Japan’s system to forecast radiation threats was working from the moment its nuclear crisis began. As officials planned a venting operation certain to release radioactivity into the air, the system predicted Karino Elementary School would be directly in the path of the plume emerging from the tsunami-hit Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
However, the prediction helped no one. Nobody acted on it.
The school, just more than 10km from the plant, was not immediately cleared out. Quite the opposite. It was turned into a temporary evacuation center.
Reports from the forecast system were sent to Japan’s nuclear safety agency, but the flow of data stopped there. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and others involved in declaring evacuation areas never saw the reports, and neither did local authorities. So thousands of people stayed for days in areas that the system had identified as high-risk, an Associated Press (AP) investigation has found.
At Karino Elementary in the town of Namie, about 400 students, teachers, parents and others gathered in the playground at the height of the nuclear crisis stemming from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Many ate rice balls and cooked in the open air.
They were never informed of the predictions that they were at risk. In an interview with the AP, Namie’s mayor said it took more than 24 hours for him to realize — from watching TV — that the evacuees were in danger. He sent buses to move some of them out. However, unaware of the risks, they were taken to another part of town also forecast to be in the plume’s path. Most were left to fend for themselves.
“When I think about it now, I am outraged,” principal Hidenori Arakawa said. “Our lives were put at risk.”
Documents obtained by the AP, interviews with key officials and a review of other newly released documents and parliamentary transcripts indicate that the government’s use of the forecast data was hamstrung by communication breakdowns and a lack of even a basic understanding of the system at the highest levels.
It’s unclear how much radiation people might have been exposed to by staying in areas in the path of the radioactive plume, let alone whether any might suffer health problems from the exposure. It could be difficult to ever prove a connection: Health officials say they have no plans to prioritize radiation tests of those who were at the school.
However, the breakdown may hold lessons for other countries with nuclear power plants because similar warning systems are used around the world. This was their first test in a major crisis.
The Japanese network — built in 1986 at a cost of US$140 million — is known as SPEEDI, short for the System for Prediction of Environment Emergency Dose Information. It has radiation monitoring posts nationwide and has been tested in a number of drills, including one the prime minister led for the Hamaoka nuclear facility just last year.
Even so, according to the prime minister’s office, Kan and his top advisers never asked for or received the data. Despite taking part in the Hamaoka drill, Kan admitted he didn’t understand how SPEEDI worked or how valuable the data was.
“I had no idea what sort of information was available,” he told parliament on June 17. “I didn’t know anything about it then, and there was no way I could make a judgement.”