Medic passing on nuclear lessons

by Nozomi Iwakiri

Kyodo

Physician Hironobu Tokunaga says it is his mission to pass on the lessons learned from his experience dealing with the Fukushima No. 1 reactor meltdowns to the younger generation.

Tokunaga, 42, was dispatched to Sendai by University of Fukui Hospital as a member of the disaster assistance team immediately after the magnitude-9.0 quake sent tsunami barreling into Tohoku’s coastline on March 11, 2011. Two days later, he was assigned to the Fukushima Prefectural Government’s disaster headquarters.

As a doctor from Fukui, which has more reactors than any other prefecture, Tokunaga was inundated with questions from hospitals about radioactive contamination, but “even doctors and nurses lacked sufficient knowledge about radioactive contamination and exposure,” he said.

More than 100 medical teams were formed across the country to examine Fukushima residents’ exposure to radiation after the triple meltdowns, but only around 20 of them actually went to the prefecture. Many turned down the assignment out of fear.

About a decade earlier, an emergency system for treating radiation-tainted people was set up following the fatal criticality accident in September 1999 at JCO Co., a nuclear fuel plant in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Under the system, governments with nuclear power plants within or near their jurisdictions hold periodic drills to practice medical treatment and other countermeasures related to nuclear accidents.

But “interest (in decontamination) among participants in the drills had been extremely low until the Fukushima disaster,” said Hidekazu Terasawa, 62, a professor at the University of Fukui medical school who served as a lecturer under the system.

As nuclear plants are usually built in sparsely populated areas with an acute shortage of doctors, it was very difficult to make preparations in Fukushima for events resulting in radiation exposure, Terasawa said.

Terasawa, who is also an emergency room physician trained to handle any type of patient, was aware of the urgent need for such treatment because he was familiar with the fatal August 2004 accident at the Mihama power plant in Fukui run by Kansai Electric Power Co.

Five workers were killed and six others injured when scalding steam leaked from a broken pipe in reactor 3.

Terasawa and other doctors were unable to get any information on the workers’ conditions, including indications of radiation exposure, in a timely manner.

“There is no absolute safety among things people produce and operate in the long run,” Terasawa said.

Given the concentration of atomic power plants in Fukui, Terasawa is trying to create a system that would allow local doctors to study emergency treatments for radiation exposure at the University of Fukui and specialized institutions in the United States.

Tokunaga began studying under Terasawa 10 years ago. In the city of Tsuruga, which hosts a nuclear power plant, Tokunaga is passing on this knowledge to other doctors and nurses at Municipal Tsuruga Hospital.

He also gives lessons to firefighters, police officers and school teachers and workers. When requested, he works at the ER facility set up by the front gate of the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

The Fukushima crisis has raised widespread awareness about the dangers of radiation, but Tokunaga said that using radioactive materials is common in medicine, agriculture and other fields and industries.

“In modern society, people cannot live without radioactive substances and rays,” he said.

Given this reality, Tokunaga said it is his mission to pass on what he has learned through his work since the Fukushima crisis began.