Image: Town hall meeting near Fukushima nuclear plant
Wally Santana  /  AP
A resident explains his fears during a town hall meeting on the impact of radiation exposure from the nearby leaking Fukushima nuclear plant on Tuesday.
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updated 3/22/2011 7:16:12 PM ET 2011-03-22T23:16:12

When the massive earthquake and tsunami rocked northeast Japan on March 11, residents who had been prepared by years of drills knew exactly what to do: They scrambled for cover until the shaking stopped, then ran for higher ground to avoid the giant wave.

But when word came that the disasters had left the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant leaking radiation, residents were baffled. Should they run? Stay indoors? Drink the water? Eat the food?

Story: Worries over husband, home at Japan evacuation center

Japan, famous for drilling its citizens on how to prepare for all manner of natural disasters, has done far less to prepare those who live near its many nuclear reactors for emergencies. This has left neighbors of the crippled Fukushima power station confused, misinformed and angry in the face of the country's worst-ever nuclear crisis.

Slideshow: Devastation in Japan after quake (on this page)

"The only time I ever learned anything in school about nuclear stuff was when we studied about Chernobyl in history class," said Chiyo Maeda, a bank clerk who lived only 16 miles (25 kilometers) from the plant before her home was destroyed by the tsunami. "If we had known more before this happened, maybe we could have reacted more calmly."

Japan takes disaster preparedness seriously. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese take part in an annual drill every Sept. 1 — the anniversary of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in Tokyo that killed 142,000 people. The exercise, which usually involves the military and civilians — including the prime minister — has sometimes even seen participation by the U.S. Navy.

And yet, in dozens of interviews with The Associated Press, residents evacuated from the most dangerous areas said they never received any information about how to avoid the radiation threat in an emergency, a basic requirement in some other countries that operate nuclear power facilities.

Video: Nukes expert: ‘Not out of the woods yet’ (on this page)

They hadn't heard of any drills organized by the government or the power company that runs the plant. And they were mystified by the radiation readings and technical language used by officials to explain the crisis.

'No one ever expected this'
Yuji Kusano, a maintenance worker at the doomed plant, said staffers were trained for fires and emergencies. "But nothing was done to educate the residents nearby," he said. "I just think no one ever expected this."

Government and utility officials conceded they did not have the resources, nor did they think it was necessary, to distribute pamphlets or conduct a public awareness campaign on what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency, except in the immediate vicinity of the plant.

Fukushima prefecture distributes leaflets in newspapers twice a month to 20,000 households immediately around the nuclear plant with basic instructions, like close the windows and stay inside. But that's only a fraction of the 245,000-or-so people living within 19 miles (30 kilometers) of the plant who have either been told to evacuate or stay indoors since the crisis began.

Takeyoshi Murakami, a prefectural official in charge of nuclear safety, conceded that authorities would have to review the entire public outreach program. "Nobody anticipated it would cover such a large area," he said.

Interactive: Crisis in Japan (on this page)

Yoshihiro Amano, a grocery store owner about 3½ miles (6 kilometers) from the reactors, said he never paid much attention to them. "They mainly just said everything was safe" about the reactors, he said.

And though they did hold a drill three years ago at the Fukushima plant, only a tiny fraction of residents in the danger zone participated, while others had no idea it was even held.

"We have no manual on what to do in case of a nuclear accident," said Yukio Nishiyama, a disaster prevention official in Tamura, a city of about 41,000 that lies partly within the zone where officials have told residents to stay indoors. "So far the only thing we can do is just follow instructions from the government."

Varying requirements
Other countries have varying requirements for nuclear emergency preparedness.

In the U.S., nuclear plants are required to provide annual detailed emergency plans to residents within the 10-mile (16-kilometer) evacuation zone. The Indian Point nuclear plant near New York City, which has preparedness plans typical of other U.S. nuclear sites, sends manuals to every resident and business in the evacuation zone explaining everything from evacuation procedures to the usefulness of potassium iodide pills in helping prevent radiation-induced thyroid cancer. Residents can sign up to receive warnings by telephone or email and there is a warning siren for those in the evacuation area.

In Britain, plant operators are required to distribute information to surrounding residents, including basic facts about radiation and its effects, and what to do in an emergency.

An internal disaster management plan for Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant obtained by the AP outlined contingency plans, coordination with the government and employee education about nuclear accidents. But the 82-page plan devoted only one sentence and four brief bullet points to the subject of public preparedness, including the need to inform people about radioactivity and the special nature of nuclear disasters.

Japan requires nuclear plants to hold disaster prevention exercises, but preparedness generally does not involve the general public, government officials and executives at Tokyo Electric acknowledged.

Yuhei Sato, Fukushima's governor, said nuclear accident drills are held once a year, but only for selected local representatives.

"We can't possibly do them for tens of thousands of people," he told the AP.

Japan's Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama said the government and nuclear operators hold drills several times a year, including an annual nationwide exercise headed by the prime minister. Still, he acknowledged more must be done to raise public awareness.

'We should learn a lesson'
"Even though we try to provide information regarding nuclear accidents as much as possible, it would have been difficult for most residents to anticipate a crisis like this to actually happen in their neighborhood," he said. "I think we should learn a lesson from what happened and review our contingency plans."

But even the most detailed preparedness can't solve one major problem: Many people simply don't pay attention until disaster strikes.

"Getting people to actually come for a briefing or participate in a drill or whatever is like pulling teeth," said Matthew Bunn, professor of public policy at Harvard University. "People who live near nuclear power plants usually don't know a whole lot more than other people do, about what the risks are or what the procedures would be, if there were a crisis."

Officials did hold a drill at Fukushima in 2008 that involved 4,000 people, including 1,800 residents from nearby towns.

The mock scenario was based on one of the reactors losing its cooling capacity and releasing radiation — similar to the current situation. The exercise was intended to give people more information about how they could protect themselves in an emergency, evacuation procedures and what medical assistance is available for radiation exposure.

In an evaluation report written after the drill, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said there was a need for better public education. But none of that appears to have trickled down to the people now affected by the disaster.

"Nobody here knows what a microsievert is," said 59-year-old Tomio Hirota, referring to the unit used to measure a dose of radiation. "I had never heard of that until all this happened. We don't understand what's going on, so we worry."

Chiho Watanabe, a teacher in Fukushima, said the school has regular fire and earthquake drills, but had done nothing to plan for a nuclear crisis. Nor did it have any monitoring devices for radiation.

"We had done absolutely nothing to prepare for a nuclear crisis. This experience serves as a lesson for us that we need to be better prepared," Watanabe said. "I hope others around the world who live near nuclear plants will study what happened here and learn from it."

Getting better, clearer information to the public could not come too soon for Yumiko Ogata, a rice and vegetable farmer in Fukushima who is worried that radiation, which has already contaminated water, milk and some vegetables, could destroy her own livelihood growing radishes and lettuce.

"I guess we just trusted the government that the nuclear plants were safe," she said. "What else could we do? The nuclear facilities never instructed us that we needed to be ready for something like this."

___

Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi, Tomoko A. Hosaka, Shino Yuasa and Joji Sakurai in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Workers return to crippled nuclear plant

  1. Closed captioning of: Workers return to crippled nuclear plant

    >> is the situation that damaged the nuclear plant in japan could be stabilizing but the concern is far from over. we have robert bazell in tokyo again this morning with more on the story. bob, good morning.

    >> reporter: ann , good morning to you. of course it's nighttime in tokyo . last night at this time the radiation levels in the nuclear power plant went as high as they have been at any time since the accident. during the day today they came down again. it's an up and down situation and it's clear that the efforts to stabilize the reactors are far from over. with smoke, steam and radiation still escaping from the reactors, all workers were back on the job today at the crippled fukushima site picking up where they left off after some were evacuated monday. efforts to get electricity to run pumps have run into snags with much of the equipment damaged beyond repair. this sports arena near tokyo is home to 2,300 people from fukushima prefecture . some lost homes. others are radiation refugees, forced to flee the air. juko's husband works at the plant and is now part of the effort to contain it. she and her 5-year-old son were forced to flee. her husband can only call her. she can't contact him. she's very worried. in the disaster zone there is much misery. thousands homeless looking for aid to arrive. there is still worry over radiation in food. milk from fukushima and leafy vegetables from a large area of northern japan are now banned. now radiation has been detected in sea water near the plant. although officials say the levels pose no risk to humans, there is clear concern. this woman in tokyo asked if the rain will contaminate her. then there is the overwhelming task of cleanup and recovery as many search for loved ones still missing. 24-year-old taylor anderson of richmond, virginia, was an english teacher living in the miyagi prefecture .

    >> she was living her dream.

    >> reporter: taylor helped get the children out of the school when the earthquake hit, waiting until parents arrived. for days her parents waited for news of taylor .

    >> i wanted to touch her, feel her, listen to her, hear her voice.

    >> reporter: her body was found monday. the first american among thousands of japanese known to have perished in the zadisaster. as the search labors on, another american family is waiting to hear from 26-year-old monty dixon. he belonged to the same program as taylor , teaching english in another area ravaged by the tsunami. his family in alaska is consumed by worry.

    >> the grief is overwhelming.

    >> reporter: we wish them the best. there are so many sad stories, ann , with the earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear power plant . there is another american angle on the nuclear issue which is that a waft of the cloud was detected in seattle today indicating slight traces of radiation. if people have a hard time realizing that it is not a significant amount of radiation, it is still a worry to people and they have to be reassured. very different from the area near the site where there is a serious and ongoing nuclear emergency. ann ?

    >> robert bazell this morning. thanks.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Map: Japan earthquake

  1. Above: Map Japan earthquake
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  3. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan

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