Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Radiation Fears Threaten Red Cross Relief Effort

An evolving nuclear crisis in quake-hit Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, could add misery to hundreds of thousands of quake victims by possibly forcing relief organizations to withdraw their operations.

"The Japanese Red Cross Society is committed to rescue any victims, including those of nuclear radiation," JRCS spokesman Mutsuhiko Owaki said. "But we cannot send rescue workers to places where there is a clear risk of radiation exposure," he added, indicating that the group will have to limit its operations to areas where such risks are low.

In response to an appeal for help from the JRCS, a five-person team has arrived in Japan from the International Red Cross to evaluate Japan's assistance needs. The team's assessment on the radiation risks could influence the decision by other countries to send rescue teams to Japan.

Miyagi is located just north of Fukushima prefecture, the scene of partial reactor meltdowns in the worst nuclear disaster in Japan's history.The Tokyo Fire Department, which currently has about 500 firefighters engaged in relief operations in Miyagi prefecture, said it will have to consider options such as redeploying its rescue workers. "There would be no choice but to take action if the situation became much worse," a spokesman said.

Japanese relief teams are fairly experienced in dealing with quake-related disasters. But none anticipated having to deal with a radiation crisis.

On Tuesday, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station suffered an explosion in one reactor and a fire in another, causing the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. Near the plant, radiation reached levels that could pose serious health risks. Even in Tokyo, 200 kilometers, or 124 miles, south of the scene of the explosion, higher-than-normal levels of radiation were detected, although they still are far below the levels posing any health hazard to humans, according to officials of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

The Japanese Red Cross Society has three teams of doctors and nurses engaged for medical assistance in Fukushima. It said it plans to send 99 teams—a total of some 700 rescue workers—to the quake hit prefectures.

It also plans to send teams of volunteers, mostly people with a license to operate heavy machinery, aircraft and boats, to provide logistical assistance to the medical teams.

The JRCS said it hasn't formulated an emergency response to a possible nuclear meltdown. "It is hard to make such a plan because the situation is so unpredictable," Mr. Owaki said.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces stand by its commitment to prevent a nuclear disaster and rescue survivors at all costs. "The SDF has no plan to change its missions because of the radiation risks," said a spokesman of the Japanese Defense Ministry.

Four SDF troops sustained injuries when an explosion occurred at one of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant Monday. But SDF troops continued its task of pumping water into reactors whose cooling systems broke down, to prevent the reactor from overheating. SDF troops also carried on with their activity to disinfect local residents who may have been exposed to nuclear radiation.

The U.S. military has declared its intent to conduct major relief operations, involving eight transport helicopters from the Marines for humanitarian assistance support and two urban search and rescue teams, among others.

On Tuesday, no comment was available from the U.S. Forces Japan on whether the radiation crisis would affect the planned relief operations.

To donate to the American Red Cross text "RedCross" to 90999 or visit us online at www.redcross.org.