Photo/IllutrationThis second floor room at the off-site center was used for meetings among the various officials based there to deal with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. (Shigetaka Kodama)

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  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

An abandoned two-story building in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, with overgrown weeds symbolizes the government's overconfidence and failure in dealing with a nuclear power plant emergency.

This off-site emergency center for the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, located about 5 kilometers southwest of the crippled facility, appears headed for demolition by April 2020.

The government seemingly would like to erase this embarrassing reminder of its ineptitude in handling the 2011 nuclear disaster.

The crisis center was to serve as a base of operations for central and local government officials, as well as those at Tokyo Electric Power Co. in charge of the nuclear plant, in the event of a major accident striking the plant.

However, the lack of adequate measures to ensure airtightness in the facility led to its abandonment four days after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami inundated the Fukushima No. 1 plant and crippled its cooling systems.

And while the 150 or so individuals who had gathered at the off-site center were swiftly evacuated to a safer location, the same did not occur for the 90 or so patients at Futaba Hospital, located about 1 kilometer away.

Officials in charge of dealing with the nuclear disaster left the evacuation of patients up to the Self-Defense Forces, but delays and other factors led to the eventual deaths of about 50 of those patients, either while still at the hospital, en route to an evacuation site or later at the gymnasium where the patients were evacuated to.

Most of Okuma was initially classified by the central government as a "difficult-to-return" zone because of high radiation levels. But decontamination efforts were implemented in the central part of the town to turn it into a base for rebuilding and resuscitation of the community. The plan is to lift the evacuation order for that base in the spring of 2022.

The off-site center is situated within that base area and Okuma town officials had asked the central government, which owns the building housing the off-site center, and the Fukushima prefectural government, which manages the building, to demolish it to allow for construction of a residential district in the area.

The local office of the Environment Ministry plans to complete demolition of the building by the end of the current fiscal year. Some items from the building that are considered worthy of preservation will be removed to another exhibition facility now under construction.

However, one expert criticized the move to simply erase what could be considered a blot on the government's handling of the nuclear disaster.

Naoya Sekiya, an associate professor at the Center for Integrated Disaster Information Research at the University of Tokyo, touched upon the fact that off-site centers around Japan were constructed after the 1999 nuclear criticality accident at the JCO Co.'s uranium-processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, which killed two workers and exposed hundreds of residents to high levels of radiation.

"While I can understand the need for the town to rebuild, the off-site center serves as a symbol that conveys how optimistic were the expectations about nuclear disasters even in the wake of the JCO accident," Sekiya said. "Demolishing the building appears to be an attempt to erase that lesson and is not helpful in terms of thinking about preventing future accidents at nuclear plants."

SEVEN YEARS LATER

The off-site center was visited on June 25 to observe the interior as well as such facilities as the shower room that employees exposed to radiation used before re-entering the building.

The doors on the building were similar to those found at most commercial buildings. The center served as a base of operations for 150 officials from the economy and science ministries, the SDF, the Fukushima prefectural government and TEPCO soon after the March 11, 2011, nuclear disaster.

But blackouts and disconnecting of communications channels meant officials at the off-site center could neither collect or transmit information about the fast-developing nuclear disaster.

Moreover, radiation levels within the building reached 200 microsieverts per hour, more than 50 times the level at which evacuation orders are issued. On March 15, 2011, all officials at the off-site center were evacuated.

The last time the off-site center was open to the media was in March 2012.

On June 25, the radiation level at the entrance to the building was 2 microsieverts per hour. That meant special protective gear was not needed to look around the building.

Seven years ago, one item that caught the eye of reporters was a whiteboard that contained jottings about the developing nuclear disaster.

One note said that the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 plant had exploded. Another said that 48 patients remained at Futaba Hospital as of 10:50 a.m. on March 13, 2011. But that last note showed just how incomplete the data gathering was because at that time there were still about 90 patients at the hospital.

While a Fukushima prefectural government official said that items deemed worthy of preservation had already been moved to another location, there were still dozens of computers and copiers left behind in the office.

Although efforts were made to seal the windows and doors of the building after the nuclear disaster, the rapid rate at which radiation levels increased showed how futile such measures were.

PRESERVING LESSONS OF MISTAKES

Yotaro Hatamura served as chairman of the government's Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Co. He was a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and was known for his work on the "science of failure."

He said recently that the government had set aside money in its budget to deal with radiation exposure, but that the former Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) "just ignored those funds because it was convinced by the thinking that a nuclear accident would never occur."

Hatamura added, however, that just preserving various items and displaying them after cleaning them would not have any real meaning in terms of learning lessons from the accident.

Debate has occurred in a number of communities over preserving relics from the 2011 nuclear and natural disasters to serve as monuments about what should not be forgotten.

In some communities, extended discussions have been held between residents about whether to preserve local government buildings heavily damaged by the tsunami.

However, Okuma town officials admitted that no such forum for debate had been provided local residents regarding the off-site center.

One official of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry who once worked at NISA said, "Since NISA no longer exists, there are few bureaucrats within the ministry who want to pass on the failures involved in dealing with the nuclear disaster."