Learning from the 2011 Great East Japan Disaster: insights from a special radiological emergency assistance mission

Biosecur Bioterror. 2011 Dec;9(4):394-404. doi: 10.1089/bsp.2011.0084. Epub 2011 Nov 10.


On March 11, 2011, the eastern portion of Japan was struck by a massive earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 15,700 people, left thousands of others hurt or missing, and caused widespread destruction. In addition, the Great East Japan Disaster seriously damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, knocking out power, severely affecting communications, and causing a loss of cooling to some reactor cores. Significant quantities of radioactive materials were released, a "no go" zone was created around the crippled reactors, and thousands of people were evacuated. With concern about the radiological emergency growing, one of Japan's largest hospital and healthcare groups issued a request for assistance to a U.S.-based international disaster relief organization. After consultations with the Japanese, a special Radiological Emergency Assistance Mission was assembled. The mission, which traveled to Japan in April 2011, had several aims: (1) to rapidly assess the situation on the ground, (2) to exchange information, experiences, and insights with Japanese colleagues, and (3) to provide radiological information and practical refresher training to Japanese healthcare professionals and first responders. In addition to achieving these aims and laying the groundwork for future cooperation, the mission produced dozens of insights and lessons. These have potential relevance not only for future large-scale radiation accidents, but also for radiological and nuclear terrorism situations. They also have more general relevance for emergency planning, preparedness, and response. In this article, several of the most salient insights and lessons are highlighted.

MeSH terms

  • Disaster Planning / organization & administration*
  • Earthquakes*
  • Humans
  • International Cooperation
  • Japan
  • Medical Missions*
  • Nuclear Power Plants
  • Radioactive Hazard Release*
  • Tsunamis*
  • United States