Major disaster drills finish at Ikata nuclear plant in Ehime

Kyodo, JIJI

Residents of the town of Ikata, Ehime Prefecture, were evacuated Monday to Oita Prefecture as part of a drill in the event of a major disaster at the Shikoku Electric Power Co. nuclear power plant there.

The two-day drill, which began Sunday, was conducted under a scenario where the plant’s reactor-cooling functions were lost after power sources were damaged in a massive earthquake. The scenario assumed that the quake, measuring upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7, and the ensuing loss of cooling functions saw radioactive materials released outside the plant.

Currently offline, the plant’s No. 3 reactor is likely to be reactivated next spring, but concerns about the safety of evacuation routes have been growing among the residents opposed to the restart.

At around 9 a.m., residents gathered at a public gymnasium where they were given potassium iodine pills to help prevent thyroid cancer and instructed on their use in the event of a nuclear disaster. They later underwent radiation checks and were transported by a ferry and a Maritime Self-Defense Force ship to the nearest port in Oita Prefecture, 14 km away.

Upon arrival, decontamination tents set up by Ground Self-Defense Force personnel awaited them. Evacuees were then transported to shelters by buses with a police motorcycle escort.

At Ikata Junior High School, located about 4 km from the nuclear plant, about 130 students ran evacuation drills, covering their mouths with handkerchiefs or towels while being led by teachers to an adjacent gymnasium.

The government-led drill was the third of its kind at one of the nation’s 48 atomic plants and was one of the largest since the crisis broke out at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 station in March 2011.

Officials from the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the Cabinet Office and the Defense Ministry — as well as some 13,000 residents living near the plant — took part in the drill.

As part of the exercise, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared an emergency at around 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

Ehime Prefecture Gov. Tokihiro Nakamura, who was among the evacuees transported by the MSDF ship, thanked Oita Gov. Katsusada Hirose for his cooperation Monday evening.

Despite the government’s push to fire up stalled nuclear power plants — the two reactors at the Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture have recently been brought back online — nuclear emergency drills have not been included in the nation’s disaster response guidelines.

Such key drills have yet to be conducted at the Sendai plant.

Municipalities, which since last year have been providing guidance on the use of potassium iodine pills used to prevent thyroid cancer, have also pointed out residents’ limited awareness of nuclear dangers and their poor attendance at meetings discussing the pills.

The tablets, which in accordance with evacuation guidelines are to be distributed to people living within a 5-km radius of plants, can only be distributed together with guidance from medical staff, and thus only to those who attend such meetings.

More than 30 meetings have been held since August 2014. But as some residents have called the process troublesome, as many as 30 percent — or 1,600 of 5,300 total residents who could be affected by a nuclear disaster — have not yet received the pills.

Last month, local leaders, including Ehime Gov. Nakamura, gave their consent to the restart of the No. 3 unit at the Ikata plant.

In July, the NRA concluded that the reactor meets the new safety standards introduced in July 2013 following the Fukushima accident.

As the nuclear power station is located on the Sadamisaki Peninsula, one major challenge is ensuring residents living there can be safely evacuated after an accident.

The possible evacuation routes being considered include one that runs near the nuclear plant.

“In case of a disaster I’m afraid the roads will get clogged and we might not be able to get to the harbor,” said 65-year-old farmer Masatoshi Ouchi, who lives near the harbor.

These concerns were shared by other residents who say that in the event the road is damaged, the harbor will become inaccessible.

“I only hope that Shikoku Electric Power Co. won’t cause any accident,” said 62-year-old farmer Tetsuo Oda.