Seven months on, Japan yet to finalize nuclear evacuation plan

TOKYO Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:02am EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese nuclear experts are considering widening the evacuation zone in the event of a nuclear disaster, more than seven months after the world's worst such disaster since Chernobyl.

Japan faced widespread criticism over its slow response in evacuating residents near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which suffered fuel rod meltdowns after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and is still leaking radiation.

A committee under Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission has been reviewing the country's nuclear disaster prevention guidelines, trying to learn lessons from the worst nuclear disaster since 1986.

It is considering creating a 30-km (18-mile) radius around nuclear power plants where residents should be ready to take shelter or prepare to evacuate, a draft document compiled by the NSC secretariat and released by the NSC on Thursday showed.

This compares with a current zone of a radius up to 10 km.

It is also considering recommending that local authorities in a 50-km radius from plants be prepared to provide iodine tablets that help prevent thyroid cancers from radiation exposure.

The committee is planning to revise the draft document and finalize recommendations on evacuation zones next month. It plans to come up with a mid-term review this year, while it may take years to fully revise the guidelines, an official at the NSC secretariat said.

About 80,000 residents were forced to evacuate from a 20-km radius from the Fukushima Daiichi plant after the radiation crisis and some 30,000 more left the 20-30-km radius zone, though some are starting to come back.

Hours after a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11 damaged the cooling systems of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the government told residents within a 3-km radius of the plant to evacuate.

The reactor troubles then led to fuel core meltdowns and massive leaks of radioactive materials. The government expanded the zone to a 10-km radius on March 12 and later that day to a 20-km radius. Many fled their homes as radiation levels rose.

The United States and some other countries had advised its citizens to stay out of a 80-km radius of the Fukushima plant.

(Reporting by Yoko Kubota)