Arctic research vessel to double as mobile hospital

REUTERS/Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard/Handout
File- U.S. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker/Research Vessel Healy, (WAGB 20) breaks ice in Arctic Ocean in this August 20, 2009 photo.

Scheduled for completion in fiscal 2026, the vessel will conduct meteorological observations in the Arctic in normal times. In the event of a large-scale disaster, however, it will hurry to the stricken area to provide medical and other disaster response services, according to sources. This will allow the government to enhance medical support at a lower cost than building a new hospital ship.

The research vessel is 128 meters long and 23 meters wide, and is capable of breaking through ice.

The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, which is under the jurisdiction of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, started building the ship this fiscal year at a cost of ¥33.5 billion. Given the frequent occurrence of large-scale disasters in recent years and the continued spread of the novel coronavirus, the government decided to use the vessel for disaster response and to combat future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

In emergency situations, the ship is expected to treat disaster victims in its infirmary, at the request of relevant ministries and local governments. It will also offer accommodation for 65 to 75 patients and evacuees.

The ship will be able to provide baths and showers for up to 960 people a day, produce up to 750,000 liters of water, and provide power to charge cell phones and other devices.

Medical container units that can be used as treatment and examination rooms will also be brought by the ship to disaster areas, and its heliport will be used to transport emergency supplies and personnel.

The Great East Japan Earthquake spurred calls for the introduction of hospital ships. In the United States, a Navy hospital ship with 1,000 beds was deployed last year to help battle the coronavirus.

A key barrier for Japan, however, has been the cost involved. The Cabinet Office and other organizations set up a study group last year to consider the matter, concluding in March that they would forgo building a new hospital ship for the time being and work to facilitate disaster medical activities using existing ships.

According to the study group’s calculations, it would cost about ¥43 billion to build a 500-bed hospital ship. This would not be cost-effective, as there are limited ways to utilize such a ship in normal times.

The research ship under construction will not be able to perform full-scale medical activities like the U.S. Navy’s hospital ships, but by taking disaster response into consideration from the construction stage, the government decided it would be able to provide smooth side support at a low cost.

Specific operations in the event of a disaster will be studied in the future.