Few were prepared for a nuclear crisis

A specialist in Fukushima instructs people on what the radiation detector does and what screening procedures entail at an evacuation center after the March 11 earthquake.
A specialist in Fukushima instructs people on what the radiation detector does and what screening procedures entail at an evacuation center after the March 11 earthquake.
Posted: March 27, 2011

FUKUSHIMA, Japan - When the earthquake and tsunami rocked northeast Japan on March 11, residents who had been prepared by years of drills knew what to do: They scrambled for cover until the shaking stopped, then ran for higher ground to avoid the giant wave.

But when word came that the disasters had left the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant leaking radiation, residents were baffled. Should they run? Stay indoors?

Japan, famous for drilling its citizens on how to prepare for all manner of natural disasters, has done far less to prepare those who live near its many nuclear reactors for emergencies. This has left neighbors of the crippled Fukushima power station confused, misinformed, and angry in the face of the country's worst-ever nuclear crisis.

"The only time I ever learned anything in school about nuclear stuff was when we studied about Chernobyl in history class," said Chiyo Maeda, a bank clerk who lived 16 miles from the plant before her home was destroyed by the tsunami. "If we had known more before this happened, maybe we could have reacted more calmly."

Japan takes disaster preparedness seriously. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese take part in an annual drill every Sept. 1 - the anniversary of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in Tokyo that killed 142,000 people. The exercise, which usually involves the military and civilians - including the prime minister - has sometimes even seen participation by the U.S. Navy.

'No one'

Yet dozens of residents evacuated from the most dangerous areas said they did not receive any information about how to avoid the radiation threat in an emergency, a basic requirement in some other countries that operate nuclear power facilities.

They hadn't heard of any drills organized by the government or the power company that runs the plant. They were mystified by the radiation readings and technical language used to explain the crisis.

Yuji Kusano, a maintenance worker at the doomed plant, said staffers were trained for fires and emergencies. "But nothing was done to educate the residents nearby," he said. "I just think no one ever expected this."

Government and utility officials conceded they did not have the resources, nor did they think it was necessary, to distribute pamphlets or conduct a public awareness campaign on what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency, except in the immediate vicinity of the plant.

Fukushima prefecture distributes leaflets in newspapers twice a month to 20,000 households immediately around the nuclear plant with basic instructions, like close the windows and stay inside. But that's only a fraction of the 245,000 or so people living within 19 miles of the plant who have either been told to evacuate or stay indoors since the crisis began.

Varying rules

Takeyoshi Murakami, a prefectural official in charge of nuclear safety, conceded that authorities would have to review the entire outreach program.

Yoshihiro Amano, a grocery store owner about 31/2 miles from the reactors, said he never paid much attention to them. "They mainly just said everything was safe" about the reactors, he said.

While they did hold a drill three years ago at the Fukushima plant, only a tiny fraction of residents participated; others had no idea it was held.

Other countries have varying requirements for nuclear emergency preparedness. In the United States, nuclear plants are required to provide annual detailed emergency plans to residents within the 10-mile evacuation zone.

The Indian Point nuclear plant near New York City, which has preparedness plans typical of U.S. nuclear sites, sends manuals to every resident and business in the evacuation zone explaining everything from evacuation procedures to the usefulness of potassium iodide pills in helping prevent radiation-induced thyroid cancer. Residents can sign up to receive warnings by telephone or e-mail, and there is a warning siren for those in the evacuation area.

In Britain, plant operators distribute information to surrounding residents, including basic facts about radiation and its effects, and what to do in an emergency.

An internal disaster-management plan for the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant outlined contingency plans, coordination with the government, and employee education about nuclear accidents. But the 82-page plan devoted only one sentence and four brief bullet points to the subject of public preparedness, including the need to inform people about radioactivity and the special nature of nuclear disasters.

Japan requires nuclear plants to hold disaster prevention exercises, but preparedness generally does not involve the public, government officials acknowledged.

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