OSAKA – The crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant has heightened concern in the Kansai region, where 15 atomic reactors are located less than 55 km from Japan’s largest freshwater lake, a source of water for millions of people in Kyoto and Osaka.
The fears and questions being raised about the effects of a nuclear accident at one of the Fukui Prefecture plants has spurred local governors to review their disaster plans.
All of Kansai’s nuclear power is generated by reactors on the Sea of Japan coast in Fukui.
After the March 11 earthquake that hit the Tohoku region, and tsunami knocked out the Fukushima nuclear plant, Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa announced the prefecture would review its nuclear emergency procedures. But he added there were concerns that also needed to be addressed by the central government.
“How do we evacuate the prefecture’s residents? And how do we evacuate those in need of medical assistance? In addition, there is the problem of roads. Fukui’s nuclear reactors are located beside the coast and on the edge of peninsulas, and access roads are limited,” Nishikawa told local reporters in April.
In neighboring Shiga Prefecture, home to Lake Biwa, the Fukushima crisis prompted Gov. Yukiko Kada to call for a review of the prefecture’s nuclear emergency plans.
Kada has warned Shiga is on the front line in the event of a nuclear accident, as the town of Yogo, population 3,600, lies only 13 km from Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, home to four nuclear reactors.
Another seven reactors in the Fukui towns of Ooi and Mihama lie between 16 and 20 km from the Shiga border.
Kada said the review is being conducted in three main areas. The first is the lack of detailed evacuation plans, Kada said. In addition, Shiga is reviewing the best way to ensure a safe and orderly evacuation that must take into account a number of factors.
“Evacuation plans should be based on such factors as different temperatures and different wind directions, which will affect the path of any radiation,” said Kada, a scientist by training.
The second area under review is more effective radiation monitoring. As of last year, there were four places in Shiga where radiation was being monitored. However, they are fixed monitoring stations and the prefecture will review the best locations and look at other ways to obtain information as quickly as possible.
Finally, emergency communication procedures will be reviewed. Among other things, Kada said, this means working with the nuclear power industry to convey accurate and timely information.
Shiga has appointed a 16-member committee comprised of academic experts, local disaster response officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations who will review its nuclear emergency procedures this year and make recommendations at the beginning of 2012. Public comments will be solicited in February, and the final plans will be sent for approval to the prefectural assembly in March 2012.
In the event of an emergency at one of Fukui Prefecture’s nuclear plants, there could be mass panic, as those in Tsuruga and other cities along the coast flee the area. They might head west toward Kyoto Prefecture or south toward the city of Kyoto on one of three main roads that skirt the eastern and western sides of Lake Biwa.
The town of Yogo lies just outside the central government’s 10-km exclusion zone that would be imposed in the event of a crisis at one of the Tsuruga reactors.
Because Shiga is so close to the nuclear plants, there is the possibility that a huge number of Fukui residents would evacuate through the prefecture, and some could stay for an extended period, although such an evacuation scenario is still unclear.
“Given its proximity to Shiga, we have to think about accepting evacuees from Fukui Prefecture,” Kada said.
However, a Shiga prefectural official added that, as Fukui hasn’t put forth an official version to evacuate Fukui residents to Shiga on the assumption that a 10-km evacuation zone is imposed, the focus is on evacuating Shiga residents to areas within the prefecture.
How to deal with the problem of radiation settling in Lake Biwa, which is less than 55 km to the south and southeast of Fukui’s 15 reactors, is one of the greatest worries for Kansai residents. The lake provides drinking water to 14 million people in the Kansai region.
While the Union of Kansai Governments, a group of seven prefectures in the region established last December, has promised to address the issue, Fukui does not belong to the union, raising questions about how effective its nuclear emergency measures would be.
“Shiga Prefecture is different from Fukui and Kyoto because of Lake Biwa. Preservation of the lake’s water quality is critical. What happens if radioactive iodine or cesium contaminates the water? How do we clean it? And what would be the impact on fish and wildlife?” Kada asked last month.
That’s a question Kyoto Prefecture is also grappling with.
The prefecture recently became the first since the March 11 catastrophe to alter its nuclear disaster guidelines.
Eight revisions were announced last month, including improving evacuation facilities and beefing up radiation monitoring. If radiation levels in the prefecture reach the equivalent of 20 millisieverts annually, the prefecture will initiate its evacuation plans.
While Kyoto’s plans are more up to date those of Shiga, which plans to use Kyoto’s revisions as a basis for its own, the 20-millisievert limit has been a subject of controversy, with many nuclear experts and antinuclear activists concerned it is too high, especially for children.
“The plan specifies the same radiation exposure for Kyoto Prefecture residents as that allowed at Fukushima — 20 millisieverts a year, even for children. Even the pronuclear French government requires evacuation at half that amount,” said antinuclear activist and Kyoto resident Aileen Mioko Smith.
Kyoto, Fukui, and Shiga prefectural officials responded by saying that while they are taking action to strengthen local measures, ultimately, the central government must set guidelines on radiation exposure and any changes to local plans have to take into account national guidelines.
But over the past few months, demands in Kansai have been growing to address the issue locally, and governors are beefing up local measures and increasing cooperation, concerned that waiting on Tokyo to set new guidelines will leave Kansai unprepared if disaster strikes at one of the Fukui reactors.