Report urging mass evacuation of Tokyo residents kept secret

Fri, Jan 27, 2012, 00:00

JAPAN’S GOVERNMENT feared millions of Tokyo residents might have to be evacuated during the worst of last year’s nuclear crisis, but kept the scenario secret to avoid panic in some of the world’s most crowded urban areas, according to an internal report.

The 15-page report, by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, was delivered to then prime minister Naoto Kan two weeks after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami triggered the crisis as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

It warned that if the situation at the plant spiralled out of control, compulsory or voluntary evacuation orders would have to be issued to residents living within 250km (155 miles), a radius that would have included the metropolitan Tokyo area, home to about 30 million people.

The directive would have also covered several large cities north and west of the plant, including Sendai, which has roughly the same population as Dublin. Some of the areas would be contaminated for “several decades” warned the report, which has been seen by AP news agency.

Last May, operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) admitted that uranium fuel inside three of the plant’s reactors had melted down in the first few days after March 11th. A series of hydrogen explosions had showered thousands of square kilometres of land and sea with radioactive substances, but government and Tepco officials repeatedly denied the meltdown scenario.

Over 80,000 people were subsequently told to leave the most heavily irradiated areas around the nuclear plant and have yet to return. Tens of thousands more have since left Fukushima prefecture voluntarily.

Mr Kan and his government insisted throughout March and April that the nuclear crisis was being contained and ignored calls to widen the evacuation area, saying there was no need.

After he left office, the prime minister admitted in an interview with a Tokyo newspaper last autumn that he feared the Fukushima disaster would leave the capital uninhabitable, and that evacuating it would have been “impossible”. He said that the “spine-chilling thought” of a deserted capital convinced him to scrap nuclear power.

The latest revelations will revive criticism that the authorities have been less than forthcoming since the crisis erupted, and add to suspicions that they are still downplaying the impact of radiation. Government officials recently admitted that data on where the radiation went was withheld from the Japanese public for 10 days, but given to the US military in Japan.

The report will also add to concerns that Japan is unprepared for a similar disaster. Last week researchers at the University of Tokyo warned that there was a 75 per cent probability that the capital would be hit by a major earthquake in the next four years.

Japan’s minister for the nuclear crisis Goshi Hosono insisted, however, that the government had made the right decision to withhold the report.

“We were concerned about the possibility of causing excessive and unnecessary worry if we went ahead and made it public,” he was quoted by AP as saying.