Japan’s nuclear disaster drills: the modern version of duck-and-cover

Japan’s nuclear disaster drills: the modern version of duck-and-cover
(revised November 8, 2017)

One of the more famous aspects of American cold war culture of the 1950s was the propaganda campaign for civil defense planning, consisting of duck-and-cover drills at schools, tests of the emergency broadcasting system,[1] and sales promotions for backyard fallout shelters.
The nuclear arms race presented a dilemma for planners. The public would feel terrified of a nuclear attack if the government did nothing to teach them how to defend themselves. Yet if the government attempted to teach the public how to survive a nuclear war, they would be all the more terrified by the realization that most people wouldn’t survive a nuclear war and the survivors would envy the dead. Many people of the time fell for the government propaganda and bought fallout shelters, but not everyone. Looking back on the era, we find it easy to laugh at the absurdity of the “duck-and-cover” drills, but most people probably had a jaded view of it even at the time, just as they did toward the color-coded terror alerts that followed the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York in 2001.

Another aspect of the dilemma was in the fear of the enemy’s reaction to government efforts to prepare citizens for nuclear attack. It seemed like it would be a good idea for the president to order a nation-wide week of drills so the country could be ready for the real thing. But doing so might have made the Soviets think an attack was imminent, and they might have decided to pre-empt this plan with their own first strike. What to do? The only solution, obviously, was disarmament, but when people rule out doing the obvious thing, they feel they are confronted with a “dilemma.”
In 1994, Guy Oakes revealed in his book The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture that the effort to prepare the public to survive a nuclear war was a conscious and entirely cynical ploy to keep the American public from objecting to the nuclear arms build-up and the policy of deterrence. He wrote in his conclusion:

In the 1950s, no one in government was more ruthlessly clear-sighted than Vice President Richard Nixon in his understanding of the connection between a civil defense policy of deception and mendacity and the higher moral exigencies of the Cold War. In the NSC meeting on March 27, 1958, Nixon dissected with brutal consistency the rationale and limits of government support for fallout shelters. Speculative calculations concerning how many millions of Americans would die in a nuclear war, Nixon observed coolly, were beside the point. From the perspective of national survival, did it really matter whether the casualties numbered 30 million or 50 million? According to Nixon, this was a distinction without a difference. If 30 million Americans failed to survive a nuclear attack, “there would be no hope of the United States surviving.”

American security rested not on the passive defenses of civil defense, but on the active defense provided by the American nuclear deterrent. Therefore, why waste any money at all on civil defense? Nixon’s answer was that the government had to make some gesture in the direction of a shelter program “because the country demands it.” It was necessary to maintain the public illusion of security through civil defense. Otherwise, the tolerance for deterrence would collapse. Accordingly, the government’s civil defense policy was clear: The state should spend whatever was necessary, but not a penny more, to sustain this illusion. Because a shelter program could produce only the appearance of security and not security itself, “we should do as little as we can to satisfy this demand.” On these grounds, civil defense was marketed to American people as self-protection for survival. It was a necessary illusion: indispensable to the moral underpinning of national security, but ultimately irrelevant to survival under nuclear attack.[2]

This is all history, and perhaps it seems irrelevant, but if we look carefully, we can see that a similar dilemma and a similarly cynical policy of necessary illusions has been maintained for much longer by the nuclear energy industry.
The premature, rapid decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi NPP caused a crisis in the global nuclear industry. When the presumed impossible event proved possible, no one had developed procedures for evacuation or for the distribution of potassium iodide (KI) pills to protect thyroid glands from radioactive iodine. Thus, after the catastrophe, nuclear regulators and energy utilities throughout the world decided they had to convince the public that they would learn the lessons from the “accident” and carry out measures to protect the public during an emergency. Now they were going to develop evacuation plans, carrying out drills involving thousands of citizens in some places, and creating a system for timely delivery of potassium iodide at the local level.
Of course, the reason this had never been taken too seriously before was the same reason President Eisenhower had for being ambivalent about alarming the public with civil defense drills. If residents near a nuclear power plant are put through evacuation drills and taught the importance of having access to potassium iodide, they might start to learn too much about this hazardous industry that operates in their neighborhood, and they might start to call for its abolition.
Response to a nuclear power plant accident is similar to the civil defense dilemma in another important way. The people in charge are just as cynical as Richard Nixon was. They know that the evacuation plans and the KI pills will be useless, or even harmful, in a real emergency. It is impossible to evacuate everyone in a timely manner, and no one knows how the weather, time of day, triggering natural disaster or organizational failings would affect the best-laid plans. If a leak of radiation seemed imminent, operators would continue to hope that it could be contained until it was too late to tell people to take their pills or run away. Critical hours or days of denial would pass, then they would be just as well protected by leaving the area or consuming uncontaminated food and water. There would be those who would get injured or killed in the evacuation, or those whose health would be damaged by the dose of potassium iodide itself.[3]
The nuclear engineers and scientists who work in the nuclear industry-regulatory complex know all of this, and they also know that the evacuation zone radius and the tolerable limits of contamination will be set according to the size of the population affected. The smaller the population, the more “generous” they can afford to be with precautions. In spite of all this knowledge, they now cynically go along with the need to carry out a nuclear energy civil defense plan “because the country demands it,” as Richard Nixon said. It’s a bureaucratic requirement now, a performance for public consumption only. Just as we knew about a nuclear attack, if it really happens all bets are off and there is no way to stay safe. Substituting a few words from Guy Oakes’ description of civil defense policy during the Cold War, we could say it’s a necessary illusion: indispensable to the moral underpinning of continuing to operate nuclear reactors, but ultimately irrelevant to survival under a nuclear meltdown.
In Japan, one of the regulatory hurdles for the nuclear reactor restarts is that operators and local authorities have to have an evacuation plan and a plan for distributing potassium iodide, and they have to carry out drills involving the local communities. Reports on these drills have revealed what a desultory exercise they are.[4] Few people come out for them, and the ones who do could be compared to the suckers who bought fallout shelters for their backyard in the 1950s.
In the event of an accident, residents living north of the nuclear fuel reprocessing
facility in Rokkasho would supposedly be able to evacuate southward.
As the drills are conducted, their flaws become readily apparent to all participants. In many cases, residents would be stuck on peninsulas where the only land-based evacuation route would be past the damaged nuclear plant. The hopeful plan is to evacuate residents before “allowing” the broken reactor to release radioactive substances into the atmosphere. The plans are also ridiculously hopeful in that they assume there will be no landslides, snowstorms or shortage of personnel at the power plant. Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen pointed out that the Fukushima disaster happened during the 9-5 working day when the plant was fully staffed. If it had happened at night, it is doubtful that, in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, the brave “Fukushima fifty” would have been able to go to the plant from their homes, even if they had wanted to go there instead of fleeing toward safety.

Landslide and highway collapse after the earthquakes in Kyushu, April 2016. After a nuclear disaster, probably triggered by an earthquake, emergency responses and evacuations depend on transportation routes being passable.

The authorities have acknowledged that it may not be possible to evacuate residents past a nuclear reactor undergoing a meltdown, so they promise that rescue boats and helicopters will come. These plans are also overly hopeful because they involve the mobilization of civil servants and military personnel. Even if they were able to get to the area in time, this would consist of moving additional people into the danger zone, so there would be an increase in overall endangerment of human life. And it would be painfully obvious through the whole exercise that everyone fleeing or coming to the rescue would already be contaminated, and residents would be saying sayonara to their homes on two hours’ notice. All of the planning for these drills is done with utmost cynicism. The people who planned this charade know the drills are meaningless and they are content to devote the nation's resources to them, and waste the time and energy of thousands of citizens and civil servants.
     Another element of nuclear disaster planning is a step that may come before evacuation: an order to “shelter in place” (something we already do every day anyway, in a certain sense, as we've lost contact with nature). This sounds simple enough, until you think through what doing so actually entails. Sheltering in place means closing all the doors and windows and sealing off a building from outside air that would be contaminated with Iodine 131 and other harmful radionuclides. This would only work in ideal, comfortable weather, and only for a limited time, as people would soon want to ventilate their living spaces, or go home, or check on their relatives. 
     In places that experience cold winters or very hot summers, people could shelter in place only for at most a few hours. In the cold climates, most buildings are heated by oil or gas-burning furnaces which require a supply of oxygen coming into the house. I think nuclear engineers understand this aspect of chemistry, but there is a reason they prefer not to talk about it. If you live in a city like Chicago or Toronto (two major cities with nearby nuclear power plants) sheltering in place without heat in winter in is not something you want to think about too deeply.
     Likewise, if it’s very hot outdoors, homes will be sealed and heating up like greenhouses, and if people use air conditioning to cool off, that will also require an exchange of outdoor air containing Iodine 131. Some air conditioners merely exchange heat, but not air; however, many modern buildings are designed and required to have constant ventilation so that they won’t become “sick buildings.”
     Another consideration seldom talked about is the legal framework of a mandatory evacuation or an order to shelter in place. Do the authorities, not to mention the less informed citizenry, even know what the law allows regarding mandatory evacuations? What about people who refuse to go? If they want to go, what can they demand for compensation and alternative accommodation and transportation costs? This isn't a natural disaster that is no one's fault. Human agency was involved in creating the hazard, and some people profited from it. 
     When the tsunami hit Japan in 2011, one lucky town, Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture, saved many lives by ordering citizens to leave immediately. They were warned over loud speakers that this was no drill, no minor little wave. This was a big one coming. Everyone was ordered to leave, with language that clearly signaled this was not the usual routine warning after an earthquake. The word order (meirei 命令) clearly implied penalty for disobedience. "Do not return home. Do not go to the pier to look for family members. You must leave right now!" The town came out of the tragedy with no fatalities, but the mayor who made the decision to announce a "mandatory" evacuation admitted later, “I knew the order was completely illegal. It had no legal basis.” Fortunately, he improvised by making announcements that went above and beyond the pre-recorded warnings.
     So during an evacuation after a nuclear accident, will people obey orders? Will mayors know whether to announce an advisory or an order? And while some people will be ordered to leave, others will be ordered (asked nicely?) to go toward to the disaster to fetch more KI pills, or to take supplies to the nuclear plant workers who will, one must assume, be gladly risking their own civilian lives to save the citizenry. 
     As people start leaving, traffic jams will form immediately. There will be more collisions than usual. Some people will realize that their gas tanks are almost empty. Who is going to deliver extra gas to the gas stations? How many truck drivers will balk at the evacuation zone perimeter saying, “I didn’t sign up for this” (this is what actually happened in Fukushima in March 2011). You want cash from an ATM? Forget about it. What if it’s snowing or raining hard, or the earthquake or dam break or tornado has made transportation routes impassible? 
     What if the nuclear disaster disobeys orders by not occurring during working hours on a fine spring day?
     Finally, most disturbing of all is the degree to which the powerful and the dis-empowered have internalized and normalized the idea that people in rural areas must live with these dangers and be inconvenienced with evacuation drills so that city folk can have electricity that could be produced by safer means. However, we can see something positive in the fact that most people in the affected communities see through the absurdity of evacuation drills, whether they participate in them or not. 
     Those who refuse to participate understand the situation the way Bob Dylan understood the futility of fallout shelters in the 1950s and 60s. He wrote in his autobiography [6] that he recalled many people from his hometown shutting the door on the fallout shelter salesmen who came around in the 1950s. This memory inspired one of the first songs he wrote, Let Me Die in my Footsteps, in which he sang of his refusal go along with the fallout shelter craze. Anyone watching the evacuation drills in Fukushima this year would agree with Bob: “I don’t know if I’m smart, but I think I can see when someone is pullin’ the wool over me.”

Bob Dylan, 1961

I will not go down under the ground
Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ‘round
An’ I will not carry myself down to die
When I go to my grave my head will be high
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

There’s been rumors of war and wars that have been
The meaning of life has been lost in the wind
And some people thinkin’ that the end is close by
Stead of learnin’ to live they are learnin’ to die
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

I don’t know if I’m smart but I think I can see
When someone is pullin’ the wool over me
And if this war comes and death’s all around
Let me die on this land ‘fore I die underground
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground


This article is an account of what it was like for a small town radio station operator to deal with a false alarm of the EBS in 1971. It would have launched a national panic over an impending nuclear attack if national broadcasters hadn’t been so confused and ignorant about how to respond to a message that was emphatically telling them (in error) “this is not a test.” See the archived copy of the UPI wire story that was sent out shortly after the confusion was cleared up.

[2] Guy Oakes, The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 166.

“Oral consumption of KI may result in allergic reactions including hives, difficulty breathing, swelling around the eyes and throat, or joint aches and pains. It can also result in “iodism” in some people which can include salivation, sneezing, headache, fever, laryngitis, bronchitis and various skin rashes. It may also cause nausea and vomiting in some people… there are potential risks to your health from taking it when it’s not necessary*… a small fraction of the population may have an adverse reaction to KI and may need medical supervision… KI tablets can present a danger to people with allergies to iodine, or who have thyroid problems.”
*Author’s comment: We can assume the same risks would exist from taking it when it is necessary during a nuclear emergency, so a good question is whether the KI pills would do more harm than good. As far as I know, there is no case in which a large population was given KI pills in a timely manner during a nuclear emergency, and then studied to learn what positive and negative effects arose. All plans to use them on a population seem to be purely hypothetical solutions at this stage. The Toronto-Oshawa area of Canada would certainly be a large enough sample to learn from. It is one of the few, if not the only, large city situated so close to a nuclear power plant.

[4] In a single endnote I list a few related articles that appeared in the Japanese media, and one in the Canadian media, in 2015:

[6] Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume 1, (Simon and Schuster, 2004), p. 270-271.
"Eventually, though, while not trying to reweave the world, I did compose a slightly ironic song called “Let Me Die in My Footsteps.” I based it on an old Roy Acuff ballad. The song I wrote was inspired by the fallout shelter craze that had blossomed out of the Cold War. I suppose some considered it radical to come up with a song like that, but to me it wasn’t radical at all. In Northern Minnesota fallout shelters didn’t catch on, had no effect whatsoever on the Iron Range. As far as communists went, there wasn’t any paranoia about them. People weren’t scared of them, seemed to be a big to-do over nothing. Commies were symbolic of travelers from outer space. Mine owners were more to be feared, more of an enemy, anyway. Salesmen peddling fallout shelters had been turned away. Stores didn’t sell them and nobody built them. Houses had thick-walled basements, anyway. Besides no one liked thinking that someone else might have one and you didn’t. Or if you had one and someone else didn’t, that might not be too good, either. It could turn neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend. You couldn’t imagine having to confront some neighbor banging on your door saying something like, “Hey, look. It’s a matter of life and death and our friendship ain’t worth a bo-diddley. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?” How you could respond to a friend who was acting like a tyrant trying to force his way in, saying, “Listen I have young kids. My daughter’s only three and my son is two. Before I let you close them out, I’ll come to you with a gun. Now, quit the scam.” There wasn’t any honorable way out. Bomb shelters divided families and could create mutiny. Not that people weren’t concerned about the mushroom cloud— they were. But salesmen hawking the bomb shelters were met with expressionless faces. Besides that, the general opinion was, in case of nuclear attack all you really needed was a surplus Geiger counter. It might become your most prized possession, would tell you what’s safe to eat and what’s dangerous. Geiger counters were easy to get. In fact, I even had one in my New York apartment, so writing the song about the futility of fallout shelters was not that radical. It’s not like I had to conform to any doctrine to do it. The song was personal and social at the same time, though. That was different."

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