Ten months after regional governments were required to submit nuclear disaster evacuation plans, a lack of central government guidance and local-level cooperation is generating concern that Kansai will be ill-prepared to respond if any of Fukui Prefecture’s 13 commercial reactors suffers a meltdown.

Questions remain about how fleeing Fukui residents who pass through neighboring Kyoto would be stopped and screened for radiation, and how residents in the rural northern areas closest to the reactors would be gathered and evacuated in a timely manner. Evacuating the elderly, young mothers and the pregnant is also a serious concern.

There is also the question of what to do if Shiga’s Lake Biwa, which supplies drinking water to about 14.5 million people, gets contaminated with radiation.

Citizens’ groups have posed these and other detailed questions to prefectural officials in Kyoto and the Union of Kansai Governments, a loose federation of seven prefectures and four major cities in the region. But Kansai officials reply that, on many issues, there is little they can do because the central government hasn’t drafted specific guidelines.

For example, while Tokyo will order residents within 30 km of a nuclear plant to evacuate in a crisis, winds could stretch a radioactive plume well beyond that range.

Detailed plans based on wind projections during a radiation leak continue to be discussed, but there is little in the way of concrete proposals.

It is also unclear how evacuations would be carried out if a storm, blizzard or other natural disaster on the Sea of Japan coastline of Fukui or Kyoto ends up closing access roads within 30 km of a power plant.

Local disaster response plans have yet to spell out how people in northern Kyoto, which is rural and lacks the wide thoroughfares of the capital, can be effectively evacuated.

“Kansai authorities have admitted that many towns and cities are not ready to receive evacuees. Authorities admit that the evacuation of pregnant women, young children and others who need care should be a priority, but no such plans are in place,” said anti-nuclear activist Aileen Mioko Smith of Kyoto-based Green Action, following meetings with Kyoto and Kansai officials late last year.

Under a Union of Kansai Governments agreement, Hyogo Prefecture is in charge of coordinating disaster response policy for the union’s seven prefectural members, although Fukui is not one of them. Last year, Hyogo officials carried out a simulation of what would happen just to Hyogo if a Fukushima-like event were to occur at one of the four reactor sites in Fukui.

They concluded that the town of Sasayama (population 43,832) would be exposed to a maximum of 167 milliseiverts over a seven-day period, three times an international level that triggers the use of iodine tablets.

Guidelines established by the Nuclear Regulation Authority call for iodine tablets to be distributed to those within 5 km of a nuclear plant. While there are discussions about extending the radius to 30 km, no final decision has been made.

“I don’t think that stockpiling and dispensing iodine tablets is particularly difficult compared with, say, stockpiling Tamiflu for avian flu. Plans need to be revised quickly,” Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido said when the results were announced.

Under the Hyogo simulation, parts of Kyoto Prefecture would be in even greater danger — a point Smith and other Kyoto citizens have made to local officials.

In Kyoto, there are now specific emergency drills based on what would happen in a nuclear disaster. The most recent exercise was conducted on Jan. 17, the 19th anniversary of the Kobe earthquake.

The small drill involved about 20 prefectural and Self-Defense Forces officials responding to reports of radiation in the air following an earthquake and tsunami. The drill assumed that critical information from the national SPEEDI network, which assesses radiation levels in real time, would be conveyed to them quickly.

There are seven SPEEDI monitoring spots within 10 km of the power plants in Fukui that collect data on Fukui and Kyoto prefectures, and another six within 30 km, including one in Shiga.

Kansai leaders recognize that more monitoring stations, particularly in northern Kyoto and Hyogo, are needed, but without guidance from the central government, as well as funding, there is little they can do.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has made restarting the nation’s nuclear reactors a primary goal. The discussions have focused mostly on the technical issues related to the plants and whether the fault lines surrounding them, or in some cases under them, are active.

Given the widespread concerns, Smith says such thinking puts the cart before the horse.

“It’s a very serious problem that Japanese nuclear power regulation does not require evacuation plan approval as a prerequisite for restarting nuclear power plants,” she said.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.