Editorial: With no end in sight to nuclear crisis, Hiroshima’s experience should serve Fukushima

Half a month has passed since the massive earthquake that rocked eastern Japan on March 11. In addition to the earthquake and tsunami, fear of radiation exposure due to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), has gnawed at the public.

The nuclear plant shut down automatically when the earthquake struck. Since then, a series of troubles, including a partial core meltdown, hydrogen explosions, and fires, have occurred one after the other at four of the six reactors at the facility.

Radioactive substances that leaked from the plant have been scattered into the atmosphere, the sea, and the soil. Radioactive iodine, 1,250 times higher than the concentration limit stipulated by law, was detected in the seawater near a drainage outlet of the reactors.

The accidents at the No. 1, 2, and 3 reactors of the nuclear plant have been evaluated as a “level 5” occurrence, which places the crisis third from the top on the eight-level International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, running from zero to seven. Among experts, however, it is widely believed that the severity of the situation is close to that of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in the former Soviet Union in 1986, which was judged a “level 7” event.

As Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has admitted, conditions do not yet permit optimism. Japan has never before experienced a crisis of this kind involving nuclear energy.

In order to contain the radiation, it is vital that the cooling function of the nuclear reactors be restored as swiftly as possible. At the same time, there is naturally a limit to operations that can take place within facilities that have become contaminated by radiation.

A running battle with the crisis appears inevitable. The nation must pursue a strategy to minimize exposure to radiation, in view of the prospect that the radioactive contamination will linger for a considerable period of time.

In order to minimize such exposure, measures must be implemented, respectively, for workers on the front lines of the restoration efforts at the nuclear plant, for residents in the vicinity, and for the public at large.

On March 24, three people, including subcontractors, were exposed to radiation in a pool of water at the No. 3 reactor and transferred to a hospital. In addition to Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the Japanese government, which has left the troubled plant in TEPCO’s hands, must be held accountable. The safety of all must be secured promptly and thoroughly, and preparations made for medical treatment in the event of emergency.

Anxiety has spread among residents in the vicinity of the nuclear plant. The government has called for residents within a radius of 20 to 30 kilometers from the plant to evacuate the area voluntarily, in addition to its evacuation order pertaining to residents within a radius of 20 kilometers from the plant. The area within a radius of 20 to 30 kilometers was originally designated as a zone in which people should stay indoors. Behind this new move is probably the fact that it is becoming more difficult to live in the area due to a shortage of goods.

Radioactive substances, however, do not diffuse uniformly. An order based on precarious grounds will only aggravate the confusion. Rather, the swift provision of information and a system that will address the health concerns of residents are needed.

Meanwhile, to this point there appears to be little concern that the public, including those in the Tokyo metropolitan area, will suffer health damage from the radiation leakage. Moving forward, conveying accurate information in this regard will be key.

With the crisis persisting, the lagging action of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan has begun to fray nerves.

It was not until March 23 that the commission finally announced the results of its projection with regard to the spread of radioactive substances. The announcement came after the U.S. Department of Energy released its own data. As the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan is an independent body comprised of experts, they should be playing a more active role.

In the wake of this nuclear crisis, a medical team from Hiroshima University that has been trained to handle emergency radiation exposure entered the disaster zone and has continued to engage in operations there. If a massive dose of radiation leads to the exposure of many workers, Hiroshima University, a tertiary radiation emergency medical institution, will also take in such victims.

The experience of the medical care provided to A-bomb survivors that has been accumulated in Hiroshima over the years offered great encouragement to the victims of the accident at Chernobyl. It is hoped that steadfast support from Hiroshima, and all corners, will serve to aid the people of Fukushima.

(Originally published on March 27, 2011)