Fundamental Problems of TEPCO’s Evacuation Plan Revealed by Niigata Prefectural Committee

-Reliable information from nuclear-plant operators is essential for emergency evacuation of local residents-

By Sasaki Hiroshi (Vice Chairman of the Niigata Prefectural Committee Investigating Evacuation Methods in a Nuclear Disaster)

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s “defense in depth” concept, inspection of the off-site emergency response and effectiveness of recovery plans is conceived of as the fifth layer of protection against a nuclear emergency.

Thus, even if the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has guaranteed a nuclear power plant as “safe,” the plant should not be put into operation unless it has formulated effective evacuation plans. This is common knowledge in the international community.

NRA, however, does not examine whether or not a nuclear plant operator’s evacuation plans are feasible or effective.

This issue was brought to light in March 2021, when the Mito District Court in Ibaraki Prefecture ordered the Tokai No.2 Nuclear Power Plant to suspend operation, citing a lack of evacuation plans. Evacuation plans are likely to become a major issue of contention in other on-going trials against nuclear power plants in Japan. The Niigata Prefectural Committee Investigating Evacuation Methods in a Nuclear Disaster (hereafter, Prefectural Evacuation Committee) is currently holding discussions on nuclear power plant evacuation plans that delve deeper into the issues than other similar committees in Japan.

Investigation of the 2011 nuclear disaster was conducted by the government’s Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations and also by the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. These two committees, however, completed their investigation work in 2012.

Meanwhile, in 2017, the Niigata prefectural government launched an examination of three measures for disaster risk reduction and nuclear emergency response, by allocating a budget for that purpose. One of these measures was an inspection of evacuation plans.

Importance of obtaining necessary information from TEPCO in the initial stage of evacuation

When we began inspecting the measures one by one, the first thing we noticed was that the information obtained from TEPCO in the initial stage of an evacuation was of vital importance for implementing the evacuation plan in an effective and feasible manner.

When the Fukushima nuclear disaster broke out, the people in the Prime Minister’s Office, TEPCO and other related organizations had no way of knowing what was going on at the nuclear power plant. As a result, the official disclosure of the meltdown and other serious incidents were delayed.

This writer strongly feels that whether or not correct information on the nuclear accident is provided to local residents in the initial stage, and whether the utility has organizational arrangements to provide such information, are the most crucial factors for implementing an effective and attainable evacuation plan.

If a nuclear accident should ever occur at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station (KKNPS), it is planned that the pressure in the nuclear reactor will be lowered by releasing steam through the vent filter. If TEPCO is able to obtain information on 1) when the filter-venting began, 2) whether or not it is effective, and 3) the condition inside the crippled nuclear reactor, and releases the data immediately, this will make it possible to implement the evacuation plan.

Nevertheless, at present, it is extremely doubtful that TEPCO will take swift action to release this information.

Popular distrust of TEPCO’s organizational culture

At KKNPS, the cables connecting Unit 7 with emergency backup power caught fire in November 2018. At the time, TEPCO was unable to detect where in the cable tunnel the fire broke out. Consequently, the utility failed to take prompt action to inform the fire department and the local government about this accident. This is not the only case that proves the utility’s inability to provide necessary information quickly and correctly to the local government in the wake of an accident. This indicates that the same delay may be repeated by the utility in the future.

Although evacuation drills are conducted at KKNPS, the above-mentioned organizational problems of the plant operator are not taken into consideration on these occasions. Further, drills are held on the assumption that TEPCO will inform the local government of the accident promptly and correctly, abiding by the relevant regulations.  

TEPCO is a private company, and it is obvious that the company will go under if it experiences another severe accident. For this reason, it is doubtful, should a severe accident occur, that TEPCO will provide truthful information in accordance with the regulations.

Now we know that information from TEPCO is not trustworthy or accurate, this writer believes that it is necessary to introduce, for example, inspections by a third party, and installment of surveillance cameras and monitoring of the nuclear plant operations by local citizens. I have put this proposal forward to the Evacuation Committee.

In France, there is a public system for monitoring nuclear plant operations, called the “regional information committee,” which is comprised of the plant operator, the regulation authority, and local citizens. I proposed to the Evacuation Committee that a similar system be established in Japan.

The Evacuation Committee members and the Niigata prefectural government officials seem to share the perception that TEPCO’s response to accidents and problems at the nuclear plant is unreliable. Whenever an accident or a problem occurs, the company does nothing but repeat the comment, “We will do our best to prevent recurrences.” There is no deep self-reflection or will to carry out radical reform on their side. Their attitude seems to stem from the company’s organizational culture, and this is an extremely serious problem.

As a member of the Evacuation Committee, I have no choice but to conclude that the formulation of an effective evacuation plan is unattainable unless TEPCO regains popular trust in the company.

Nuclear plants are a matter of national security

The Evacuation Committee is also discussing measures against terrorist attacks. In the U.S., for example, military personnel or similar armed staff are stationed on the premises of nuclear power plants at all times, and conduct regular drills against armed attacks.

In Japan, only guards dispatched from a security company and police officers are stationed at nuclear power plants, because the plants are not regarded as facilities that require military protection. Should terrorists attack a nuclear plant, it would be an emergency situation causing the national contingency law to be invoked.  

At the time of a nuclear accident, residents in the Precautionary Action Zone (PAZ) are required to evacuate immediately, while those living in the Urgent Protective Action Planning Zone (UPZ) must stay home and wait. Under the contingency law, the Self Defense Force would eliminate the invaders, but their actions may interfere with the evacuation of residents. This may hamper implementation of the evacuation plan and the scheme might not work properly.

As you can see, nuclear power plants are not considered as an element of national security in Japan and this is an extremely grave situation. Moreover, TEPCO deems itself to be no more than an ordinary electric power company and lacks self-awareness as an organization that is handling “nuclear power.”

Under the current system, local governments are required to create distinct nuclear disaster response plans, and the schools, hospitals and other institutions in their jurisdiction are also required to formulate their own evacuation plans against a nuclear disaster. The reality, however, is that each local government has simply copied the evacuation plan presented by the Cabinet Office in its Guideline on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness and pasted it on its site.

Investigations into the effectiveness of evacuation plans must now be conducted

The Evacuation Committee is currently discussing problems that may emerge in each phase of an evacuation. It must then conduct a simulation of a real evacuation to check how it will be possible for residents to evacuate safely. In the case of multiple disasters, we must confirm, for example, whether the local residents can escape when the roads to their area are damaged or blocked. The work to examine if each phase of the evacuation plan is really feasible and effective should now be conducted. The committee members describe this work as “pushing a skewer through the problems in each phase.”

The prefectural government may be reluctant to hold such discussions, but the committee members believe that it is their job to do so.

The role of the Prefectural Evacuation Committee in Niigata

I presume that the Prefectural Evacuation Committee in Niigata exists not only for the prefecture and Japan but also for all local governments and communities in the world that host a nuclear power plant. This is because the committee’s discussions may have an influence on the evaluation of nuclear power plants by such local governments and residents. For this reason, the committee members should refrain from determining from the very beginning, for instance, that it is totally impossible for the residents to escape from the area. What they should do is to confirm the problems one by one and consider ways to resolve the problems by thinking matters out logically.

Even though the prefectural governor will make the final decision, the Evacuation Committee is expected to demonstrate a logical process for discussions. In this sense, the committee regards the evacuees as the leading actor. At present, nine experts are participating in the committee discussions. As well as the arguments of experts, the committee members also need to include in their discussion process the evacuees’ honest and simple expressions of uneasiness.

After the inspection work is completed, the prefectural government is poised to hold a meeting to explain about the inspection to residents. But it is meaningless to explain about the inspection work after the committee’s inspection report has already been compiled. Amid this COVID-19 pandemic, it would be better to hold small-scale discussion meetings several times. The important thing is that the discussion results are also included in the inspection process. 

In the inspection of three measures for disaster risk reduction and nuclear emergency response, the prefectural governor appears to be particularly concerned about moves in the inspection supervisory committee. He seems to be hoping that, if possible, the supervisory committee will not hold a meeting and that the inspection work will end quietly.

This writer, however, feels the need to urge local residents to express their opinions more openly and vociferously, and to activate debates and discussions in which many prefectural residents can participate. I hope that not only Niigata residents but also members of the Group of Concerned Scientists and Engineers Calling for the Closure of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant will continue to assert their opinions in the future.

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