Asahai Shimbun 11 June 2013
Noriko Abe is demanding answers over the death of her 98-year-old father-in-law who was forced to take a 230-kilometer bus trip lasting more than eight hours in the confusion following the Fukushima nuclear accident.
Dozens of hospital patients died during the arduous evacuation process, which was hampered by poor communications, a lack of manpower and the sheer chaos in the aftermath of two natural disasters. At least one medical worker said decisions made during the evacuation likely exacerbated the situation for the frail patients.
Abe and the families of three other patients at Futaba Hospital who died in the evacuation process filed a lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court on June 10, seeking a total of about 130 million yen ($1.3 million) in compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The patients’ ages ranged from 62 to 98 when they died.
“This is not an issue about money,” Abe, 71, said. “I want the court to clarify the reasons our father had to die and for TEPCO to apologize.”
The government’s Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations pointed to a lack of communications between various agencies of the central and Fukushima prefectural governments as part of the reason for the delay in evacuating the Futaba Hospital patients.
But the plaintiffs, citing their own advanced age, focused the lawsuit on TEPCO to avoid a drawn-out court battle against the governments.
The lawsuit adds to the mountain of compensation claims against the utility over the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“We would like to refrain from commenting on the lawsuit,” a TEPCO official said.
According to the lawsuit, the four patients, who were being treated for pneumonia and other ailments, were among about 340 at Futaba Hospital when the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami knocked out power at the nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on March 11, 2011.
Power outages meant medical equipment could not be used at Futaba Hospital, and the four patients did not receive adequate care, the lawsuit said.
The following day, 209 patients were evacuated from the hospital and eventually taken to Iwaki Kaisei Hospital. The four patients were not among them.
At 3:36 p.m. that day, the first hydrogen explosion rocked the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Officials of the central and Fukushima prefectural governments tried to pick up the pace of relocating patients in nearby hospitals.
But the explosions hampered the evacuation of the remaining patients at Futaba Hospital.
A decision was made to take the second group of 34 patients–including the four–from Futaba Hospital to the Soso public health center in Minami-Soma, about 25 kilometers north of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, for radiation checks before transferring them to an evacuation center.
But it wasn’t until the early morning of March 14 when the Self-Defense Forces rescued the 34 patients and used an SDF bus to take them to the Soso public health center.
“I could not do anything for them,” said Kenji Sasahara, 47, who headed the Soso public health center when the patients arrived for radiation checks. “Their conditions were very bad so I should have asked that they be taken directly to the evacuation center.”
Sasahara said a number of patients were pale and in such serious condition they could not be removed from the SDF bus. Center workers entered the vehicle to conduct the radiation checks, which were completed in about 10 minutes.
A plan was devised to transfer the patients to Iwaki Koyo Senior High School, about 46 kilometers south of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, on a bus chartered by the Fukushima prefectural government.
But to avoid approaching the stricken nuclear plant, the bus route went inland and covered a distance of 230 kilometers.
According to the government investigative panel’s final report, officials at the prefectural agency dealing with the natural disasters were not aware that many of the patients were in serious condition and unfit for such a long drive.
Sasahara said he asked the SDF members to take the patients to Iwaki without transferring them to the other bus.
“It would have been dangerous to even transfer the patients to the other bus because that alone would have been a heavy burden,” he said.
Sasahara asked a public health center worker from Iwaki to travel with the group as a navigator. “That was the only thing I was able to do,” Sasahara said.
The four patients died between March 15 and April 18 while being evacuated or after they had reached the evacuation center. Abe’s father-in-law died on March 16.
A third group of 54 patients evacuated from Futaba Hospital on March 15, while 35 others were moved on March 16. Both groups ended up in Nihonmatsu, northwest of the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
Although Sasahara was worried about the patients, he and the 50 workers at the center were swamped with work as about 1,000 evacuees a day showed up for radiation checks.
Early on the morning of March 16, Sasahara received a call on his mobile phone from an acquaintance in Iwaki who worked in the prefectural government.
“A number of patients have died,” the acquaintance said, leaving Sasahara speechless.
According to the government investigative panel, three patients died before the bus reached the Iwaki high school, while five others died by the morning of March 16.
According to Futaba Hospital officials, four from the group of 34 died by the end of March.
In total, 19 patients evacuated from Futaba Hospital died over the five days after the nuclear accident, and 21 others died by the end of March.
Sasahara, who holds a PhD in medicine, now heads the Fukushima prefectural public hygiene research institute.
“The patients were not exposed to radiation because they were always either in the hospital or in a vehicle,” he said. “Looking back on it, there was no need to bring those patients to the public health center in the first place.”
(This article was compiled from reports by Shinichi Fujiwara and Noriyoshi Ohtsuki.)