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Is it time to improve nuclear disaster preparedness?

November 5, 2012

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) proposes to do just that, following a consultation among 16 national member societies more than a year after the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster.

The world’s largest humanitarian organization announced in May that it would establish “a resource centre offering specialist advice on nuclear disaster preparedness, along with chemical and biological hazards.” The center, the IFRC said, will consider “how national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies can be active in helping to protect communities, by raising awareness, helping to manage evacuation if needed and providing psychosocial support and health monitoring in the event of a nuclear disaster.”

The IFRC decided to take this initiative, according to its President, Tadateru Konoé, because people “cannot rely solely on governments and on the nuclear industry, which has a vested interest in telling them that everything is safe and nothing can go wrong. It has and it could again, anywhere and at any time.”

Mr. Konoé made a distinction between a response to the use of nuclear weapons and a disaster plan for a nuclear reactor meltdown at IPPNW’s 20th World Congress in Hiroshima. The unique and inhumane nature of the nuclear threat has been a consistent message from the Red Cross, from IPPNW, and from major medical associations for decades, and it has only taken on new urgency with the spread of nuclear weapons around the world and the growing number of cities we can only assume are targets.

Mr. Konoé described the powerful new resolution calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons adopted last November by the IFRC Council of Delegates, and he repeated the Federation’s long-held position that “nobody has the capability to mount a sufficient response” to the consequences of nuclear war.

In relation to nuclear reactor disasters, however, Mr. Konoé called for “improved…preparedness from the public’s point of view.”

Is nuclear disaster preparedness more feasible than preparedness for the consequences of nuclear war? Putting aside the question of whether the responsibilities and costs for such preparations should be borne by humanitarian relief organizations, could Red Cross and Red Crescent societies develop or promote more practical, more effective plans than industry-influenced agencies with obvious conflicts of interests? Have technologies and response strategies improved since the 1980s and 1990s, when the emergency plans mandated by regulatory agencies were routinely exposed as shallow public relations exercises?

It’s easy to be cynical about this, but I don’t criticize the Red Cross for wanting to do more to help the victims of a nuclear disaster than TEPCO or the Japanese government did. I came away from a long conversation with Mr. Konoé convinced that he sees this initiative as keeping faith with the humanitarian mission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement.

As of September, the resource center announced in May had not yet been funded or staffed. Hiroto Oyama, the Deputy Director of the President’s Office at IFRC headquarters in Geneva, suggested that the first step would be the creation of an advisory group drawn from the national societies that participated in the consultation in Tokyo. One of the first things on their agenda will be to decide whether to focus solely on nuclear disaster preparedness or to take a “multi-hazard approach.” Mr. Oyama thought it likely that the resource center would gather together available expertise and resources, rather than commission new studies of criteria for nuclear disaster response plans or evaluate national capacities to implement them.

Such studies, however, could help answer critical questions: Can plausible and effective plans for responding to nuclear reactor disasters be developed at all? What would they entail? What would they cost? If the plans are unaffordable, or can’t actually be implemented, is it responsible to keep existing reactors online, let alone build new ones?

Tadatoshi Akiba, the former mayor of Hiroshima, provided me with a report prepared for him by the Hiroshima City Council for Civil Protection in 2007.[1] While the focus of the report was whether the city could prepare for a nuclear weapon attack (the unsurprising conclusion: no), much of the technical detail was derived from reviews of response plans that had been mandated by Japan’s Nuclear Disaster Law in 2000, following a series of power plant incidents.

There are important differences between a nuclear weapons attack and a nuclear reactor disaster. The latter does not produce massive and indiscriminate blast and burn casualties and physical devastation across an entire city, and deaths and injuries come primarily from exposure to radiation, whether to the general population or to first responders. Moreover, the infrastructure needed to treat and assist victims generally remains intact (although the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima plants also wiped out communications, transportation, and safety systems in the region, and placed unsustainable demands on health workers and health care facilities).

Even in the relatively limited situation of a nuclear reactor disaster, however, the authors of the Hiroshima study concluded that “It would be extremely difficult to conduct activities such as disaster status investigation and rescue and guidance of survivors within the strict radiological protection standard” established by the Nuclear Disaster Law. They could find “no scenario that portrays the actual implementation of response plans in combination with a specific depiction of a severe accident.” To the contrary, they pointed to training drills that were conducted under the assumption that local residents would not be exposed to radiation. They even voiced a suspicion “that one reason why the government would not make disaster estimates or formulate specific response plans associated with such estimates is that such estimates or plans suggest the possibility of catastrophic disasters at civilian nuclear facilities.” In other words, if people knew what might really happen and how little could be done to protect them from the consequences, they might have second thoughts about the whole thing.

The Hiroshima study is a valuable model for any city or region that wants to know what exactly to account for in a nuclear disaster plan, whether in response to a nuclear weapons attack or a nuclear plant meltdown: evacuation routes and criteria; emergency transportation and communications systems; blood and medicine stockpiles (e.g., potassium iodide); radiation and burn facilities; shelters; decontamination measures; budgets to support all of these preparations and more.

While the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved that nothing can be done to mitigate the suffering of the victims of nuclear war, Fukushima (and Chernobyl before it) exposed disgraceful failures on the part of both the nuclear industry and government authorities to adequately protect the health of injured and at-risk populations. In-depth studies of what it would take to do that—and what it would cost in both financial and social terms—could prevent a recurrence of the breakdowns witnessed in post-Fukushima Japan. They could also tip the balance of public opinion toward a rapid phase out of nuclear power, while feeding the sense of urgency for global elimination of nuclear weapons. If national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies were to conduct such studies, they would be providing a public service worthy of their humanitarian mission.

[1] Report from the committee of experts on damage scenarios resulting from a nuclear weapons attack. Hiroshima: Hiroshima City Council for Civil Protection. November 9, 2007.

  1. December 11, 2012 2:38 am

    Good points. I agree.

    In this context we should always try to get the four different scenarios discussed: Nuclear war; nuclear terrorist attack; dirty bomb; nuclear reactor accidents.

    Nuclear war: Nothing can be done, only prevention through abolition of nuclear weapons.

    Nuclear terrorism: Very little can be done. See e.g. the Black Dawn scenario. Preparations of very little value. On action only is important: You who live down-wind. Don not evacuate. Stay indoors.

    Dirty bomb: Can be on very different scales. Again: Stay indoors. Preparedness would be of value. As this is a fairly likely event, further discussions, by state authorities and Red Cross, would be important.

    Nuclear reactor accidents: Preparations important. Responsibility for civil protection should be defined. We will see more of these accidents or catastrophes, so preparations are important. The very sensitive questions of how to balance the consequences of evacuation versus those of evacuation must be discussed.

    Gunnar Westberg


  1. Is It Time to Improve Nuclear Disaster Preparedness? | Human Wrongs Watch

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