No base evacuation imminent despite Japan's nuclear crisis
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 14, 2011
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The nuclear crisis in Fukushima is happening too far from Yokosuka to even warrant a discussion about evacuating base residents, Rear Adm. Richard Wren, head of Commander Naval Forces Japan, told Stars and Stripes following a town hall meeting Monday.
At Yokosuka, which is about 200 miles south of the damaged reactors, Wren listened to public concerns about the nuclear situation and other problems created by Friday’s earthquake.
When asked by Stars and Stripes whether there was an evacuation plan in place if a catastrophe at the damaged reactors were to threaten the base, Wren said the reactors were so far away that it wasn’t necessary to talk about it.
“Fukushima can’t get big enough to drive us to an evacuation,” Wren told Stars and Stripes after the town hall meeting.
Three reactors at Fukusima have lost the ability to cool down. A building holding one of them exploded on Monday. Operators were dumping sea water into all three reactors in a final attempt to cool their superheated containers that faced possible meltdown. If that happens, they could release radioactive material in the air.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Col. David Lapan said U.S. bases in Japan are monitoring radiation levels but have not yet seen elevated readings. No evacuations are being planned at the moment, he said. adding, “We always have contingencies for everything.”
Stars and Stripes was barred from the two-hour meeting at Yokosuka. Wren said he considered the meeting very personal, and said that submitted questions or one-on-one interviews were better ways to inform the media.
“To see emotion or tears, I’d rather I’d keep that inside the house,” he said.
Stars and Stripes spoke with several people about the meeting as they left, all of whom said it grew heated when audience members questioned commanders about the way they’ve communicated with residents.
Commanders pointed to unit ombudsmen, the Family Assistance Support Team, Facebook command websites and other resources as places to go for information. However, some residents said that wasn’t enough when the disaster struck, and that they didn’t feel prepared if another major earthquake hits.
“I was looking for ‘This is what you’re supposed to do, A, B and C ... if we have another major disaster,” said Deminka Robinson. “At the end of the night, I walked out still not knowing what I’m supposed to do.”
Robinson said she and others told Wren that they could not hear the loudspeaker system set up around the base to broadcast instructions, which increased their anxiety in the earthquake’s aftermath. Wren promised to address that, base residents said.
Attendees such as Ingrid Martinez said they heard some useful information Monday night, but said hearing about an evacuation procedure would have eased her mind. In South Korea, for example, civilians regularly rehearse noncombatant evacuations.
“Where do we go to get out if we need to?” asked Martinez. “We still don’t know if things do blow up, if it’s going to affect us.”
Others said that much of the concern shared in the room amounted to hysterics. Commanders tried to calm the audience, urged them not to hoard food or gasoline and generally tried to restore a sense of normalcy, said Lora Sanders-Vannoy.
“We’re in a situation that nobody has control of,” Sanders-Vannoy said. “At this point, we need to avoid panic and be calm. The Japanese people off-base are a great example of that.”
Lt. Cmdr. Steve Pomeroy, a nuclear officer aboard the USS George Washington, said he wasn’t concerned about Fukushima’s radiation reaching Yokosuka.
Pomeroy wife, Terri, said hearing Wren’s briefing made her feel like she didn’t need reservations to leave anymore. Nevertheless, she isn’t completely sold.
“She does have a bag packed,” Pomeroy said.
Command officials said they would air a shorter version of the roughly two-hour meeting on the command channels at each Navy base. A decision had not yet been made Monday night on whether to post the meeting on command websites.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll and The Associated Press contributed to this report.