A Sad Nuclear History
March 11, 2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The date also marked the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. This anniversary presents an opportunity to discuss nuclear issues which safety and security experts should consider when planning for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. For readers who wish to refresh their memories of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima the London Telegraph recently published two informative articles which are linked here and here.
The Fukushima disaster dominates any discussion of nuclear safety in Japan. However, before the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in March, 2011 there were other nuclear incidents in Japan that threatened public health and safety. Three of these incidents are relevant to those preparing safety and security plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The first incident is the 1995 Monju nuclear plant sodium leak and fire. The second and third incidents occurred at the Tokai-mura nuclear power plant and facilities in 1997 and 1999.
NUCLEAR ACCIDENTS CAN OCCUR VERY CLOSE TO TOKYO
Of the three incidents the 1999 Tokai-mura incident is most relevant to Tokyo Olympic safety and security officials for several reasons. First, Tokai-mura is much closer to Tokyo than Fukushima. The Fukushima nuclear power plants are 141 miles from Tokyo while the Tokai-mura nuclear power plant and facilities are only 77 miles from Tokyo. During the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami the nuclear power plant and facilities at Tokai-mura were also hit by a tsunami similar to the one that battered Fukushima about 70 miles north. According to Wikipedia, “a cooling system pump for the Number 2 reactor had stopped working. Japan Atomic Power Company stated that there was a second operational pump and that cooling was working, but that two of three diesel generators used to power the cooling system were out of order.” In other words, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami came within an eyelash of creating a second nuclear meltdown much closer to Tokyo than Fukushima. It is conceivable that several Tokyo Olympic events could take place in suburban Tokyo venues relatively close to the Tokai-mura nuclear facility. Indeed, this newspaper article discusses an Olympic practice venue to be located on land still today troubled by radioactivity.
THERE ARE MANY LOCATIONS IN JAPAN WHERE NUCLEAR ACCIDENTS CAN OCCUR
Second, and as noted in the linked Wikipedia article, at Tokai-mura the accident took place in a uranium reprocessing facility and not the nuclear power plant. Everyone realizes that a nuclear power plant can create an incident that spreads nuclear contamination far and wide. However, the Tokai-mura incident shows that other nuclear facilities can present a real threat to public health and safety. While nuclear power plants in Japan are easy to for anyone to locate it is more difficult to determine where other potentially dangerous nuclear facilities in Japan are located.
NUCLEAR ACCIDENTS OUTSIDE OF FUKUSHIMA CAUSED FATALITIES
Third, the Tokai-mura incident caused two fatalities and presented a serious threat to residents in suburban Tokyo. This demonstrates that even a relatively minor nuclear incident in Japan during the 2020 Olympics could lead to serious consequences.
WHAT SHOULD SAFETY AND SECURITY OFFICIALS AT THE 2020 TOKYO OLYMPICS DO TO PREPARE FOR A POTENTIAL NUCLEAR ACCIDENT?
- Identify and verify potential sources of information for details about such an incident in advance. These sources can be Japanese officials, officials of foreign embassies in Japan, Japanese academics in the nuclear field, and members of the mass media. The more sources of information the better. If the Fukushima incident is any indication it will be difficult to get safety information in a timely fashion in the event of a nuclear incident during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
- Plans should be prepared to provide safety information to Olympic participants and spectators for whom each public safety and security official is responsible. Regular and constant communication can help to prevent panic and ensure the safety of everyone involved.
- Consider bringing nuclear incident equipment (protective clothing, radiation detectors, battery-operated satellite phones to get information from outside of Japan, etc.) and have them readily available during the entire Olympic schedule.
- Since a nuclear incident could contaminate food and water plans should be in place to provide emergency supplies of bottled water and preserved food. In March 2011 once the population learned that the Tokyo drinking water supply had been contaminated with radioactive particles bottled water disappeared almost immediately from store shelves.
- The availability of emergency transportation at each Olympic venue should be researched and known in advance. Nuclear contamination could close roads and rail lines and even airports (Tokyo Narita airport is only 50 miles from Tokai-mura). Japan is an extremely mountainous country with a rugged coastline and this geography creates numerous transportation choke points.
- Study and research in advance what to do (shelter in place, etc.) in the event radioactive contamination spreads to an Olympic venue.
- To the extent possible and well in advance identify and locate nuclear facilities that would be close to Olympic venues and learn as much about them as possible before the Olympics.
The writer was posted at the U.S. Embassy during the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. He knows from experience that a nuclear meltdown can lead to panic and that timely and helpful information about the incident will be difficult if not impossible to obtain. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo was as well prepared as anywhere for a large earthquake but there were few plans in place to handle a nuclear incident. The American embassy found it difficult to get helpful information from the Japanese government. Advance knowledge of the risks of a nuclear incident during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and some advance preparation can go along way to help prevent injury and panic in the event of a worst case scenario.
If any reader has a question the writer is happy to try to answer it. Please contact him via the email address at the top of this blog page.