Nuke crisis medical response team learns hard lesson


In the ongoing nuclear crisis, Japan’s emergency medical response team for atomic accidents learned the hard way that its state of readiness and contingency plans were not fully adequate when it came to handling its first emergency since the team was established in December 2009.

The Radiation Emergency Medical Assistance Team was set up by the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in the city of Chiba, which is given the central role of handling patients exposed to radiation. The team assembles experts to work at the site of a nuclear accident.

The institute has worked out a three-layer response to radiation-exposure cases. When an accident occurs at a nuclear plant, radiation victims are transferred first to a local health care facility to monitor their radiation levels. Depending on symptoms, they are then transferred to a designated secondary institution. If they are in critical condition, the national institute takes them over.

The first REMAT squad arrived at Fukushima Prefecture’s nuclear disaster measures center on March 12.

Two days later, a hydrogen explosion took place at the No. 3 reactor. Workers including those from Tokyo Electric Power Co. were attempting to douse the overheating reactors with seawater at that time.

Eleven people, including Self-Defense Forces troops, were exposed to radioactive materials. One SDF member was hit by rubble sent flying by the explosion. He suffered bruising to his right leg, through which it was possible radioactive substances could find their way into his body.

Under its original response plan, REMAT is sent in after the hospital where patients have been transported summons help.

In the Fukushima case, however, hospitals near the nuclear plant in the quake- and tsunami-hit area were barely functioning. Some had been destroyed and doctors had fled.

Takako Tominaga, a doctor in the squad, was at an off-site response center in the town of Okuma, roughly 5 km from the plant, where the injured SDF soldier was brought in.

Tominaga called the national institute, asking it to accommodate the patient. Makoto Akashi, who took the call, first wanted a nearby hospital to treat the man, to no avail. He was eventually flown to the institute.

Tominaga said, “It was not assumed that (a radiation accident) would become a reality,” while Akashi said, “It simply means the arrangements so far have not been adequate.”