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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

When nuclear reactors in Japan started overheating, officials from the power company seemed unsure what to do.

But as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, at least one government institution acted quickly and decisively. It's the medical unit that's been treating people exposed to radiation at the Dai-ichi power plant.

JON HAMILTON: On March 11th, Dr. Makoto Akashi was in Tokyo.

Dr. MAKOTO AKASHI (National Institute of Radiological Sciences): So I felt very big earthquake and I thought it could cause some damage in nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

HAMILTON: Akashi directs the Research Center for Radiation Emergency Medicine at Japan's National Institute of Radiological Sciences. 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. Akashi says they arrived late that night.

Dr. AKASHI: When they went there, they were very much surprised because no electricity, no water supply.

HAMILTON: And the nuclear plant's system for monitoring radiation was broken, so the team relied on instruments they'd brought with them.

Dr. AKASHI: But actually, they need more information about nuclear power plants. So they had very big problem for radiation detection.

HAMILTON: 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.

Dr. AKASHI: 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, I could reach them.

HAMILTON: Were you worried about them?

Dr. AKASHI: Yeah. Yes.

HAMILTON: But the team found it could communicate using a satellite phone. And as it turned out, there was no radiation hazard when they first arrived. 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.

Dr. AKASHI: He had injury from the explosion and he had internal contamination with radionuclide.

HAMILTON: The worker had inhaled radioactive material, so the radiation team put him on a helicopter and sent him here to the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba. It's about an hour from Tokyo.

HAMILTON: 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. And the institute answers the public's questions about radiation. Since the events in Fukushima, there have been a lot of questions.

This is a room on the second floor and there's a big table setup with papers all over it. People have laptop computers and there're about six people answering phone calls, which are coming in constantly with questions about whether the water is safe to drink and things like that.

An escort leads us from the phone center through a labyrinth of dark hallways. Since the accident, lights are kept off to conserve electricity.

Yoshi-Nobu Harada leads us to a door with warning messages on it.

Dr. YOSHI-NOBU HARADA (National Institute of Radiological Sciences Frontier Research Center): (Japanese language spoken)

HAMILTON: He says when someone is exposed to a lot of radiation they come here to the institute's hospital. Makoto Akashi says this is where they took the worker hurt in the explosion.

Dr. AKASHI: First we have to treat his injury, and also we have to perform decontamination. We have to cleanup his body.

HAMILTON: You scrub the skin to get the radioactive particles off?

Dr. AKASHI: Yes, very, very softly.

HAMILTON: To avoid forcing radioactive particles into the skin.

Tests showed the worker received only a modest dose of radiation. That was also the case with three workers who were later exposed to contaminated water.

Akashi says that for his staff, Fukushima has actually been a relatively minor incident. He says the team has seen much worse at radiation accidents in Thailand and Panama. And Akashi says his team was prepared for much worse in Fukushima.

Dr. AKASHI: If explosion occur in nuclear power plant, probably over than 200 people they get injury.

HAMILTON: Workers, that is. Akashi says he hasn't been worried about the public since the government moved everyone at least 12 miles from the plant. He thinks the media has overstated the risk to other people.

Dr. AKASHI: Newspaper or TV, they say I think too much.

HAMILTON: It sounds like, as far as the things you're prepared to cope with, this has not been so bad.

Dr. AKASHI: So far, but I'm not sure tomorrow what happen. So...

HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News, Tokyo.

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