The 2011 Fukushima disaster was the worst nuclear catastrophe since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. A foremost reason for this is that residents of the Fukushima Prefecture had little forewarning. According to a recent Cabinet Office survey, the government’s declaration of a nuclear emergency, issued March 11, 2011, only reached 16.5 percent of the Fukushima Prefecture population.
A primary reason for the lack of notice was the fact that the tsunami, which was triggered by a massive magnitude-9 earthquake in northeastern Japan, destroyed communication networks in coastal areas. Consequently, the alert did not reach as many people as it otherwise would have. The government directive was issued nearly four hours after the earthquake struck Japan.
The results of the study – which included 19,535 evacuees from 22 municipalities in the Fukushima Prefecture – amplified the hurdles in promptly notifying citizens during an emergency situation, which is absolutely necessary to ensure that citizens evacuate quickly and efficiently.(1)
Central government issues emergency declaration
The survey was the largest government-sponsored study to analyze people who evacuated in wake of the Fukushima disaster, and was concluded between February and May 2014. The Cabinet Office claims that the study was necessitated by a law, and would enable researchers to use data to map out extensive evacuation plans for nuclear accidents. An estimated 59,378 people were sent questionnaires, but only 19,535 – or 32.9 percent – responded to them.
The central government sent out an emergency declaration from Tokyo at 7:03 p.m. on March 11, 2011, which was about four hours after the initial earthquake struck. A mere 16.5 percent of the participants claimed to have received the notification by the following day.(1)
At 9:23 p.m. on March 11, the government also issued a notice alerting residents living within a 3-kilometer radius of the crippled plant to evacuate the area. They also instructed residents living within a 10 kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant to stay indoors.(1)
Despite these notices, only 15.6 percent and 18.8 percent of the respondents, respectively, said that they were aware of receiving any instructions to leave the area the day after the disaster. Only 9.7 percent of residents living near the town of Namie, which is located within a 10-km radius of the nuclear facility, received an emergency declaration by March 12.(1)
Lights out for Fukushima residents
The medium of information dissemination in the coastal town – the communication infrastructure – was crippled by the earthquake and the tsunami, which triggered multiple power outages throughout the area.
The government issued extended evacuation notices over and over; residents in a 20- to 30-km radius of the power plant were repeatedly told to stay indoors March 15.(1)
The survey also discovered that 63.2 percent of the respondents said they had not received the March 15th instructions to evacuate the area until the end of April – more than a month after the initial catastrophe.(1)
By then, multiple explosions had erupted from the bowels of the nuclear facility, spewing a nefarious cloud of radiation into the air. Local governments of small communities were mapping out plans for all residents living within a 30-km radius of the power plant to stay sheltered until radiation levels had dropped to a safe level.(1)
According to another survey conducted by the Japanese government in 2014, almost half the households forced to evacuate were still living away from their homes, and 70 percent had relatives afflicted by physical and mental health problems caused by the disaster.(3)
The results of the study underscore the need for local governments to have better communications systems that ensure evacuation notices are received shortly after a crisis. More than four years after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government lifted an evacuation order for the small town of Naraha ten miles south of the decimated nuclear facility.(4)