When nuclear reactors in Japan started overheating, officials from the power company seemed unsure what to do. But at least one government institution acted quickly and decisively: the medical unit that's been treating people exposed to radiation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.
Makoto Akashi, director of the Research Center for Radiation Emergency Medicine at Japan's National Institute of Radiological Sciences, was in Tokyo when the earthquake struck on March 11.
"So I felt a very big earthquake and I thought it could cause some damage to the nuclear power plant in Fukushima," he says. And once he'd confirmed the trouble in Fukushima, Akashi activated his Radiation Emergency Medical Assistance Team.
Within hours, a doctor, a health physics expert and a radiation specialist were headed for Fukushima; they arrived late that night.
"When they went there, they were very much surprised because there was no electricity, no water supply," he says.
The nuclear plant's system for monitoring radiation was also broken, so the team relied on instruments they brought with them.
"But actually, they needed more information about the nuclear power plant," he says, "so they had a very big problem for radiation detection."
Dire Conditions At The Plant
At first they couldn't even get near the plant because the roads were blocked by debris from the tsunami that followed the earthquake, and Akashi says he often didn't know what was going on with his team.
"Sometimes, we could get some information from them, but not usually. So we tried to call them many times — but maybe 10 percent, 20 percent [of the time] I could reach them," he says, adding that he was worried about his team. But they later found they could communicate using a satellite phone.
It turned out that there was no radiation hazard when the team first arrived. But all that changed when the plant was rocked by a series of explosions and fires. Suddenly, radioactive material was coming from the plant, and Akashi says a worker had been exposed.
"He had injury from the explosion, and he had internal contamination with a radionuclide," Akashi says. The worker had inhaled radioactive material, so the radiation team put him on a helicopter and sent him to Akashi's facility, the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, located in Chiba, about an hour from Tokyo.
Treating Radiation Injuries
The Institute has two missions: One is to find new ways to treat cancer using radiation, the other is to study the effects of radiation on the human body.
The institute also answers the public's questions about radiation, and since the events in Fukushima, there have been a lot of questions. The questions are being answered in a phone center, down a hallway where the lights are kept off to conserve electricity.
People who are exposed to high amounts of radiation, including the worker hurt in the Fukushima blast, are brought to the institute's hospital.
"First we have to treat his injury, and also we have to perform decontamination," Akashi says. To avoid forcing radioactive particles into the skin, it is scrubbed very softly.
Tests showed the worker received only a modest dose of radiation, as did three workers who were later exposed to contaminated water. Akashi says that for his staff, Fukushima has actually been a relatively minor incident. The team has seen much worse at radiation accidents in Thailand and Panama, and he says his team was prepared for much worse in Fukushima.
Akashi says that if the explosions had occurred in a different part of the nuclear power plant, he would have expected more than 200 workers to get injured.
And as for the public, he says he's not too worried, since the government moved everyone at least 12 miles from the plant. And given what he's prepared for so far, the impact on worker health hasn't been so bad.
"So far," Akashi says. "But I'm not sure tomorrow what will happen." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.