(The following is an excerpt from a longer article on the subject of evacuations after severe nuclear accidents. While this section focuses on Fukushima, there are lessons here for all nuclear sites and the likely failure of “on paper” evacuation plans.)
If another severe nuclear accident, such as Windscale (in 1957), Chernobyl (1986) or Fukushima (2011) were to occur, then the most important response, in terms of preventing future cancer epidemics, is evacuation. The other main responses are shelter and stable iodine prophylaxis. Adverse health effects would primarily depend on wind direction and on the nature of the accident. This article looks primarily at the Fukushima evacuation and its after-effects.
When the Fukushima-Daiichi, Japan nuclear disaster began on March 11, 2011, evacuations were not immediate and some were hampered by the destructive after-effects of the Tsunami and earthquake that precipitated the nuclear crisis.
Once people were evacuated, little, if any, consideration seems to have been given to how long such evacuations would last. For example, the large majority of the 160,000 people who left or were evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture are still living outside the Prefecture. Many are living in makeshift shelters such as shipping containers or prefabricated houses.
Deserted town of Futaba, with ironic welcome banner: “nuclear, a bright and future energy source.”
At present, the Japanese Government is attempting to force evacuees (by withdrawing state compensation) to return to less contaminated areas, with little success. Currently, seven years after the accident, an area of about 1,000 square kilometers is still subject to evacuation and no entry orders. This compares with the area of 2,700 square kilometers still evacuated and subject to no or restricted entry at Chernobyl, almost 32 years after the accident.
Experience of the Fukushima Evacuation
In 2015 and 2016, I visited Fukushima Prefecture in Japan with international study teams. These study tours were informative as they revealed information about the evacuations that differed from official accounts by TEPCO and the Japanese Government. From many discussions with local mayors, councillors, local health groups and small community groups, the following information was revealed.
An evacuation shelter used by Fukushima refugees.
The most common figure cited for evacuees is 160,000, of which 80,000 were evacuated by the authorities and the rest left to evacuate on their own, often on foot, cycles and carts. It took about two weeks to evacuate all parts of the initial 20 km (later 30 km) radius evacuation areas around the Fukushima reactors.
The main reason for the delays was that many roads in the Prefecture were jammed with gridlocks which sometimes lasted 24 hours a day, for several days on end on some roads. These traffic jams were partly due to the poor existing road infrastructure and partly due to many road accidents. These jams were of such severity that safety crews for the Fukushima nuclear station had to be moved in and out mostly by helicopter. All public transport by trains and buses ceased. Mobile telephone networks and the internet crashed due to massive demand.
Thousands of people either refused to leave their homelands or returned later. Older farmers often refused to leave their animals behind or be moved from their ancestral lands. In at least a dozen recorded cases, older farmers slaughtered their cow herds rather than leave them behind (dairy cows need to be milked daily): they then committed suicide themselves in several instances.
A cow wanders down a deserted street in Namie. (Herman, VOA).
According to Hachiya et al (2014), the disaster adversely affected the telecommunications system, water supplies, and electricity supplies including radiation monitoring systems. The local hospital system was dysfunctional; hospitals designated as radiation-emergency facilities were unable to operate because of damage from the earthquake and tsunami, and some were located within designated evacuation zones. Emergency personnel, including fire department personnel, were often asked to leave the area.
At hospitals, evacuations were sometimes carried out hurriedly with the unfortunate result that patients died due to intravenous drips being ripped out, medicaments being left behind, the absence of doctors and nurses who had left, and ambulance road accidents. Many hastily-allocated reception centres (often primary schools) were either unable or ill-equipped to deal with seriously ill patients.
Much confusion resulted when school children were being bussed home, while their parents were trying to reach schools to collect their children. Government officials, doctors, nurses, care workers, police, firepersons, ambulance drivers, emergency crews, teachers, and others faced the dilemma of whether to stay at their posts or return to look after their families. In the event, many emergency crews refused to enter evacuation zones for fear of radiation exposure.
Stable iodine was not issued to most people. Official evacuation plans were either non-existent or inadequate and, in the event, next to useless. In many cases, local mayors took the lead and ordered and supervised evacuations in their villages without waiting for orders or in defiance of them. Apparently, the higher up the administrative level, the greater the levels of indecision and lack of responsibility.
In the years after the accident, the longer-lasting effects of the evacuations have become apparent. These include family separations, marital break-ups, widespread depression, and further suicides. These are discussed in a recent publication (Morimatsu et al, 2017) which relates the sad, often eloquent, stories of the Fukushima people. They differ sharply from the accounts disseminated by TEPCO.
Deaths from evacuations at Fukushima
Official Japanese Government data reveal that nearly 2,000 people died from the effects of evacuations necessary to avoid high radiation exposures from the Fukushima disaster, including from suicides.
The uprooting to unfamiliar areas, cutting of family ties, loss of social support networks, disruption, exhaustion, poor physical conditions and disorientation resulted in many people, in particular older people, apparently losing their will to live.
The evacuations also resulted in increased levels of illnesses among evacuees such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus and dyslipidaemia, psychiatric and mental health problems, polycythaemia — a slow growing blood cancer — cardiovascular disease, liver dysfunction, and severe psychological distress.
Radiation dosimeter, Japan.
Increased suicide rates occurred among younger and older people following the Fukushima evacuations, but the trends are unclear. A 2014 Japanese Cabinet Office report stated that, between March 2011 and July 2014, 56 suicides in Fukushima Prefecture were linked to the nuclear accident.
Should evacuations be ordered?
The above account should not be taken as arguments against evacuations as they constitute an important dose-saving and life-saving strategy during emergencies. Instead, the toll from evacuations should be considered part of the overall toll from nuclear accidents.
In future, deaths from evacuation-related ill-heath and suicides should be included in assessments of the fatality numbers from nuclear disasters.
For example, although about 2,000 deaths occurred during and immediately after the evacuations, it can be calculated from UNSCEAR (2013) collective dose estimates that about 5,000 fatal cancers will arise from the radiation exposures at Fukushima, i.e. taking into account the evacuations. Many more fatal cancers would have occurred if the evacuations had not been carried out.
There is an acute planning dilemma here: if evacuations are carried out (even with good planning) then illnesses and deaths will undoubtedly occur. But if they are not carried out, even more people could die. In such situations, it is necessary to identify the real cause of the problem. And here it is the existence of nuclear power plants near large population centres. In such cases, consideration should be given to the early closure of the nuclear power plants, and switching to safer means of electricity generation.
The experiences of Japanese evacuees after Fukushima are distressing to read. Their experiences were terrible, so much so that it requires Governments of large cities with nearby nuclear power plants to reconsider their own situations and to address the question…. what would happen if radioactive fallout heavily contaminated large areas of their city and required millions of residents to leave for long periods of time, for example several decades?
And how long would evacuations need to continue…. weeks, months, years, or decades? The time length of evacuations is usually avoided in the evacuation plans seen so far. In reality, the answer would depend on cesium-137 concentrations in surface soils. The time period could be decades, as the half-life of the principal radionuclide, Cs-137, is 30 years. This raises the possibility of large cities becoming uninhabited ‘ghost’ towns like Tomioka, Okuma, Namie, Futaba, etc in Japan and Pripyat in Ukraine.
This bleak reality is hard to accept or even comprehend. However it is a matter that some governments need to address after Fukushima. It is unsurprising therefore, that after Fukushima, several major European states including Germany and Switzerland have decided to phase out their nuclear reactors.
Dr. Ian Fairlie is a London, UK-based independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment.