When the Geiger counter beeps, here’s what happens next

Tracey Ferrier |

Firefighter Warwick Kidd was decontaminated after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
Firefighter Warwick Kidd was decontaminated after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

Veteran Australian firefighter Warwick Kidd doesn’t scare easily but admits his mind went into meltdown when the radiation detector began to squawk.

He’d only been in Japan for about 24 hours and hadn’t yet made it into the field to search for bodies.

But somehow he was already contaminated with radioactive material from the tsunami-battered Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

He’ll never know where or how it happened given he never got close to the place.

But he’ll always carry confronting memories of hazmat technicians in respirators and chemical suits closing in on him and telling him to strip.

“Your mind goes to terrible places,” he says.

 “I’m thinking ‘oh great, what cancers have I got to look forward to in the future’.”

It was freezing and there he was shivering in the middle of a baseball field about 200km north of the plant, where urban search and rescue experts from Australia were camped in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Fukushima meltdown
Firefighters were brought in to tackle blazes after the natural diasters in Japan. (AP PHOTO)

He was directed to pull on protective gloves before peeling off his pants, removing his boots and carefully placing them in a bag, which was hastily sealed, tagged and removed.

Then came the scrub down, focused on his legs and feet. The contaminated water and bucket used got the same careful treatment as his clothes.

Years on, the now-retired firefighter remains grateful he suffered very low level exposure in Japan and wonders what serving firies are thinking about Peter Dutton’s plan to build seven nuclear power plants across Australia.

“If something goes wrong, there’s no coming back from it. It’s a non-recoverable event. The first people that go into these disasters – the canaries – will be first responders,” he said.

“Look at the 9/11 attacks. The firefighters and the police went into those buildings. Were they ever going to rescue anybody? No. But they don’t think that way.”

Greg Mullins was the NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner when Mr Kidd and around 70 other firefighters, paramedics, doctors and engineers left Australia to help Japan.

“We had to monitor the weather daily to make sure the fallout cloud from the Fukushima nuclear plant wouldn’t affect them. We had air force Black Hawk helicopters ready if the wind changed,” he said.

“It’s a very real thing for me. Chernobyl, so many fire fighters were killed trying to cap that melting down reactor; firefighters in Japan getting cancers even they tried to limit their exposure.

“It falls to poor old firies when everything goes wrong and it often means they have to give their lives.”

Fukushima reactor damage
An earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Okuma, Japan. (AP PHOTO)

If the coalition wins the next election, NSW will be getting two of the seven promised nuclear plants, one at Liddell in the Hunter Valley, the other at Mount Piper, near Lithgow.

The Fire Brigade Employees Union represents the state’s professional firefighters but secretary Leighton Drury says no-one has bothered to ask what they think.

Nor has there been any mention of how the Coalition plans to gear up fire services around the nation to respond if anything goes wrong, at any level of severity.

“It’s not even on our radar, that we need to be thinking about this for the fire services.

“With Chernobyl, all firefighters in that first initial attack died within two weeks.”

In Pripyat, the uniforms they were wearing when they rushed to the scene still lie in a hospital basement, too dangerous to touch like everything else in the abandoned city.

Mr Drury says it’s time for Mr Dutton to tell firefighters how he plans to equip them to respond to a nuclear powered future.

“He’s going to need to explain how he’s going to fund the states to deal with this. He’s going to have to put tens of millions of dollars into any state he wants to put one of these reactors into.

“No-one’s got the capability to deal with a large scale nuclear accident.”

AAP sought comment from Mr Dutton.