If a disaster were to occur at one of country’s remaining 50 nuclear reactors, the most critically needed personnel in the minutes and hours immediately afterward might not be doctors, nurses or firefighters, but bus drivers.

The discovery comes as localities around Japan are due to submit updated plans Monday to the central government for evacuating residents living within 30 km of atomic energy plants. The deadline is unlikely to be met by all but a handful.

Current guidelines call for evacuating those within 8 to 10 km. The new 30-km standard means those plans must be expanded to evacuate 4.8 million people living in 135 cities, towns and villages. Some local governments said they will miss Monday’s deadline and plan to release their revised guidelines this summer.

That makes the central government’s goal of restarting the nation’s 50 reactors more difficult. The independent Nuclear Regulatory Agency says having evacuation plans in place is a prerequisite for restarts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, as well as the nation’s major utilities and industrial groups, are pushing hard to fire up the units as soon as possible.

Concern about getting the evacuation plans right is especially high in and around Fukui Prefecture, which hosts 13 commercial reactors in addition to the experimental Monju fast-breeder reactor.

The prefecture’s total population is about 800,000. The four towns of Takahama, Mihama, Oi, and Tsuruga, which all host nuclear plants, have around 105,000 residents combined. Adding other towns in and out of Fukui within a 30 km-radius of those plants entails an evacuation of at least hundreds of thousands of people, depending on the location of a major accident.

Last June, the prefecture drew up a provisional evacuation plan to accompany the restart of two reactors at the Oi power plant.

The plan was so impractical that it drew heavy fire not only from Fukui residents, but also from officials in neighboring Kyoto and Shiga prefectures.

In the event of an accident, the plan called for residents of Takahama on the far western side of Fukui not to flee west across the Kyoto border to Maizuru, a port town of 89,000 with a military base about 20 km away. Rather, they were supposed to stay in the prefecture by going east, passing through Mihama and Oi, which host seven reactors, to the city of Tsuruga, which hosts two. This is a distance of about 50 km.

Efforts by neighboring prefectures with towns within 30 km of Fukui’s plants to draft an interprefectural evacuation plan by Monday’s deadline have failed. The seven-prefecture, four-city Union of Kansai Governments has been pushing hard for a plan that includes Fukui, which is not part of the group.

Although Fukui says it recognizes the importance of cooperating with adjacent prefectures on a 30-km evacuation plan, its governor, Issei Nishikawa, has demanded that Tokyo, not local governments, take the first step.

“Establishing a national system is essential. For the March 18 deadline, Fukui will concentrate on an evacuation plan forthose living within 5 km of the plants,” Nishikawa said last month.

Thus, the Kansai union, as well as Kyoto and Shiga prefectures, have announced their own plans. But critics have raised numerous problems with what they’ve seen so far.

“Kyoto Prefecture says Maizuru would be an evacuation point. But where in Maizuru people will go, and how they will evacuate, is still not clear,” said 10 citizens’ groups in Shiga, Kyoto, Wakayama, Nara, and Osaka prefectures in a letter to the Union of Kansai Governments last month.

The groups also noted there was no detailed plan from either Kyoto or the Kansai union on how to get from Maizuru to prefectures beyond Kyoto. Nor has anyone worked out what would happen if Fukui residents panic and head to Kyoto’s or Shiga’s evacuation points, creating a ripple effect that would cause people in those prefectures, in turn, to flee to the ports, roads, train stations and airports in Osaka and Hyogo prefectures.

This would be even more likely if radioactive contamination reaches Lake Biwa, which provides drinking water for 14.5 million people, and evacuation shelters are low on bottled water.

And then there is the issue of how, exactly, people are to be moved to the evacuation shelters. Are they supposed to walk?

“The Kansai union says local governments in Kyoto Prefecture have to think separately about their own evacuation, restrict private automobile use, secure buses and use trains,” the citizens’ groups said. “The Kyoto Prefectural Government’s plan predicts the use of 600 buses. But we’re worried about whether or not surrounding prefectures will secure such buses first, and whether drivers can be found.”

Such concerns are shared outside Kansai.

Shizuoka Prefecture has evacuation plans for local governments within 31 km of Chubu Electric Power Co.’s Hamaoka plant. Four cities and 11 towns with around 860,000 people lie in this zone. Like Kyoto, officials and residents are concerned about securing buses and drivers.

Meanwhile, all local governments within 30 km of Niigata Prefecture’s massive Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, with the exception of the city of Nagaoka, have finished or nearly completed their basic evacuation plans. According to the NRA, some 435,000 people live within 30 km of the Kashiwazaki plant. Of this total, about 16,600 people in Kashiwazaki and all 4,900 residents of Kariwa are within 5 km of the facility.

The new guidelines require iodine tablets to be predistributed to homes within 5 km of a nuclear plant. Kashiwazaki says it’s storing tablets at local elementary and junior high schools, while Kariwa has a supply stashed at City Hall.

But Niigata has been critical of the way Tokyo has handled the demand for evacuation plans.

“In drawing up its guidelines for revised evacuation procedures, the NRA received lots of suggestions from local governments who live on the frontline of nuclear power plants. But its final guidelines do not reflect many of their comments, and many important points have been put off for later discussion,” said Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida.

In particular, Izumida cited concerns over securing bus drivers to take people to evacuation centers, monitoring food and how to actually distribute the iodine pills in storage. On these issues, the NRA either said there wasn’t a problem or that it would be decided later on.

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