Hospitals face revamp for nuclear disasters

Plan calls for more institutions to treat serious exposure cases

Kyodo

More hospitals capable of treating a large number of patients, designating more hospitals to handle patients with serious radiation exposure and creating an emergency team of experienced doctors will be key components in reinforcing the nation’s medical preparedness for nuclear disasters.

Working on lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima crisis, the Nuclear Regulation Authority has worked out plans to significantly upgrade the medical care framework for potential disasters, NRA sources said Tuesday.

The agency plans to set up a panel of experts tasked with working out further details of the framework by March.

Under the new plan, hospitals currently designated for medical services in times of natural disasters such as tsunami or earthquakes will have expanded roles to conduct radiation contamination checks and treat patients suffering relatively minor symptoms.

Training of doctors and nurses will also be considered, the sources said.

The nation will be divided into regions, each with designated hospitals for performing central roles in treating patients with severe radiation exposure.

Currently, the National Institute of Radiological Sciences based in Chiba Prefecture and Hiroshima University Hospital are the only hospitals in Japan designated to accept serious radiation cases.

The NRA plan suggests Hirosaki University Hospital in Aomori Prefecture, Fukui University Hospital and Nagasaki University Hospital could also fill this role.

An emergency team of doctors experienced in treating radiation exposure may be created. They would rush to the affected area in the early stages of a nuclear disaster.

The existing framework was established following a criticality accident in 1999 at JCO Co.’s nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. It was designed mainly to deal with a small number of patients with severe symptoms, especially nuclear plant workers.

It did not work well during the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant because three of the six hospitals in Fukushima Prefecture designated as initial responders to a crisis were located within emergency evacuation zones.

The NRA now wants to address this flaw in the current plan of focusing on hospitals close to nuclear facilities.

In addition, the current framework does not presuppose a large number of civilians exposed to low-level radiation. This led to confusion after the Fukushima disaster as residents flocked to hospitals that lacked the resources to conduct radiation contamination checkups. It also led to a number of elderly inpatients dying during the evacuation.

“It was voluntary efforts by radiation exposure treatment experts that saved the day,” said Kenji Kamiya, a professor at Hiroshima University and an expert on the issue.

“They rushed to the affected sites through their own humanitarian network.”

Kamiya said the key for the NRA is “combining the existing medical care framework with emergency radiation exposure treatment, and make them function as a single system.”