Ten Years Later – Reflections on Emergency Preparedness on the Anniversary of Fukushima

Blog post by CELA Executive Director, Theresa McClenaghan

Correction – We regret having made an error this article.  Our wording did not correctly convey the causes of death.  According to the World Nuclear Association, there were 2,313 deaths of evacuees from the Fukushima Daiicchi nuclear accident.  There were also 19,500 from the earthquake and tsunami.  There were no deaths attributed to radiation exposure.

This spring marks 10 years since the tragic Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. As we pause and remember the over 23,000 people who were lost, we honour their lives by advocating for strong nuclear emergency preparedness measures to ensure such a tragedy cannot happen again.

Regulators involved in the Fukushima incident have said publicly that the severe consequences of the accident at Fukushima, and the inability to protect people, were in large part due to the assumption by the regulators and the industry that such a large accident would never occur. That assumption resulted in a failure to put in place appropriate measures to respond to such an accident. These assumptions are not limited to Japan, nor have they changed in the last decade.

At the same time that the Fukushima tragedy was unfolding, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (through a joint review panel) was opening hearings under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act into the prospect of building new nuclear plants at the Darlington site in Durham Region, Ontario.

For that hearing, CELA looked at the adequacy of rules around emergency planning. We subsequently did the same review for every other operating nuclear power plant in Canada over the next few years. In each case we concluded that emergency planning in Ontario and New Brunswick were highly inadequate. CELA started a call for significant improvements in 2011 – since that time, very little has occurred to increase our confidence in Ontario’s state of readiness in the face of a nuclear accident.

The intersection of the Fukushima event and the Darlington EA and licensing hearings as well as the subsequent Pickering life-extension licensing hearings spotlighted the inappropriateness of Durham Region as a location for multiple nuclear plants, given the proximity to high population densities. It is even more alarming that the province continues to increase the population density of the Region by designating Durham as one focus of their “Places to Grow” plan, building more housing, more schools, and a new GO station.

Many people aren’t aware of the gaps in the emergency preparedness plans in Ontario. We know that children are especially vulnerable to the impacts of a nuclear accident, yet one of the biggest gaps in emergency preparedness at Darlington, and other nuclear sites in Ontario, is the inadequacy of plans to transport children, seniors, residents of long-term care facilities, hospital patients, etc. Most residents are expected to use their own transportation in the case of an accident, and too many won’t have access to personal vehicles, with little to no explanations provided to the surrounding residents about exactly how they would be evacuated without their own vehicles. The plans also assume that people can stay with family and friends – but what if their family is also in the evacuation zone? They also do not sufficiently address family reunification.

Fukushima taught us the importance of this kind of planning. Many deaths attributed to Fukushima resulted from the evacuation and subsequent long-term displacement following the evacuation, and included hospital patients and elderly people in care facilities. This was primarily due to the lack of preparedness which arose from the over-confidence in the safety of the nuclear plants.

Another ongoing gap in emergency preparedness is the inadequate pre-distribution of potassium iodide – one of the most basic measures that can be taken to address the health hazards of a radioactive release. This measure is especially critical for children. The distribution of potassium iodide pills is currently inadequate – operators and regulators have spent years just working on understanding the current framework for storing and distributing potassium iodide – they haven’t even begun the additional work they committed to in the last Pickering hearing about further distribution to ensure residents living beyond 10 km would be adequately protected.

At the same time that environmental groups and the public were participating in the EA and licensing hearings back in 2011 – 2013, CELA expressed significant concerns about the lack of assessment for potential for very serious off-site nuclear accidents – incidents where emissions are released offsite instead of being contained within the facility.

As a result of CELA’s submissions, alongside submissions by others, the province convened a technical study of the adequacy of the offsite modeling of radioactive emissions and potential exposures. Once completed, that study would drive further necessary emergency response preparations. Despite the updated technical study having been completed over a year and half ago, it has yet to be released. There has been no further action, nor has the public been engaged in any actions to improve emergency plans.

Ten years after Fukushima, it is time to pause and consider whether the lessons of that tragic accident have ever been adequately implemented, and whether the necessary changes have been made. This is a critical question for Canada, given that we continue to rely so heavily on nuclear power in Ontario.

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