Wider nuclear emergency areas

The Nuclear Regulation Authority has established new guidelines to better protect people in the event of severe accidents at nuclear power plants, including expanding emergency zones where special preparations are required from the current radius of 8 to 10 km around each nuclear plant to a radius of 30 km.

The NRA also made public earlier maps showing the potential spread of radioactive fallout from each nuclear power plant in the event of accidents on par with the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. The fact that the maps and the guidelines came out only after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe points to the government and the power industry’s naive belief that severe accidents will not happen at nuclear power plants, which in turn explains the lack of concrete measures to protect citizens in the event of a nuclear disaster.

Although the NRA’s action is a first step in the right direction and must be utilized to make preparations to cope with severe nuclear accidents, it is not free from problems.

The NRA took less than a month to write the guidelines and critics say it did not hold sufficient discussions. There is even criticism that the NRA’s action is an attempt to lay the foundation for restarting reactors now offline. The NRA should sincerely listen to opinions of local governments and citizens and hold full discussions with them.

The NRA left the work of making the fallout-prediction maps to the Japan Nuclear Safety Organization and apparently failed to closely examine them. When making the maps, the JNSO only took into consideration wind velocities and failed to take into account topographical features around each nuclear plant. Maps for six nuclear plants were found to be inaccurate because incorrect data were fed into computers, harming the credibility of the NRA. The NRA must also fully utilize SPEEDI (System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information) in the event of a severe nuclear accident.

The 30-km radius zones for special preparations cover 4.8 million people in 135 municipalities in 21 prefectures, compared with the 720,000 people in 45 municipalities in 15 prefectures covered by the previous 8-to-10-km radius zones.

Municipalities in those zones are supposed to work out nuclear disaster mitigation plans by the end of March 2013. They must devise concrete plans to safely evacuate local residents. Cooperation with the power industry and among neighboring municipalities will be necessary.

The government should consider decommissioning nuclear power plants in areas where effective emergency preparations cannot be made and suspending the operation of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi Nos. 3 and 4 reactors, which were restarted before the new guidelines were established.

The guidelines are not yet complete. The NRA should resolve such important issues as criteria for ordering evacuations, distributing iodine tablets, establishing effective medical services for evacuees, and ensuring that infants, the aged, the disabled and foreigners facing language barriers are safely evacuated.