Fleeing from Fukushima: a nuclear evacuation reality check — Beyond Nuclear International

” (The following is an excerpt from a longer article on the subject of evacuations after severe nuclear accidents. While this section focuses on Fukushima, there are lessons here for all nuclear sites and the likely failure of “on paper” evacuation plans.)

If another severe nuclear accident, such as Windscale (in 1957), Chernobyl (1986) or Fukushima (2011) were to occur, then the most important response, in terms of preventing future cancer epidemics, is evacuation. The other main responses are shelter and stable iodine prophylaxis. Adverse health effects would primarily depend on wind direction and on the nature of the accident.  This article looks primarily at the Fukushima evacuation and its after-effects.

When the Fukushima-Daiichi, Japan nuclear disaster began on March 11, 2011, evacuations were not immediate and some were hampered by the destructive after-effects of the Tsunami and earthquake that precipitated the nuclear crisis.

Once people were evacuated, little, if any, consideration seems to have been given to how long such evacuations would last. For example, the large majority of the 160,000 people who left or were evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture are still living outside the Prefecture. Many are living in makeshift shelters such as shipping containers or prefabricated houses.

At present, the Japanese Government is attempting to force evacuees (by withdrawing state compensation) to return to less contaminated areas, with little success. Currently, seven years after the accident, an area of about 1,000 square kilometers is still subject to evacuation and no entry orders. This compares with the area of 2,700 square kilometers still evacuated and subject to no or restricted entry at Chernobyl, almost 32 years after the accident.

Experience of the Fukushima Evacuation

In 2015 and 2016, I visited Fukushima Prefecture in Japan with international study teams. These study tours were informative as they revealed information about the evacuations that differed from official accounts by TEPCO and the Japanese Government. From many discussions with local mayors, councillors, local health groups and small community groups, the following information was revealed.

The most common figure cited for evacuees is 160,000, of which 80,000 were evacuated by the authorities and the rest left to evacuate on their own, often on foot, cycles and carts. It took about two weeks to evacuate all parts of the initial 20 km (later 30 km) radius evacuation areas around the Fukushima reactors.

The main reason for the delays was that many roads in the Prefecture were jammed with gridlocks which sometimes lasted 24 hours a day, for several days on end on some roads. These traffic jams were partly due to the poor existing road infrastructure and partly due to many road accidents. These jams were of such severity that safety crews for the Fukushima nuclear station had to be moved in and out mostly by helicopter. All public transport by trains and buses ceased. Mobile telephone networks and the internet crashed due to massive demand.

Thousands of people either refused to leave their homelands or returned later. Older farmers often refused to leave their animals behind or be moved from their ancestral lands. In at least a dozen recorded cases, older farmers slaughtered their cow herds rather than leave them behind (dairy cows need to be milked daily): they then committed suicide themselves in several instances.

According to Hachiya et al (2014), the disaster adversely affected the telecommunications system, water supplies, and electricity supplies including radiation monitoring systems. The local hospital system was dysfunctional; hospitals designated as radiation-emergency facilities were unable to operate because of damage from the earthquake and tsunami, and some were located within designated evacuation zones. Emergency personnel, including fire department personnel, were often asked to leave the area.

At hospitals, evacuations were sometimes carried out hurriedly with the unfortunate result that patients died due to intravenous drips being ripped out, medicaments being left behind, the absence of doctors and nurses who had left, and ambulance road accidents. Many hastily-allocated reception centres (often primary schools) were either unable or ill-equipped to deal with seriously ill patients.

Much confusion resulted when school children were being bussed home, while their parents were trying to reach schools to collect their children. Government officials, doctors, nurses, care workers, police, firepersons, ambulance drivers, emergency crews, teachers, and others faced the dilemma of whether to stay at their posts or return to look after their families. In the event, many emergency crews refused to enter evacuation zones for fear of radiation exposure.

Stable iodine was not issued to most people. Official evacuation plans were either non-existent or inadequate and, in the event, next to useless. In many cases, local mayors took the lead and ordered and supervised evacuations in their villages without waiting for orders or in defiance of them. Apparently, the higher up the administrative level, the greater the levels of indecision and lack of responsibility.

In the years after the accident, the longer-lasting effects of the evacuations have become apparent. These include family separations, marital break-ups, widespread depression, and further suicides. These are discussed in a recent publication (Morimatsu et al, 2017) which relates the sad, often eloquent, stories of the Fukushima people. They differ sharply from the accounts disseminated by TEPCO.

Deaths from evacuations at Fukushima

Official Japanese Government data reveal that nearly 2,000 people died from the effects of evacuations necessary to avoid high radiation exposures from the Fukushima disaster, including from suicides.

The uprooting to unfamiliar areas, cutting of family ties, loss of social support networks, disruption, exhaustion, poor physical conditions and disorientation resulted in many people, in particular older people, apparently losing their will to live.

The evacuations also resulted in increased levels of illnesses among evacuees such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus and dyslipidaemia, psychiatric and mental health problems, polycythaemia — a slow growing blood cancer — cardiovascular disease, liver dysfunction, and severe psychological distress.

Increased suicide rates occurred among younger and older people following the Fukushima evacuations, but the trends are unclear. A 2014 Japanese Cabinet Office report stated that, between March 2011 and July 2014, 56 suicides in Fukushima Prefecture were linked to the nuclear accident.

Should evacuations be ordered?

The above account should not be taken as arguments against evacuations as they constitute an important dose-saving and life-saving strategy during emergencies. Instead, the toll from evacuations should be considered part of the overall toll from nuclear accidents.

In future, deaths from evacuation-related ill-heath and suicides should be included in assessments of the fatality numbers from nuclear disasters.

For example, although about 2,000 deaths occurred during and immediately after the evacuations, it can be calculated from UNSCEAR (2013) collective dose estimates that about 5,000 fatal cancers will arise from the radiation exposures at Fukushima, i.e. taking into account the evacuations. Many more fatal cancers would have occurred if the evacuations had not beeCn carried out.

There is an acute planning dilemma here: if evacuations are carried out (even with good planning) then illnesses and deaths will undoubtedly occur. But if they are not carried out, even more people could die. In such situations, it is necessary to identify the real cause of the problem. And here it is the existence of nuclear power plants near large population centres. In such cases, consideration should be given to the early closure of the nuclear power plants, and switching to safer means of electricity generation.

Conclusions

The experiences of Japanese evacuees after Fukushima are distressing to read. Their experiences were terrible, so much so that it requires Governments of large cities with nearby nuclear power plants to reconsider their own situations and to address the question…. what would happen if radioactive fallout heavily contaminated large areas of their city and required millions of residents to leave for long periods of time, for example several decades?

And how long would evacuations need to continue…. weeks, months, years, or decades? The time length of evacuations is usually avoided in the evacuation plans seen so far. In reality, the answer would depend on cesium-137 concentrations in surface soils. The time period could be decades, as the half-life of the principal radionuclide, Cs-137, is 30 years. This raises the possibility of large cities becoming uninhabited ‘ghost’ towns like Tomioka, Okuma, Namie, Futaba, etc in Japan and Pripyat in Ukraine.

This bleak reality is hard to accept or even comprehend. However it is a matter that some governments need to address after Fukushima. It is unsurprising therefore, that after Fukushima, several major European states including Germany and Switzerland have decided to phase out their nuclear reactors. ”

by Dr. Ian Fairlie, Beyond Nuclear International

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Seven Years After: Radioactive debris piling up at Fukushima interim facility — The Asahi Shimbun

” FUTABA, Fukushima Prefecture–Stacks of soil and other waste contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster continue to grow at an interim storage facility here.

Black bags filled with radioactive debris collected during decontamination work in various locations in the prefecture have been brought to the facility since October, when operations started.

Heavy machinery is used to stack the bags, and green sheets now cover some of the piles.

The town of Futaba co-hosts the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The interim facility is expected to eventually cover about 1,600 hectares of land in Futaba and Okuma, the other co-host of the plant.

The government has acquired 801 hectares as of Jan. 29, and 70 percent of that space is already covered with contaminated debris.

Negotiations between the government and landowners are continuing for the remaining hectares.

The government plans to move the contaminated debris to a final disposal site outside the prefecture by March 2045. However, it has had difficulties finding local governments willing to accept the waste. ”

by Tetsuro Takehana, The Asahi Shimbun

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Airborne radiation near Fukushima nuke plant still far higher than gov’t max — The Mainichi

” Airborne radiation in “difficult to return” zones around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant was as high as around 8.48 microsieverts per hour as of summer last year, according to data presented by the government nuclear watchdog on Jan. 17.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) released the results of the July-September 2017 measurements at a regular meeting on the day. The highest reading was taken in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture — one of the municipalities hosting the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Following the March 2011 triple meltdown, the government set a long-term radiation exposure limit of 1 millisievert per year, which breaks down to an hourly airborne radiation dose of 0.23 microsieverts.

The NRA took airborne radiation readings in the Fukushima Prefecture towns of Futaba, Okuma, Namie and Tomioka, and the village of Katsurao. The highest reading registered in the previous year’s survey was 8.89 microsieverts per hour, in Katsurao.

Some of the NRA members at the Jan. 17 meeting pointed to study results showing that human exposure doses are relatively small compared to airborne doses. Regarding the calculation that an annual dose of 1 millisievert is equivalent to hourly exposure of 0.23 microsieverts, NRA Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa stated, “That was decided right at the start of the nuclear disaster, so it can’t be helped that it’s a cautious number.” He added, “If we don’t revise (that calculation) properly, it could hinder evacuees’ return home.” “

by The Mainichi

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Fukushima debris heading to intermediate storage facility — The Asahi Shimbun

” The Environment Ministry on Oct. 28 will start bringing radiation-contaminated soil to an intermediate storage site in Fukushima Prefecture, despite having acquired less than half of the land needed for the overall project.

The ministry’s announcement on Oct. 24 marks a long-delayed step toward clearing temporary sites that were set up around the prefecture to store countless bags of radioactive debris gathered after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.

The entire intermediate storage project will cover a 16-square-kilometer area spanning the towns of Futaba and Okuma around the nuclear plant. It is designed to hold up to 22 million cubic meters of contaminated debris for a maximum period of 30 years.

However, the ministry is still negotiating with landowners on buying parcels of land within the area. As of the end of September, the ministry had reached acquisition agreements for only about 40 percent of the land for the project.

The soil storage facility that will open on Oct. 28 is located on the Okuma side. It has a capacity of about 50,000 cubic meters.

Bags of contaminated soil stored in Okuma will be transferred to the facility, where the debris will be separated based on radiation dosages.

A similar storage facility is being constructed on the Futaba side.

The ministry initially planned to start full-scale operations of the entire storage facility in January 2015. However, it took longer than expected to gain a consensus from local residents and acquire land at the proposed site.

In March 2015, a portion of the contaminated soil was brought to the Okuma facility for temporary storage. ”

by The Asahi Shimbun

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Updated: Fire crews finally extinguish Fukushima blaze in no-go zone as officials battle radiation rumors — The Japan Times; Sparking fears of airborne radiation, wildfire burns in Fukushima ‘no-go zone’ — Common Dreams

The Japan Times:

” A wildfire near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant has finally been extinguished after a 12-day battle waged by firefighters and Self-Defense Force troops in special protective gear left 75 hectares of tainted forest scorched, and local officials scrambling to quash radiation rumors.

The wildfire, which was started by lightning, broke out in the town of Namie on April 29 and spread to the adjacent town of Futaba, which co-hosts the meltdown-hit power plant. It was declared extinguished on Wednesday.

Since the area has been a no-go zone since the March 2011 nuclear crisis, residents are basically banned from returning to large portions of the two irradiated towns.

A local task force said that no one was injured by the wildfire and that there has been no significant change in radiation readings.

Because a large swath of the area scorched hadn’t been decontaminated yet, firefighters donned protective gear in addition to goggles, masks and water tanks. They took turns battling the blaze in two-hour shifts to avoid heatstroke.

Ground Self-Defense Force troops and fire authorities mobilized close to 5,000 people while nine municipalities, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, provided helicopters.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government denied online rumors saying the fire was releasing radioactive material into the air from trees and other plant life that absorbed fallout from the power plant, which also lies partly in the town of Okuma. It published data on its website showing no significant change in radiation readings.

“We will let people not only in the prefecture, but also in other parts of Japan know about the accurate information,” a prefectural official said.

The Kii Minpo, a newspaper based in Wakayama Prefecture, said in its May 2 edition that once a fire occurs in a highly contaminated forest, “radioactive substances are said to spread the way pollen scatters,” explaining how radiation can get blown into the air.

The publisher said it received around 30 complaints, including one from a farmer in Fukushima, who criticized the evening daily for allegedly spreading an unsubstantiated rumor.

The daily issued an apology a week later in its Tuesday edition.

“We caused trouble by making a large number of people worried,” it said.

Atsushi Kawamoto, head of the news division, said that while story may have caused some people anxiety, the newspaper will continue to report on matters of interest to its readers.

“That there’s public concern about the spread of radiation is true,” Kawamoto said.

On Tuesday, reconstruction minister Masayoshi Yoshino emphasized that unspecified radiation readings have been unchanged since before the fire.

“We will provide accurate and objective information,” he said.

Commenting on the fact that there are no fire crews in the no-go zone, Yoshino said the Reconstruction Agency will consider what kind of support it can offer there the next time a major fire breaks out. ”

by Kyodo, The Japan Times

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* * *

Common Dreams:

” A wildfire broke out in the highly radioactive “no-go zone” near the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant over the weekend, reviving concerns over potential airborne radiation.

Japanese newspaper The Mainichi reports that lightning was likely to blame for sparking the fire Saturday on Mount Juman in Namie, which lies in the Fukushima Prefecture and was one of the areas evacuated following the 2011 meltdown. The area continues to be barred to entry as it is designated a “difficult-to-return zone” due to continually high radiation levels.

Local officials were forced to call in the Japanese military, the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), to help battle the blaze, which continued to burn on Monday. At least 10 hectares of forest have burned so far.

“A total of eight helicopters from Fukushima, Miyagi and Gunma prefectures as well as the SDF discharged water on the site to combat the fire,” The Mainichi reports. “As the fire continued to spread, however, helicopters from the GSDF, Fukushima Prefecture and other parties on May 1 resumed fire extinguishing operations from around 5 am [local time].”

An official with the Ministry of the Environment said Monday that there has been “no major changes to radiation levels” in the region, according to the newspaper, but added that they will “continue to closely watch changes in radiation doses in the surrounding areas.”

In a blog post last year, Anton Beneslavsky, a member of Greenpeace Russia’s firefighting group who has been deployed to fight blazes in nuclear Chernobyl, outlined the specific dangers of wildfires in contaminated areas.

“During a fire, radionuclides like caesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium rise into the air and travel with the wind,” Beneslavsky wrote. “This is a health concern because when these unstable atoms are inhaled, people become internally exposed to radiation.”

Contaminated forests such as those outside fallout sites like Fukushima and Chernobyl “are ticking time bombs,” scientist and former regional government official Ludmila Komogortseva told Beneslavsky. “Woods and peat accumulate radiation,” she explained “and every moment, every grass burning, every dropped cigarette or camp fire can spark a new disaster.” ”

by Lauren McCauley

source with internal links and video of the wildfire in Fukushima

Labor groups protest reopening of rail lines near Fukushima — CounterPunch

” Labor activists have protested the reopening this month of a railway line in parts of northeast Japan where they believe radiation levels are still dangerous.

The Joban Line runs from Nippori Station in Tokyo to Iwanuma Station, just south of Sendai City. It is one of main connections between northeast Tokyo’s major station of Ueno up along the coast through Chiba, Ibaraki and Miyagi prefectures.

This region was severely damaged by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11th, 2011, while the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster meant that large areas through which trains pass were contaminated by radiation.

The Joban Line was directly hit by the massive tsunami wave in 2011, sweeping train carriages away. Though parts of the line were quickly reopened that same year, two sections of the line—between Tatsuta and Odaka stations, and between Soma and Hamayoshida—remained closed, with passengers served by buses for some of the stations.

However, the operator, East Japan Railway Company (JR East), and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, have been keen to reopen the whole line as part of the northeast Japan reconstruction efforts. The Joban Line represents a valuable source of income from both passengers traveling between Sendai and Tokyo as well as freight.

Following decontamination measures, rail services resumed from Iwaki to Tatsuta in late 2014. However, north of Tatsuta lies the areas located within a 20km radius of the devastated Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which is widely considered a no-go zone.

In July this year, JR East resumed services on the 9.4-kilometer stretch between Odaka and Haranomachi stations as the evacuation order was lifted for the southern part of Minamisoma City, though few residents are willing to return to a community so close to the contaminated area. Media reports suggest only 10-20% are coming back to live in the area.

On December 10th, the previously closed 23.2-kilometer northern section of line between Soma and Hamayoshida reopened for rail services. It means passengers will now be served by a further six stations on the section, though three of these (Shinchi, Yamashita and Sakamoto stations) had to be relocated inland by up to 1.1 kilometers as an anti-tsunami measure. Along with the construction of elevated tracks, the total cost of the latest reopening is said to be 40 billion yen ($350 million).

By spring 2017, the line will be reopened between Namie and Odaka, and then later in the year between Tatsuta and Tomioka. The final section linking Tomioka and Namie, passing through somewhat infamous areas like Futaba, is set to reopen by the end of fiscal 2019 (end of March 2020).

Local tourist bodies are naturally delighted and are pulling out all the stops to attract people. At the newly reopened stations, passengers are able to buy commemorative tickets, take hiking trips, and even try on historical armor.

Lingering Doubts over Radiation

Official announcements say that radiation levels have fallen and clean-up efforts will remove any health risk. Last August, JR East began decontamination tests on parts of the railway between Yonomori and Futaba stations where the radioactivity remains high. It has reported that falling radiation levels can be confirmed at six inspection points along the line, making it confident that decontamination measures are working.

However, the legacy of the Fukushima disaster is a lingering distrust for government and corporate claims about radiation. Activists allege that authorities and JR East are putting profits and the appearance of safety over the genuine health of rail workers and passengers. Just as with the gradual lifting of restrictions on entering the areas around the Joban Line, reopening the railway is, they say, an attempt to encourage evacuated residents to return and tourists to visit even though health risks may remain.

This pressure to reconstruct the region quickly and maintain an impression of safety to Japan and the rest of the world comes from the very top, as demonstrated by the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s now notorious claim that the Fukushima disaster was “under control” in his speech in September 2013 during the final (and successful) Tokyo bid to win the 2020 Olympic Games. Abe also officiated at the opening of the rebuilt Shinchi Station on December 10th.

Protests Against Reopening

The rank and file rail unions Doro-Mito (National Railway Motive Power Union of Mito) and Doro-Chiba (National Railway Motive Power Union of Chiba) have long protested the ambitions of JR East as part of their campaigns against the operator’s growing policies of rationalization and outsourcing.

On December 10th, around 50 activists from Doro-Mito and associated groups opposed the Joban Line reopening by demonstrating at the Sendai branch of JR East in the morning. A small number of train drivers from the union also went on strike that day. This was coordinated with other protests and actions in Fukushima City and Tokyo at JR sites. At an afternoon protest outside the JR East headquarters in Shinjuku, central Tokyo, around 150 unionists demonstrated.

These are just the most recent examples of actions by this network of medium-sized yet feisty unions, which have waged several strikes and protests since JR East began reopening parts of the track following the 2011 disaster. Unionists have fought to block the reopening in order to protect the well-being of workers as well as the general public.

Other unions and labor groups have apparently remained silent on the Joban Line issue, as have the major anti-nuclear power protest organisations. The mainstream media has also given the Joban Line protests almost no coverage, though the reopening itself was extensively celebrated.

Doro-Mito and Doro-Chiba are the largest groups in a network of militant unions called Doro-Soren, affiliated with the Japan Revolutionary Communist League. Other smaller unions have been established in Tokyo, Fukushima, Niigata and elsewhere. While the overall numbers of unionized workers remain only in the hundreds, organizers hope to create a national union in the future.

The unions have held small strikes on the Joban Line issue alongside their regular strikes and protests against labor conditions, as well as participating in general rallies against the restarting of nuclear power plants in Japan. In this way, the issues of neoliberalism and nuclear power have become aligned in a new and invigorating way.

The Doro-Soren network is also associated with NAZEN, which was formed in August 2011 as a youth group to fight the nuclear industry. The various groups have taken part in annual protests at Fukushima on the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami, regularly mobilizing over 1,000 demonstrators. … 

by William Andrews

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