U.S. Agency in Daze After Fukushima Disaster, Transcripts Show

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Issei Kato / AFP / Getty Images

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is seen from bus window during a tour for the media in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture on Feb. 20, 2012.

Transcripts released this week by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reveal an atmosphere of confusion in the U.S. agency in the first days after the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station last year. Over 3,000 pages, dated March 11–20 and detailing the agency’s response to the March 11 triple catastrophe, were released on Tuesday under the Freedom of Information Act. 

The transcripts bare the frustration among NRC officials in deciphering what was happening at the plant in the initial days after a 9.0 earthquake sent a tsunami crashing into the nuclear power plant. The conversations indicate the agency felt overreliant on press reports in getting information about what exactly was happening at the plant. In a NRC conference call on March 12, an unidentified male participant says: “Have you had any contact with the Japanese government or any of the other entities over there? We’re kind of … in a situation where we’re getting the bulk of our information from media outlets.” Another unidentified person on the call responded: “We’re in the same situation.”

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The transcripts also catalog the debate over an early statement before Congress by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko that a spent fuel pool at the plant, used to keep spent fuel rods cool, had gone dry – a situation that could have led to widespread contamination. Japanese officials immediately denied the pool was dry, and in the days following, recorded conversations indicated that NRC officials agreed. “I would say, as of 5 o’clock yesterday, the pool has some water in it,” Charles Casto, an NRC official in Japan, said in a call on March 16. He went on to say: “I would say it’s probably inaccurate to say it’s dry.”

The same day, the NRC issued a warning — based in part on the assessment that the pool was dry — that U.S. citizens within 50 miles (80 km) of the crippled plant evacuate the area, and it also authorized the voluntary departure of dependents of U.S. government personnel from Japan. (See our story from last March about military families preparing to depart from a U.S. base in northern Japan.) The decision was ultimately a controversial one, in no small part because of the confusion it caused among Japanese citizens, whose own government only evacuated residents within a 12-mile (19 km) radius of the plant.

(MORE: Japan Says Worst Is Over, but Fukushima Faces Long Road to Recovery)

U.S. Ambassador John V. Roos defended the decision in a recent interview in Tokyo, saying the NRC made a “conservative” decision and that the Japanese government did not question the call. “What would we have done in the U.S.? That was the judgment [the NRC] came up with,” Roos said. “Everyone understood that every country was trying to make the best judgment they could … I am very proud of the U.S. response during this entire period.”

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