NISA obstructed adoption of IAEA guidelines for nuclear accidents

March 15, 2012

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency hindered plans in 2006 to adopt international standards on establishing evacuation zones in the event of a nuclear accident, according to documents obtained by The Asahi Shimbun.

NISA said the new guidelines could cause confusion among the public and spread fears about nuclear power. The plan was eventually dropped.

If the new guidelines had been adopted, residents could have avoided the confusion that transpired over the government’s changing evacuation instructions following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant last year.

The International Atomic Energy Agency advised member countries to upgrade their standards on emergency zones and countermeasures for serious nuclear accidents.

The Cabinet Office’s Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan set up a working group in March 2006 to revise Japan’s guidelines to reflect the IAEA's proposal.

Under the IAEA’s revised standards, finalized in 2007, an Urgent Protective Action Planning Zone (UPZ) would be immediately established within a 30-kilometer radius of a damaged nuclear power plant.

The IAEA also recommended designating a Precautionary Action Zone (PAZ) up to 5 km from the plant. All residents would be immediately evacuated from the PAZ--without exception--in the event of a nuclear accident.

The NSC group wanted to scrap Japan’s emergency planning zone--8 to 10 km from a plant--and adopt the IAEA’s standards.

According to documents obtained through information disclosure laws, a NISA letter arrived at the NSC in late April 2006.

“We want the discussion (on revising the guidelines) halted since it could cause confusion in society and increase anxiety among Japanese citizens about nuclear safety,” the NISA letter said. NISA also mentioned a possible increase in government financial support under such new guidelines.

NISA, which is under the industry ministry that promoted the use of nuclear power, took the stance: “Japan’s nuclear disaster management has no particular problem and changes are not necessary.” It asked the NSC to remove most of its proposed changes, according to the document.

When the NSC refused the request, NISA scolded the commission in a statement dated in June that year.

“Reviewing our country’s disaster management guidelines should not be linked to the IAEA’s official decision,” the statement read.

It also said: “It is careless of your section (NSC secretariat’s management section) to have started discussing revisions of the disaster management guidelines on its own. It is extremely regrettable.”

The exchange of opinions continued, and discussions of the NSC working group were reopened in August.

According to the documents, experts at the meetings said: “We have to consider how we can adopt the UPZ in the Japanese guidelines” and “(With the revision), we can cope with accidents more flexibly.”

But in a meeting in November, NSC members changed their stance, saying, “We would be able to cope with situations under the current guidelines” and “We do not have to include additional measures.”

With no objections coming from expert members, the introduction of the IAEA standards was shelved.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 11 last year, the government issued evacuation orders for residents within a 3-km radius of the plant at 9:23 p.m.

The evacuation zone was expanded to 20 km from the plant on March 12. On March 15 residents within the 20- to 30-km zone from the plant were told to remain indoors.

If the PAZ and UPZ were introduced in 2006, residents within 30 km of the plant would have been told to evacuate or stay indoors on the day the accident started. They could also have taken preventive measures, such as consuming iodine to protect their thyroid glands from radioactive substances.

In July last year, the NSC started to review its nuclear disaster management guidelines with an eye on adopting the international standards.

This article was written by Yuri Oiwa and Jin Nishikawa.

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