectiveness of the evacuation plan before the reactor is brought back online.
“Kyushu Electric Power currently has no time (for such a drill) as it is busy with inspections prior to the reactor restart,” Kagoshima Governor Yuichi Ito said.
An Asahi Shimbun survey revealed that 66 percent of medical institutions and 49 percent of social welfare facilities within 30 km of nuclear power plants across Japan have not compiled mandatory evacuation plans specifying evacuation destinations, routes and transportation means to be used in the event of an accident.
DIALOGUE WITH LOCAL RESIDENTS ESSENTIAL
The fifth level of the IAEA’s defense-in-depth safety approach--the final barrier--should be designed to work effectively to protect public health even in cases in which all the other four layers of defense have failed.
In Japan, this stage of defense is the local government’s responsibility. Evacuation plans are not covered by the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s safety assessments. Such plans are to be simply approved by the nuclear disaster prevention council, headed by the prime minister.
It should be assumed that the responsibility for protecting local residents from nuclear accidents lies with the local government, which is abreast of special regional circumstances.
According to experts, in the disaster at the Fukushima No.1 plant, even the nuclear fuel pool of the No. 4 reactor, which was offline at that time, was at risk of a severe accident.
One vital lesson from the catastrophe is that the mere existence of a nuclear reactor poses serious safety risks.
Evacuation plans are indispensable, whether the reactors are restarted or not.
To be sure, it is almost impossible to create a perfect evacuation plan. But it is possible to clarify what can be done, ascertain problems to be solved and explain them to local residents.
To do so, the local governments of areas where nuclear plants are located need to conduct drills to test the effectiveness of their mitigation and evacuation plans and hold the necessary dialogue with local residents.
It is said that a two-stage evacuation approach is effective during nuclear emergencies. Under this approach, residents within 5 km of the plant should be evacuated first. People living between 5 and 30 km from the plant should first take refuge indoors to wait for their own evacuation.
It is obvious that this approach does not work without the understanding and cooperation of the local residents.
If local governments are responsible for the safety of their residents, they should also be involved in the process of deciding on whether to restart reactors.
Currently, however, under agreements with electric utilities, only the prefectures and municipalities that host nuclear power plants have the right to agree to reactor restarts. But this right should also be given at least to all the local governments in the 30-km zone that are obliged to map out evacuation plans.
Nuclear reactors should be considered to be too dangerous if the local governments of areas that can be affected by accidents involving the reactors refuse to support their operations. These reactors should be decommissioned as soon as possible.
CONTINUED FAILURE TO ACT
The Diet’s investigative committee that looked into the Fukushima accident has pointed out that little serious effort has been made in Japan to establish even the fourth level of the IAEA’s defense-in-depth strategy for nuclear safety, or control of severe plant conditions, the stage before the final barrier.
In 2006, the Nuclear Safety Commission tried to make a sweeping review based on the IAEA standards of the priority areas designated under the government’s nuclear disaster prevention policy. But the plan was dropped in the face of opposition from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which feared such a review would provoke anxiety among local residents, according to the findings of the investigation.
The radiation exposure that afflicted many residents around the Fukushima plant could have been avoided. Many patients in hospitals who were not evacuated quickly enough died due to deteriorating health conditions. More than 1,900 people in Fukushima Prefecture have died due to causes related to the nuclear accident.
Have all the relevant lessons from the calamity been gleaned and absorbed to prevent any further casualties of administrative nonfeasance?
This is the question local governments should ask first in examining and evaluating their abilities to protect residents from nuclear accidents.