How a U.S. Mistake After Fukushima Hurt Japan

The state of the universe.
Sept. 26 2013 11:23 AM

Shaken Faith

After the Fukushima disaster, a U.S. mistake undermined the Japanese government.

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Gregory B. Jaczko, then-chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, testifies about the nuclear situation in Japan on March 16, 2011, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

It was an honest mistake. On the morning of March 16, 2011, top officials of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that the spent fuel pool in Reactor No. 4 at Fukushima Dai-ichi must be dry.

Thus began an episode that had enormous implications for the trust that Japanese people have in their public officials. To this day, millions of Japanese shun food grown in the northeast region of their country; many who live in that area limit their children's outdoor play, while others have fled to parts of Japan as far from Fukushima as possible. The reason many of them give is that they simply can't believe what government authorities say about the dangers of radiation exposure.

Why people became so cynical—and whether they’re right to be—is a subject of intense debate in Japan. The events of March 16, 2011, have been overlooked in this debate. But they shouldn't be. In retrospect, the episode may be among the most consequential to arise from the accident at the nuclear power plant.

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At 6:30 a.m. Washington time, shortly after a third explosion had rocked Fukushima Dai-ichi, Gregory Jaczko, the commission's then-40-year-old chairman, joined a conference call with members of his staff and other U.S. officials. From staffers who had rushed to Japan came a shocking report of damage the explosion had inflicted.

"Here's where I think we are," Jaczko told the group, according to a transcript of the conversation that was released under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. "We probably have to assume at this point that we’re going to have three reactors out of control and possibly up to six spent fuel pools."

Until then, the agency Jaczko headed had been advising Americans in Japan to follow the Japanese government’s directions, which included a 12-mile evacuation zone around the plant. That advice was suddenly looking shaky because of information about the impact of the explosion on the Reactor No. 4 spent fuel pool, which held more than 1,000 fuel rods and had evidently lost its capacity to retain water. "The walls have crumbled," one NRC official in Tokyo told Jaczko, "and you've just got fuel there."

Jaczko has a Ph.D. in physics, so along with the chief science advisers in the White House, he well knew the result could be overheated rods catching fire and spewing more radioactive particles into the atmosphere than would likely occur even with a core meltdown.

"I think we need to take whatever actions are necessary to deal with that," Jaczko said. "If that involves a general evacuation of U.S. citizens, we need to instruct that to be done immediately.”

In fact, unbeknownst to anyone on the call, the pool was adequately full of water and would continue to stay that way. But based in part on their conviction that the pool was empty and probably non-fillable, Jaczko and his colleagues quickly settled on several recommendations for the White House, most notably extending the evacuation zone for U.S. citizens to 50 miles from the plant.

Television cameras zoomed in on Jaczko at a congressional hearing that afternoon. High-strung, with a zest for intellectual combat (he would resign in 2012, under fire from fellow commissioners and staffers for alleged bullying and emotional outbursts), he minced no words: "We believe that secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent fuel pool." A U.S.-Japan rift appeared to emerge, with a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Company insisting that the pool was stable, while admitting there was no proof.

Media the world over depicted the Japanese as ludicrously optimistic. “This is an earthquake of a different kind. This is a political earthquake,” CNN analyst Jim Walsh told viewers. “The American government’s top nuclear official is coming out and saying things are far worse than the Japanese government has said.” From Tokyo, Anderson Cooper reported “an increasing credibility gap in terms of what the Japanese government is saying. ... All of this is compounded by, now, the statements by U.S. officials, which seem to be very frank.”

The Japanese authorities' loss of credibility on nuclear matters was self-inflicted to a large degree; especially unartful were the repeated assurances of Yukio Edano, then chief government spokesman, that radiation levels posed "no immediate threat to human health." But it is hard to conceive another single blow so devastating to public faith in Japanese official pronouncements as Jaczko's statement.

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