OSAKA — Severe damage to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant had the central government and local authorities in neighboring towns racing Saturday to evacuate residents and implement previously agreed upon emergency response measures.
But the unprecedented scale of Friday’s earthquake and tsunami left questions about not only the adequacy of the measures but the basic policy of pursuing nuclear power in a country as earthquake-prone as Japan.
The Japan Nuclear Safety Organization notes that following the September 1999 accident at a uranium processing facility in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, in which two workers died after mishandling uranium fuel that went critical, the government established a new law for responding to nuclear disasters.
The Special Act of Emergency Preparedness for Nuclear Disaster went into effect in 2000 and is to be carried out in accordance with the 50-year-old Basic Act for Emergency Preparedness, which lays out government responses in the event of a natural disaster.
The act for nuclear disasters obliges the government to set up a nuclear emergency response headquarters with the prime minister as the director general and the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry as the deputy director general.
In addition, to coordinate cooperation between towns near the damaged plant, the prefectural and central government emergency headquarters, a separate nuclear emergency response operations facility, called an off-site center, is to be established near the plant.
There are 22 off-site centers in prefectures with nuclear facilities, and each center carries out practical emergency response measures.
Personnel at the centers include a medical care team, a resident safety team, a nuclear plant team, a radiation team, a public relations team, an operations support team that assists the other teams, and a coordination team, which liaisons with the prime minister’s nuclear emergency response headquarters.
Finally, the 2000 law requires that senior specialists for nuclear emergencies be stationed where nuclear plants are located.
These people are responsible for working with plant owners and operators to formulate disaster and response plans, providing advice, and planning, coordinating and implementing nuclear emergency drills.
The nuclear emergency preparedness and response law is designed to supplement a 1961 basic law on emergency preparedness. That law outlines measures for nuclear emergencies, railway and plane accidents, as well as earthquakes, storms, flooding and volcanic disasters.
But antinuclear activists say there is a glaring flaw to the nuclear emergency response system.
“In this seismically active country, the government refuses to draw up emergency plans taking into account nuclear accidents due to earthquakes. There is no emergency plan to protect the public when there is both an earthquake and a nuclear accident,” said Green Action head Aileen Mioko Smith.
Numerous local blogs and Facebook postings by residents near the Fukushima plant also complained Saturday of a lack of information from local authorities and its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., about the state of the plant.
As of Saturday, the government had ordered residents inside a 10-km radius to evacuate, but the lack of information was creating fear this was insufficient.