A recent frontpage story in the New York Times explores in more depth an evacuation tragedy that plagued the Fukushima nuclear incident. The event they focus on is the evacuation of Namie, first reported by the Daily Yomiuri on June 10 and described in this prior post. In the absence of evacuation guidance from the government, the village of several thousand evacuated to the north and sheltered in an area that ended up receiving the most severe radiation impacts. Specifically, on March 15 the winds directed radioisotopes to the northwest – covering the area, Tsushima, where they sheltered. The government’s radiation plume forecast system, SPEEDI, predicted this particular event (see prior post) but the information was never disseminated to local officials who could have used it to guide evacuation strategies. By contrast, children played outdoors and evacuees consumed food and water from the contaminated region to which they had fled.
The NYT story probes the possible contributing factors to this lapse in emergency response – including distrust of the forecasts and fear that the forecasts were wrong, given the uncertainty about the source term.
“Mr. Kosako and others, however, say the Speedi maps would have been extremely useful in the hands of someone who knew how to sort through the system’s reams of data. He said the Speedi readings were so complex, and some of the predictions of the spread of radiation contamination so alarming, that three separate government agencies — the Education Ministry and the two nuclear regulators, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and Nuclear Safety Commission — passed the data to one another like a hot potato, with none of them wanting to accept responsibility for its results.”
“Mr. Hosono, the minister charged with dealing with the nuclear crisis, has said that certain information, including the Speedi data, had been withheld for fear of “creating a panic.” In an interview, Mr. Hosono — who now holds nearly daily news conferences with Tepco officials and nuclear regulators — said that the government had “changed its thinking” and was trying to release information as fast as possible. ”
In a Nature Newsblog analysis of the NYT story the chronic failure in communication with the public during the crisis is cited as another contributor to the evacuation tragedy.