Lessons from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster

Debris scattered before the sixth reactor building of stricken Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant at Okuma town in Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan.

Kai Ryssdal: A year ago this week -- Sunday, to be precise -- a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan. That in turn made the Fukushima Daiichi power plant famous as the site of one of the worst nuclear accidents we've ever known.
We're airing a series of stories this week looking back at what happened and trying to figure out what, if anything, has been learned since then. Those stories are being collected in a new public radio series called "Burn: An Energy Journal."

One of the things we're finding out -- and that you'll hear on the first special that airs this weekend -- is that in first couple of days after the earthquake how little anybody knew about how bad things were. A couple of weeks ago, we had Alex Chadwick with us and some recordings he'd gotten the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to release of its emergency response center. And the rare chance to hear top government officials trying to manage a far away crisis.

Here's Alex with an update.


"NHK World" clip: For those of you who just turned into NHK World, a major earthquake hit Japan Friday afternoon about an hour ago.

Alex Chadwick: At about the moment of that broadcast on March 11th of last year, a tsunami is drowning Fukushima Daiichi. It's late afternoon in Japan -- an hour past midnight in Washington D.C. Before noon, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission activates its Emergency Operations Center. They hadn't used it since 9/11. The Ops Center records much of what happens.

The early release of those recordings, first heard on Marketplace, reveal how desperate officials were for information -- for days. These newer, more recent releases detail how disturbing things look as the officials begin to understand.

Scott Morris: Most of what we're getting is from press releases from the company TEPCO.

That's Scott Morris, deputy director for incident response. "Sparse information" is how the NRC describes what's coming in.

Morris: So I will say that the quantity and quality of information that we're getting is less than we're normally accustomed to, and it's been rather frustrating.

CNN, Wikipedia, YouTube -- that is where the U.S. government is getting information on day one. It's hard to do better. Japan is devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. A high-tech crisis in the age of information, and there is no information, at least not at the beginning.

Euronews clip: Reports from Japan say there's been an explosion at a nuclear power station where there was already an emergency after yesterday's earthquake. A white cloud has been seen rising from the site at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

On day two, a spark ignites the pressurized atmosphere of hydrogen and steam within the containment building that surrounds Reactor Unit No. 1. The next day, the containment building at Unit 3 explodes. That afternoon, the Director of U.S. Naval Nuclear Propulsion, Admiral Kirkland Donald, calls into the NRC.

Kirkland Donald: We've detected some activity out at sea on the USS Ronald Reagan that we think you need to be aware of and probably need to be addressing with the Japanese government.

Admiral Donald reports the ship was 100 miles east of Fukushima, pretty far away, when it detected radiation. More explosions at Units 2 and 4. By now the NRC has people in Tokyo, and they are getting information and calling back.

NRC Operations Center audio: Unit 4 previously was reported as stable. That is no longer the case. The Unit 4 reactor is de-fueled. The spent fuel pool is dry and there appears to be a zirconium fire in the spent fuel pool of Unit 4.

This would have meant a huge release of radiation, but fortunately that report turned out to be wrong. Still, the situation remains very grave. And they don't know if it is getting worse. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Gregory Jaczko: At this point, I would see a worst scenario probably being three reactors eventually having, for lack of a better term, a meltdown.

Really, a week into the crisis, there is little the NRC can do. This is a global event -- the scale of a potential major nuclear meltdown at multiple reactors makes it so. But this is Japan's catastrophe to manage.

Executive Director for Operations at the NRC, Bill Borchardt.

Bill Borchardt: Chairman, this is Bill Borchardt. If this happened in the U.S., we would go out to 50 miles. That would be our evacuation recommendation.

By Wednesday, March 16th, Japan is ordering an evacuation from all areas within about a dozen miles of Fukushima -- 160,000 people. That day, the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo advises Americans to get at least 50 miles away. The NRC thinks about advising the embassy to order a total American evacuation from all of Japan.

Chuck Casto: I mean, these people have got -- it's hell over here for that government. I mean, it's just absolutely hell.

That's Chuck Casto, he's one of the NRC officials sent to Tokyo. He's calling back in this recording about a week out from the earthquake and tsunami when it's still very hard to know what is happening.

Casto: Now I know we get frustrated with them, but man, when you think about what they're faced with, it's absolutely unfathomable. When you've got a thousand dead bodies washing up on the shore.

The earthquake and tsunami killed at least 20,000 people, and took down the Daiichi nuclear plant because the tsunami knocked out the cooling systems. It and the earthquake also destroyed infrastructure over wide areas -- roads, bridges, utility lines, power, and communications. Engineers and technocrats who run agencies like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission make decisions based on data. Here were nuclear reactors melting down, and for a long while, there was no data.

Chuck Casto of the NRC.

Casto: You know, we think we'd be prepared for it, but it's -- this is -- it is tough for them. And we're over here barking at them about -- and I want to do it, don't get me wrong -- I'm not trying to... but, you know, we do have to be a little patient.

That's from the recordings released from the of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its efforts trying to respond to the crisis of the Fukushima meltdown. It happens that the NRC is rebuilding its Emergency Operations Center now. The lesson from Fukushima: Do better with gathering information, and try to do better with keeping others informed. Others. That's us. The public.

This is Alex Chadwick for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: Alex Chadwick is host of the new public radio series "Burn: An Energy Journal." It's produced by SoundVision Productions, funded by the National Science Foundation., and distributed by APM. The first hour-long broadcast airs this weekend -- nuclear power after Fukushima.

About the author

Alex Chadwick is an independent journalist, renowned public radio correspondent and contributor to Marketplace. He is host of BURN: An Energy Journal.

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