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Nuclear Regulatory Commission releases audio of Fukushima disaster

The destroyed No. 3 reactor building of Tokyo Electric Power Company's tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is seen in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission today released transcripts and audio recordings made at the NRC Operations Center during last year’s meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. The release of these audio recordings comes at the request of the public radio program "BURN: An Energy Journal," and its host Alex Chadwick.

The recordings show the inside workings of the U.S. government’s highest level efforts to understand and deal with the unfolding nuclear crisis as the reactors meltdown. In the course of a week, the NRC is repeatedly alarmed that the situation may turn even more catastrophic. The NRC emergency staff discusses what to do -- and what the consequences may be -- as it learns that reactor containment safeguards are failing, and that spent fuel pools are boiling away their cooling water, and in one case perhaps catching fire.

Listen to 12 minutes of raw audio released today and read two excerpts from audio released today:

 Mike Weber, deputy executive director of operations:

...There is some somewhat alarming language that talks about, and I'll just quote, "The IAEA tells us the earthquake triggered a power failure at the Fukushima Daiichi unit 2 nuclear power plant,  and then when a backup generator also failed, the cooling system was unable to supply water to cool the reactor. Specialists at the IAEA understand the  fuel core is still covered by water, but they question if it will remain so."

Bill Ruland, senior NRC executive and reactor expert:

We checked the INES [International Nuclear Event]  scale, and they're at least at a Level III, which is a serious incident. And the only reason we don't think there are any more is we have sparse information. They, I think I told you that the reason the diesel failed is that all the diesel tanks were all above, the fuel tanks were all above ground, and the tsunami  ripped the fuel tanks off, off their foundation.

Kai Ryssdal: In Washington D.C. today, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission admitted -- in kind of a roundabout way -- how much it didn't know in the early hours of the Fukushima meltdown after the earthquake in Japan last year. The NRC relased recordings and transcripts from its Emergency Operations Center at the request of the public radio program, "BURN: An Energy Journal." Its host Alex Chadwick is here. Thanks for coming in.

Alex Chadwick: Thank you, Kai.

Ryssdal: Let's set the stage: March 11th last year, a magnitude 9 earthquake 40 miles off the coast of northeast Japan and then the water starts, the tsunami.

Chadwick: Boy, the tsunami. Right. So this is the worst earthquake to hit Japan since record keeping began, the tsunami just enormous. I've seen more recent reports, I think it was 70 feet high. So it hits the area of the Fukushima nuclear complex and for four of the six reactors, it knocks out the diesel generators. These are critical to keep the thing cool. So three reactors were operating at the time. They did shut down. But after they shut down, they're still hot. You've got to keep this water circulating or else really bad things happen. That's what's going on. So this is like afternoon in Japan, it's midnight in Washington. In a couple of hours, people at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission start getting emergency calls. They come to work.

Ryssdal: A couple of hours? It took a couple of hours for the NRC to get this call?

Chadwick: Yup, yup because first the tsunami hits. And then they figure out, oh man, things are...

Ryssdal: Right.

Chadwick: OK. So work day starts and they active this thing called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Emergency Operations Center. The last time this thing was activated was 9/11, so a big deal. So when they activate this, they record what happens, lucky for us. Listen. Here it is:

Mike Weber: There is some somewhat alarming language that talks about, and I'll just quote, "The IAEA tells us the earthquake triggered a power failure at the Fukushima Daiichi unit 2 nuclear power plant."

OK, so the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, everyone trying to follow this. That person speaking is the NRC deputy executive director. His name is Mike Weber. And this recording is from about an hour after the emergency center is activated. We'll go back to it.

Weber: And then when a backup generator also failed, the cooling system was unable to supply water to cool the reactor. Specialists at the IAEA understand the fuel core is still covered by water, but they question if it will remain so.

Ryssdal: Wow. Scary when nuclear guys start using phrases like alarming language.

Chadwick: OK. So this is just the first day of recordings.

Ryssdal: How long does this go on?

Chadwick: This goes on for about 10 days while they run this situation. And what you get from reading this and listening to it is that they really don't know what is going on. They're going little dribs and drabs of information. Here's a senior executive at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. His name is Bill Ruland and he's talking about INES, that's the International Nuclear Event scale, it's a measure of accident severity.

Bill Ruland: We checked the INES [International Nuclear Event] scale, and they're at least at a level III, which is a serious incident. And the only reason we don't think there are any more is we have sparse information.

Sparse information he says.

Ryssdal: That's not good.

Chadwick: So I'm telling you they had no information. They are watching -- this is the NRC -- they'e watching YouTube and CNN and they're checking...

Ryssdal: No, they're not?

Chadwick: Yes! Because this area is so devastated by the tsunami. So many people are lost, 20,000. The infrastructure is all blown away. And here we have this real ultra high-tech crisis going on. In the information age, they have no information.

Ryssdal: Alex Chadwick is the host of a new public radio show. It's called "Burn," from SoundVision Productions and distributed by American Public Media. Alex is going to be back as the Fukushima anniversary approaches on the 11th of March with more of these stories. Special thanks also to the National Science Foundation. Alex, thanks a lot.

Chadwick: Thank you, Kai.


Ryssdal: If you want to read the transcripts of those conversations for yourselves -- click here.

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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