COMMENT: Sobered by Fukushima lessons, Japan revamps first-response plans, expands evac zones around nuclear power plants – but Russia takes no heed

ingressimage_Japan_zones.jpg Photo: Asahi Shimbun

The three zones

A special working group within the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan has proposed revisions to government guidelines on protective measures to undertake in the event of a nuclear accident, including expanding disaster mitigation perimeters around Japan’s seventeen nuclear power plants.

The expanded measures, Japan’s The Asahi Shimbun writes in this story, of late October, are to cover 135 municipalities and nearly 8 million people – a step the government is taking at the urging of municipal authorities because of the March disaster at Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, where efforts to bring the crisis under control are still ongoing.

“Municipalities called for expansion because areas within a 20-km radius of the Fukushima No. 1 plant – far wider than initially expected – became off-limits after the accident,” The Asahi Shimbun reported.

Among other suggestions, the panel proposes abolishing the so-called eight-to-ten-kilometre Emergency Planning Zone. Earlier disaster management plans provided for evacuation from this perimeter only – but the catastrophe at Fukushima, which erupted last March and has evolved into one of the worst nuclear catastrophes, along with Ukraine’s Chernobyl of 1986, has demonstrated evacuation plans need to be in place for much larger areas around nuclear power plants should a reactor happen to be in distress. This has been taken into account in the new proposals.

An equally important factor is the timeliness of decision-making and the government’s readiness to deploy the resources that such a complicated effort as evacuation requires.

“It took a long time before authorities forecast damage and decided to evacuate residents after the accident started at the Fukushima No. 1 plant,” The Asahi Shimbun wrote in its report, detailing the new proposals. “The government ordered evacuation 4.5 hours after Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the plant, said it became impossible to pump water into the No. 1 and 2 reactors.”

This was a delay the Japanese were not to take lightly, and, eager to learn from this mistake, Tokyo is now preparing to have all ducks in a row in the event that an accident at a nuclear power plant strikes again.

According to The Asahi Shimbun, in 2006 – four years after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had urged its member states to decide on countermeasures based on actual radiation levels – the Nuclear Safety Commission had already considered revising the guidelines in accordance with IAEA standards but concluded that a flexible response would be possible with the existing guidelines.

But precious time was once lost already in 1986, when the fourth reactor blew up at Chernobyl NPP: It then took Moscow several days to assess the real scope of the catastrophe and evacuate the residents of Chernobyl’s satellite town of Pripyat and surrounding territories.

Unconditional evacuation of the five-kilometre perimeter

The nuclear safety panel has proposed introducing a so-called Precautionary Action Zone within a five-kilometre radius of each nuclear power plant – areas where a serious accident would warrant unconditional evacuation of all residents.

What is important here is Japan’s willingness to acknowledge that should an accident happen, the most prudent and efficient course of action to take in order to protect the population would be immediate evacuation before establishing all details of the accident. That would be by contrast to the currently existing guidelines specifying measures for the Emergency Planning Zone, which the government’s working group suggests dispensing with.

According to The Asahi Shimbun, “the central and local governments decide on evacuation and other measures in the [Emergency Planning Zone] after forecasting diffusion of radioactive materials.”

But residents have to be moved swiftly out of the stricken areas – before they become exposed to a deadly radiation plume. Indeed, all issues with the prevailing wind direction and the expected fallout pattern could be taken care of later – the residents’ safety comes first. 

In Russia, some of the satellite towns that house nuclear power plants’ employees and their families are located at a distance of five kilometres of the sites, or less – such as Udomlya near Kalinin NPP and Kurchatov near Kursk NPP (Western Russia), Novovoronezh near Novovoronezh NPP (in Southwestern Russia), or Sosnovy Bor, near Leningrad NPP, which feeds Russia’s second largest city of St. Petersburg (Northwest Russia). Yet, no unconditional evacuation plans are established for these populations.

Given what we know about Chernobyl, the likely scenario one might expect to unfold following a grave accident – scary as it might be – is that the Russian authorities would first wait for details, then try to recover from shock at the news, and then waste another two or three painful days deciding whether or not to evacuate. And for now, even the very principle is denied that complete and unconditional evacuation from within a five-kilometre area around a reactor in distress is what a government should be expected to do to ensure its citizens’ safety.  

Such disregard for population safety could lead to dangerous and unnecessary overexposure to radiation, something that the approach now suggested in Japan could very well help avoid.

Urgent protection measures for the thirty-kilometre perimeter

The so-called Urgent Protective Action Planning Zone is the proposed designation for the area within the thirty-kilometre radius of each nuclear power plant. The Nuclear Safety Commission’s working group suggests residents within this perimeter would be required to evacuate or stay indoors if radiation levels exceed a predetermined standard, The Asahi Shimbun reports.

In these areas, radiation meters would have to be installed and operated and dosimeters and protective clothing would need to be prepared for the population, the paper says.

According to The Asahi Shimbun, about 7.93 million people live in the newly proposed Urgent Protective Action Planning Zone – four times as many as about 2.05 million within the current Emergency Planning Zone, which covers 44 municipalities and that the government panel now proposes to abolish.

In Russia, some of such thirty-kilometre zones would include residential quarters of Voronezh, Balakovo (near Balakovo NPP in Southwestern Russia), and other large enough cities. But the Russian nuclear industry does not admit the risk of exposure for the residents of these cities, and no such emergency measures as dosimeters, protective clothing, or evacuation are provided for in case a nuclear or radiation accident occurs

Emergency measures for the fifty-kilometre perimeter

The third zone that the Nuclear Safety Commission’s working group proposes to introduce in Japan is the so-called Plume Protection Planning Zone, to protect residents within a fifty-kilometre radius of a nuclear power plant from potential exposure to radioactive fallout.

In this zone, The Asahi Shimbun reports, residents would be required to stay indoors, and iodine tablets would be prepared to prevent internal exposure. No evacuation is provided for in this case.

The paper reports the newly proposed measures would result in “substantial” expenditures – all, including the planning and preparation of evacuation procedures, installation of radiation meters, the purchase, storage, and distribution of dosimeters, protective clothing, and tablets of stable iodine among the population, to be incurred by the Japanese government.

In all fairness, these significant expenses should be borne by the nuclear industry, not the Japanese taxpayers. However, the disaster at Fukushima dealt a heavy enough blow to that plant’s operator company, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), to put it out of business. There seems to be, therefore, no other option than place the financial burden of preparing the revised protection measures on the Japanese state budget.   

And as for Russia, even the idea of any harmful impact that a nuclear or radiation accident might have on the populated areas located at farther distances than 30 kilometres of a nuclear reactor is not, as a rule, considered at all.

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One of the exceptions to this rule is the Master Layout Plan of St. Petersburg, which includes a map of a potential fallout pattern, with cigar-shaped trails of radioactive contamination that might cover St. Petersburg in the event of a nuclear accident at the nearby Leningrad NPP. 

Indeed, St. Petersburg did once come under exposure of a radioactive plume that travelled the seventy-odd-kilometre distance that lies between the city and the nuclear town of Sosnovy Bor following an accident at that plant in 1975.

But is that all the risk there is?

Unfortunately, proof that urgent disaster planning measures should be considered for even much larger territories exists – and could be found elsewhere than Japan. Both Japan’s Fukushima and the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl are the world’s worst nuclear disasters. But the 1986 catastrophe in what was then the Soviet Republic of Ukraine could have long ago served as a tragic lesson that the scope of irreparable damage done by a nuclear accident to the environment and population health could spread for hundreds of kilometres.

The well-known Belarusian physicist Yury Voronezhtsev, who served on the Supreme Soviet commission that investigated the causes of the Chernobyl disaster at the time Belarus, just like Russia and Ukraine, were still part of the USSR, told Bellona that, according to his information, permanent evacuation – when it was eventually implemented after the accident – included at least over two dozen populated localities that used to be situated at distances of over 200 kilometres from the destroyed reactor. Among them was, for instance, the settlement of Osinovy, of Krasnopolye District in Belarus’s Mogilyov Region, at 240 kilometres off Chernobyl.

This is the list of thirty communities that Voronezhtsev – who is now a member of the movement “Scientists for Nuclear-Free Belarus” and the Belarusian Anti-Nuclear Campaign, and is among many protesting the construction, in Belarus, of a new nuclear power plant to an as yet untested Russian design – provided for Bellona, a sad roster of Krasnopolye villages and settlements that ceased to exist, between 1986 and 2005, because of Chernobyl:

Losinka, Rosomakha-1, Berezyaki-1, Yelnya, Maly Osov, Rosomakha-2, Berezyaki-2, Zhelizhye, Manuily, Sosnovitsa-1, Bolin, Zheleznitsa, Maryina, Buda, Sosnovitsa-2, Bolshoi Osov, Kakoisky, Mkhinichi, Sosnovsky, Vysoky Borok, Kalinino, Neryadovka, Staraya Buda, Gatskevich, Kalinovy Bor, Novoyelnya, Stepanov, Gorna, Korma, Osinovy.

A mere list like this would make it impossible to deny that an accident at a nuclear power plant can force people who live at two hundred or more kilometres away out of their homes and their land – but this is exactly what the Russian nuclear industry does as it ignores the potential threat and the duty to provide for more serious emergency planning that such a threat warrants.

Russia downplays potential impact

In Russia, the nuclear industry refuses to acknowledge that any risk of impact on the surrounding environment or population health exists beyond the site of a new nuclear power plant.

The contrast is striking: The Russian equivalent to Japan’s five-kilometre unconditional evacuation zone is the operating premises of a nuclear power plant, the actual territory of the site – or a 500-metre radius. The protective action planning zone of 50 kilometres in Japan is what Russia thinks three kilometres will cover sufficiently.

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As an example, consider this excerpt from the official Environmental Impact Assessment Report prepared for the second line of construction at Leningrad NPP, where two VVER-1200 reactors are being built to the Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom’s AES-2006 (NPP-2006) project (see “NPP-2006. Investment Feasibility Study for Leningrad NPP-2. Vol. 5. Environmental Impact Assessment Report. Federal State Unitary Enterprise (FGUP) Atomenergoproekt, St. Petersburg, 2006. P. 96):

“As per the [norms and specifications in force], the project of Leningrad NPP-2 includes stipulations on the area and limits of the protective action planning zone […], unconditional evacuation zone […], and monitoring zone […].

[…]

Protective measures in the [protective action planning zone], proposed as part of the [Investment Feasibility Study] and having a radius of 3 kilometres, are limited to [ensuring protective] shelter and/or iodine prophylaxis for the population. As with regard to protective measures beyond the [protective action planning zone], the likelihood that such will be required is deemed low, with the exception of obligatory local monitoring of food products and restrictions applied to their production/consumption.”

Rosatom cannot avoid setting up an obligatory evacuation perimeter altogether – this would be noncompliant with the relevant IAEA regulations. But Rosatom limits such a perimeter to within the boundaries of the actual site of a nuclear power plant.

Restricting the area of protective action planning to within the radius of three to five kilometres of a nuclear power plant, depending on the project in question, is, needless to say, another example of heedless underestimation of risks.

Rosatom “misleads both the public and the responsible decision-makers”

By disregarding the risks that unfortunately become only too clear with tragedies such as the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters, Rosatom misleads both the population and those who will be in charge of making critical decisions should something go wrong.

And that the risks are downplayed significantly becomes obvious when one analyzes documentation for the nuclear corporation’s NPP-2006 projects – both under implementation (such as at Novovoronezh NPP-2, Leningrad NPP-2, or Baltic NPP, a new site under construction in Russia’s westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad) and those in the planning stages (Tver NPP in Western European Russia, Nizhny Novgorod and Kostroma NPPs in Central European Russia, and Ostrovets, the site Rosatom is preparing to build in Belarus’s Grodno Region).

Specifically, it is Rosatom’s treatment of potential fallout resulting from beyond-design-basis accidents that experts find especially lacking in substantiation.

In a 2009 document published in Minsk and called “Critical notes on ‘Statement on the potential environmental impact of the Belarusian NPP (Preliminary Environmental Impact Report for the Belarusian NPP)’,” an independent evaluation of the project Rosatom is developing for Belarus’s Ostrovets, experts agreed that:

“The scope of discharge of radioactive substances that may result from so-called beyond-design-basis accidents is underrated at least ten times compared to the standard global practice of assessing the environmental impact of [NPPs], and more than 320 times if compared to the fallout that resulted from an accident that has already taken place at an analogous reactor.”   

The conclusions that the Belarusian experts come to with regard to the envisioned project in Belarus are equally applicable to all NPP-2006 projects, which all make similarly distorted projections of potential radioactive discharges that would follow a severe beyond-design-basis accident:

The most troubling problem is that the scope of radionuclide discharges due to potential accidents has been underestimated by a factor of hundreds or even thousands of times. The extent of territories that may be affected by accident-induced discharges as well as accident-free operation has been incorrectly determined. As a result, no measures to protect the population or mitigate the consequences of a potential accident have been provided for. […] This misleads both the public and the responsible decision-makers. […] If an unbiased assessment is done of all the aspects of the NPP’s impact on the environment and population health, it will become clear that the dangerous project should be abandoned [and] that the only solution mutually acceptable for both the project owner and the public and which can avert the harmful impact on the environment is a decision to discontinue the activities related to the construction of the NPP.”

One would, of course, wish that Russia would follow Japan’s example and introduce five-kilometre-wide unconditional evacuation zones and fifty-kilometre-zones of protective action planning around its ten nuclear power plants in operation and all the new ones it is building or projecting to build… And this will not happen until Rosatom admits that nuclear power plants are inherently dangerous, that no one can rule out completely the risk of severe accidents, and that severe accidents can unleash a menace that can go far beyond the 500-metre or three-kilometre perimeter installed around a plant and do untold damage to the environment and population health.

As of now, alas, nothing has changed: Chernobyl and Fukushima’s lessons remain unlearned, and Rosatom’s reckless misrepresentation of potential dangers goes unchallenged – putting the Russian population’s safety at risk.

Andrey Ozharovsky

idc.moscow@gmail.com

Maria Kaminskaya