Poor communications botched radiation monitoring on March 12

February 24, 2012

Japan failed to monitor the spread of radioactive materials due to a lack of communication among ministries the day after the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was damaged by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake.

The Self-Defense Forces sent a helicopter to pick up personnel for airborne monitoring, but could not find anyone from the science ministry or its affiliate responsible for the survey at the meeting point, sources said.

It was crucial to find out in which directions airborne radioactive materials were spreading on March 12, when the damaged nuclear power plant began releasing large amounts of radioactive substances into the atmosphere while vast numbers of residents were evacuating.

The U.S. Energy Department conducted a similar exercise for more than 40 hours between March 17 and 19, deploying personnel and aircraft from the United States.

A map released March 22 showed a high-radiation area extending northwest from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, a pattern of contamination later confirmed by other studies.

The government was not able to conduct airborne monitoring until March 25 due to reasons other than miscommunication.

“The flow of information stagnated at the bottom of a small pot of compartmentalized bureaucracy and administration, barring resources from being utilized,” said an official of a private-sector panel investigating the Fukushima accident.

In its report--to be compiled soon--the independent committee is expected to conclude that Japan’s failure to conduct airborne monitoring called the nation's key functions into question.

In airborne monitoring, personnel in airplanes or helicopters measure radiation levels hundreds of meters above ground and plot their distribution on an electronic map. They measure data using a radiation detector, Global Positioning System and notebook computers.

According to the Defense Ministry, the SDF’s Joint Staff Office on March 12 decided to send a Ground SDF midsize helicopter, which had been conducting rescue operations for tsunami victims, for airborne monitoring at the request from the science ministry.

The helicopter left the GSDF’s Camp Kasuminome in Sendai at 11:10 a.m. and landed in a park in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, at 1 p.m. The Nuclear Safety Technology Center, affiliated with the science ministry, keeps equipment for airborne monitoring at its facility in the village.

The SDF had been told that officials would be waiting at the park, according to the Defense Ministry. But no one from the science ministry or the center was found. The helicopter left the park at 1:10 p.m. and returned to the camp at 2:30 p.m.

The Nuclear Safety Technology Center said it received a request from the science ministry at 1:30 p.m. Two officials in charge of monitoring waited for the helicopter at the park for about an hour from 2:40 p.m.

The officials thought the helicopter was giving priority to rescue operations. They left for Fukushima by car at a little past 9 a.m. on March 13.

The officials finally met an SDF helicopter at a sports field in Ono, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 15. They took off at 11:20 a.m., but had to cancel the survey after a report of an explosion at the No. 4 reactor of the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

From March 16, the SDF was occupied with an emergency operation of throwing water onto pools to cool spent nuclear fuel at the plant. The first monitoring was conducted on March 25.

A science ministry official said the industry ministry’s Emergency Response Center proposed airborne monitoring and coordinated the project with the Defense Ministry. The official also said reports from the center were immediately relayed to the Nuclear Safety Technology Center.

An industry ministry official said it is investigating the case, saying that the chief of the radiation section at the Emergency Response Center at the time was from the science ministry.

(This article was written by Toshihiro Okuyama and Hiroo Sunaoshi.)

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