Editorial: Exert all possible efforts to prevent radiation exposure

As time ticks on, the damage wrought by the Great Tohoku Kanto Earthquake increases in its scale of devastation. Japan’s meteolological agency upgraded the magnitude of the earthquake from 8.8 to 9.0. This is indeed a megaquake.

The greatest fear now gripping local residents and others in Japan is the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. Due to the earthquake and tsunami, the reactors there suffered failures.

In reactor 1, the nuclear fuel has not sufficiently cooled, reportedly resulting in a partial meltdown.

Following this trouble with reactor 1, the cooling system of reactor 3 would not function. In order to lower the pressure inside, air was vented from the containment vessel which encloses the reactor. Cooling water, with added boric acid, was then pumped into the pressure vessel.

But during this operation, the pumps failed. The water level inside the reactor went down rapidly, and a succession of other unforeseeable mishaps have taken place. There is no way of knowing whether the emergency measures being undertaken will ultimately prove effective or not.

Moreover, it was announced that some local residents who were evacuated from the region have been exposed to radiation. At present, no harmful impact on human health is apparent, but it is critical to contain the radioactive substances from the nuclear power plant and prevent people's exposure to radiation.

More specifically, reactor 3 burns a mixed oxide fuel (MOX), consisting of a blend of plutonium and uranium oxides. As there is still limited experience of this particular fuel, special caution must be made.

Monitoring should be enhanced in the vicinity of all the nuclear reactors that have stopped due to the earthquake, beyond the troubled reactors 1 and 3. All possible measures must be undertaken so that the smallest changes in radiation levels will not be overlooked.

To avoid needless confusion, it is vital to provide reliable information, assisted by experts, that can be easily understood by the public.

Although such tasks may be difficult at evacuation sites, measurement of radiation doses on clothing and health examinations must be thoroughly carried out, and medicines must be prepared for distribution. Toward this end, the government has announced a plan to set up relief centers staffed with teams of professionals.

It is also essential that special care be provided for the elderly and those with health issues who may have difficulty moving out of the designated hazardous areas.

Setting aside considerations of the confusion caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami, questions have been raised regarding the manner in which the government has provided information.

The explanation of the explosion involving reactor 1 was made a long five hours after the fact. The public has become frustrated by the small installments of breaking news.

The information should all be gathered at an off-site center, the base for emergency measures that are installed at each nuclear power station to cope with such crises. And yet conflicting announcements on the ongoing troubles of the reactors have been witnessed time and again.

The agencies in question, the power companies, the prefectural and municipal governments, must all work together more closely.

This grave situation was caused partly by the breakdown of the emergency measures. The emergency core cooling system, a key component in an effective response to a major nuclear accident, did not function. If this system does not function in an emergency, public confidence in the safety of nuclear power generation will be shaken.

In light of this accident, a thorough investigation of the nation's nuclear power plants will be required. Such assessment must comprise not only an inspection of the earthquake resistance of these facilities, but assurance must also be made that all other emergency installations will function properly if called upon.

In addition to the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami, all efforts should be made to provide the displaced residents around the troubled power station with proper support.

(Originally published on March 14, 2011)