10 Mars 2016
March 10, 2016
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
Although the town of Namie is still evacuated five years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, local officials are already at odds with the central government over evacuation plans for any similar crisis.
In its draft emergency plan, the town in Fukushima Prefecture decrees that residents can flee in a future accident even if radiation levels are below those warranting evacuation as dictated by the central government.
The draft was drawn up based on the lesson the disaster-hit town learned from the chaos that erupted in the wake of the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.
Although local governments are legally entitled to issue an order independently, the central government is not happy about Namie's plan. Minami-Soma, the city adjacent to Namie, takes a similar approach in the evacuation plan it crafted in 2013.
The secretariat of the Nuclear Regulation Authority would not give a nod to the plans by Namie and Minami-Soma, saying such actions could compromise the evacuation of people facing imminent danger.
“In the Fukushima accident, more damage was done partly because people who were not in need of evacuation raced to flee,” said an official with the secretariat’s Emergency Preparedness/ Response and Nuclear Security Division. “The central government’s guidelines are designed to minimize radiation exposure risks.”
All the roads around Namie, located to the northwest of the crippled plant, were clogged with vehicles desperately trying to flee, hampering evacuation. Shelters were so packed that they could not accommodate all who rushed to them.
Namie Mayor Tamotsu Baba said the town, with a population of 18,700, has a responsibility to ensure smooth evacuation of residents by issuing an order on its own, instead of adhering to the central government’s guidelines formulated after the Fukushima accident.
“It is not easy to evacuate in an orderly fashion,” said Baba. “A panic will very likely occur if an accident comparable to the Fukushima nuclear disaster takes place.”
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the central government obliged 135 municipalities situated within a 30-kilometer radius of a nuclear facility to formulate evacuation plans under its new guidelines for responding to a nuclear disaster.
The guidelines call for the immediate evacuation of residents living within a 5-km radius of the site of a severe accident.
Residents within a 5- to 30-km zone, such as Namie and Minami-Soma, which are within 30 km of both the Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear plants, are urged to stay indoors. They would be asked to evacuate within a few hours of radiation levels reaching 500 microsieverts an hour.
However, that is such a high radiation level that no municipalities more than 5 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant experienced in the 2011 crisis, according to the NRA's secretariat.
The guidelines also state that residents must evacuate within a week if radiation measuring 20 microsieverts an hour continues for at least 24 hours. These steps are recommended based on the idea that it would do more damage to the elderly to evacuate than to stay indoors. The guidelines are also aimed at preventing traffic gridlock so that residents living near a crippled facility can promptly flee to safety.
A serious situation could unfold again in Fukushima Prefecture if work to cool spent nuclear fuel rods were rendered impossible by a natural disaster or terror attack at the plants.
Before the Fukushima disaster, Namie was not asked by the central government to have an evacuation plan in place, just like the rest of the municipal governments beyond the 5-km range from a nuclear facility.
An evacuation order from either the central government or Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the embattled plant, failed to reach Namie due to the escalating chaos following the nuclear crisis in 2011. So the town government was forced to act alone to evacuate its residents.
Namie officials believe that even if people are only asked to flee within a week after a reading of radiation hit 20 microsieverts an hour under the new guidelines, some will choose anyway to evacuate immediately.
The officials said they would rather ensure smooth evacuation of local residents by acting independently of the central government.
In the case of Minami-Soma, residents were ordered to stay indoors due to the risk of radiation exposure at the time of the Fukushima accident.
But 55,000 of a total of 70,000 people evacuated voluntarily in the face of the scarcity of food in the city after the distribution network was jeopardized.
The NRA secretariat acknowledges that it will have to address the issue of how to distribute food and other relief aid to areas where people are asked to remain indoors as radiation levels rise.
Of the 135 municipalities, only 95 cities, towns and villages came up with evacuation plans.
But some in the prefectures of Ibaraki and Shizuoka are still void of their response measures since they have been unable to find shelters to accommodate all of the would-be evacuees.
The overall population in the 30-km zone in the two prefectures is nearly 1 million each, making the task formidable.
“The central government’s guidelines are simply a desk theory,” said a local government official in Ibaraki Prefecture. “The harder you work on your evacuation plan, the more unrealistic it gets.”
(This article was written by Shinichi Sekine and Tomoya Ishikawa.)