Emergency Planning – lessons not learnt from Fukushima

As a consequence of the events in Fukushima, the plans for protecting communities around Sizewell power station in the event of an emergency are being revised. Responsibility for the drafting of the emergency plan falls to the Suffolk Resilience Forum (SRF), a multi-agency group that provides strategic and operational guidance on the planning for the response to a major incident. The plan is written in accordance with the Radiation Emergency Preparedness and Public Information Regulations 2001 and its purpose is to ensure that any Off-site Nuclear Emergency is brought under control effectively and efficiently, allowing the the site and local community to return to a stable safe condition.

The plan has been heavily criticised as being inadequate. there is considerable scepticism as to whether the procedures for informing and safeguarding the local population are sufficient. A striking aspect of the emergency plans for nuclear sites in the UK is the tiny extent of the detailed emergency planning zone (DEPZ). At Sizewell it extends out to 2.4km from the power station, encompassing a population of only 5500.

Residents within the zone receive an annual ‘emergency arrangements’ pack in the form of a calendar and associated information detailing what to do in the event of an emergency. The worst foreseeable design-basis failure for the Sizewell A station, before shut-down, was used by the Operator to calculate the size of the Detailed Emergency Planning Zone around the station.

REPPIR requires that exercises to ensure the adequacy of the off -site emergency plans for each nuclear licensed site are carried out every three years. These are largely paper based exercises that do not involve the local population.

The shortcomings of this type of exercise soon become apparent when an incident does occur. In a real emergency in August 2010, when a serious fire broke out in the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston fire-fighters called to the site were held back from tackling the fire because the AWE did not have a sufficient number of personal dosimeters on the Aldermaston site to equip each fire-fighter1.


Japan is prone to both earthquakes and tsunamis, and as such it has been preparing itself against such risks for many years. A report2 published in 2013 examined the way in which the Japanese people responded to the triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident which hit the country in March 2011. The report highlights how, despite its sophisticated emergency planning , mistakes and assumptions led to many unnecessary deaths, and It highlights the profound differences between the way people responded to the tsunami and to the nuclear accident. It is sobering to contrast what happened in Fukushima with what might have happened in the event of a similar accident at Sizewell.

By June 2012 , a year on from the disaster, there were still 344,000 evacuees who could not go back home. The field research found that the displacements caused by the tsunami and by the nuclear accident had many dissimilar aspects. In particular, the evacuation process, the prospects of return and the related social impacts differ significantly as the displacements were induced by different causes: one is a natural disaster, while the other is an industrial (man-made) disaster.

The communities hit by the tsunami were well aware of the risk, as the region had already undergone many tsunamis, and the lessons from such experiences had been passed down by the older generations. These communities had therefore prepared themselves by building high breakwaters along the coast and creating hazard maps on which expected flood zones were clearly marked out. Disaster drills were also regularly conducted. On the day of the disaster, as early as three minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami alert was issued advising the local population to evacuate. The tsunami was thus initiated correctly. Yet it was not without limitations in the face of an extreme disaster.

Evacuation triggered by the nuclear accident

By contrast with the evacuation triggered by the tsunami, the evacuation from the nuclear accident can be described as an evacuation without warning, preparation or knowledge. The research found that the affected municipalities were not officially informed about the evacuation order issued by the government at the time of the disaster and therefore had no choice but to improvise an evacuation on their own. In addition, an evacuation on this scale had never been envisioned – let alone exercised – prior to the accident. As a result, the evacuation was organised in an ad hoc and chaotic manner, leaving the population in great confusion. From the field interviews, it became clear that the local population had indeed never prepared for such a serious accident, as the myth of absolute safety of nuclear installations had been nurtured over the years, leading people to believe that such an accident would never occur. Furthermore, no information on the gravity of the accident was communicated to the residents at the time of their displacement. Thus, the residents were forced to flee without any idea of how long their displacement would last or how far they should go. Nor were evacuees informed about the risk of radiation exposure or instructed on how to protect themselves against irradiation during their flight.

Consequences of the displacement due to the nuclear accident

The prospect of return for nuclear evacuees remains uncertain. One year after the accident, the question of return became a highly politicised issue and the authorities have encouraged evacuees to return, while the evacuees themselves remain concerned about the radioactive contamination of their communities and the effects of radiation on their health. In March 2012, the government proposed a plan to reorganise the evacuation zone according to radiation dose levels, thus creating an area recommended for early return. The field research found that this was done with very little consultation with the affected municipalities or evacuees, which thus caused a division among the displaced communities between those who wished to return and those who hesitated to do so. As the return is regarded as a symbol of community survival and resilience, those who are reluctant, often from fear of radiation effects, are considered selfish and disloyal towards other community members. Similarly, the issue of evacuation is dividing communities affected by the radiation but located outside the evacuation zone in the Fukushima Prefecture. In these communities, the authorities are reassuring residents so that they will stay put, emphasising that it is safe to live in the area despite significantly high radiation levels. In this context, those who voluntarily evacuated by their own means, so-called self-evacuees, are regarded as cowardly, selfish or disloyal towards the community to which they belong. The nuclear disaster is also a social disaster creating many tensions and divisions in the affected communities, where those who choose not to follow the policy line set by the authorities are often marginalised. From the onset of the nuclear crisis, the Japanese government issued various evacuation orders with vastly differing instructions and timing. this created a great deal of confusion, uncertainty and distress among the affected population. First, a compulsory evacuation order was issued. for the zone within a 2 km radius37 from the crippled station and then, in the space of twenty-four hours, this was extended to a 20 km radius. This area was designated as a ‘Restricted Zone’ with entry prohibited. Three days after issuing the compulsory evacuation order, the government then instructed residents living within a 20–30 km radius from the station to shelter indoors, in what was called the ‘Evacuation Prepared Area’. This ‘shelter indoors’ order continued for more than a month and finally, on 22 April, the same residents were advised to self-evacuate. Through these different decisions, taken one after the other by the government in a rather ad hoc manner, both the affected municipalities and residents were obliged to evacuate repeatedly from one place to another with scant information about their future prospects. The field interviews with evacuees found that this caused significant psychological stress for the evacuees during their flight.

Evacuation without preparation

Prior to the accident, nuclear disaster drills were conducted mainly for the employees of the plant operator and the municipal offices along with a limited number of residents living in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear power station, and the crisis scenario used had been of a minimal nature. Out of all the 29 nuclear evacuees interviewed during the field research, one person had ever participated in such an exercise. At the time of the crisis, the municipalities and residents were not at all prepared for such an evacuation and thus were completely at a loss. Many people self-evacuated, using their own cars if they were lucky enough to have some fuel left. This created an enormous traffic jam on the escape route and delayed the whole evacuation process, leaving the population significantly distressed.

1 The Lay-Person’s Alternative Guide To REPPIR Relating To The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston And Burghfield, Large and Associates, 2012, (http://nuclearinfo.org/sites/default/files/Large%20%26%20Associates%20Report.pdf)

2 Disaster Evacuation from Japan’s 2011 Tsunami Disaster and the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations Internationales (IDDRI), 2013 (http://www.iddri.org/Publications/Collections/Analyses/STUDY0513_RH_DEVAST%20report.pdf)


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