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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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We humans are so arrogant! We think we can do anything, regardless of how dangerous, by being able to control EVERTYHING. It's a rediculous proposition on its face, yet we continue to act as if no one had ever heard of entropy. Or that no one understands the wisdom behind "Murphy's Law" - that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. We think we can control everything that CAN go wrong, yet while we might think we are prepared for the unexpected, the unexpected, by definition, cannot be prepared for.
Chaos theory also warns us that when things get unstable, its the tinyest probability event, or condition, it's the inconceivable unexpected condition, (such as loss of back-up power), not the larger (expected) conditions that determines the eventual outcome.
It's time we checked our egos, deflate our swollen heads, and give up the idea that we can engineer our way to God-ness.
Fukashima gave us a healthy dose of humble pie, but there are still people who don't get it. We are not safe because it happened to them. We are not safe because any particular plant in the US is, or will soon be, "hardened" against a sunami-like event. We can never be safe because we can never know and control all the big things, let alone the infintessimally small "butterfly effect" things that cascade to disaster.
What we can and should do is remain humble in the face of the above laws and limitations found in nature and not take risks that have such terrible consequences when they go wrong.
It's time we grew up and started actiong as responsible adults, instead of egocentric, invincible teenagers.

The effects of the meltdowns at Fukushima are going to affect all of us in the world forever. Hearing how our United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded in the early hours of the disaster is an indication of how they might respond to a similar disaster in our area. How do we know if the NRC will have data immediately? In a situation where infrastructure is destroyed, communications are down, back-up diesel fuel swept away, communication may be difficult. At least they won't need passports.

Industry insiders with juicy stories to tell, tell 'em, nukewaste, but don't belittle THIS story. WE GET IT that this was not the NRC's gig... but they are our protectors, our watchdog, right? This story is important in the way a fractal indicates the whole: it is not a good omen for US residents OR for the nuclear industry that information about these meltdowns was so slow in coming to the people at the NRC.

This is a HUGE story, not only because of the world-wide ramifications of the event and our role in it, but because of the close ties we have with the nuclear industry in Japan regarding nuclear plants in the planning stages here. If only for the lack of radioactive waste, I would much prefer to contract with the Japanese for renewable, sustainable, infinite energy sources such as geothermal, wind and solar...

All I'm saying is that attacking NRC for not having immediate information WHEN IT IS NOT THEIR JOB is ludricous! I'm an industry "insider".... I clean up nuclear messes. I've been to Japan numerous times since the accident. You want to attack the industry as a whole? YContact me and I will give a thousand bona fide stories - juicy, damning st ories. But this isn't one of them!

My politics lean left, but no wonder the right gets so frustrated. The proponents of yhis story want to use a poorly reasoned, irrelevant event to attack the industry. Shame on you! Not for attacking an industry that you passionately oppose - but for using such weak-ass rhetoric (in the academic sense, not Fox news sense) to do it. You won't be able to persuade others like this. This is not NRC's gig at the time of the accident!!!

What's important for the readers and listeners and the American public in general to understand is that the relevance of this story to us is huge. Not only is TEPCO the owner of this disastrously failing plant but TEPCO and the rest of the Japanese nuclear industry has virtually taken over the US market. They do our forgings, design and largely own many new and proposed nukes in the US. It is only their assertion we have that the new generation would be "safe". We would be remiss if we did not stop and evaluate their business practices, how they failed to deal with their ciizens in a forthright and timely manner and how in bed the US nuclear industry is with them. They are virtually one and the same. Vogtle's recent license and the taxpayer-funded $8.3 BILLION dollar loan they'll get represents $2.3 million dollars of taxpayer money PER JOB created. Its just way past time to take a much closer look at the industry, its safety, and its oversight. Thanks for a great article!

I'm appalled that so many of the commenters here don't think this is newsworthy. Any other industry showing such confusion as a crisis unfolds would be newsworthy: oil spill, chemical release, market meltdown. As the consequences of nuclear disasters are so much more severe and devastating than most environmental accidents, one would think this confusion even more disturbing, not less. I can only wonder if these posts come from industry sources themselves, trying to minimize this story.

Let's be honest and clear: the industry reassures the public over and over that it can handle any possible incident that occurs. We have been told that we needn't worry about the dangers of nuclear power and energy generation because every possible contingency has been covered and the public is protected from anything that might go wrong. Those who question the wisdom of using this energy source are quickly dismissed from substantive discourse, as if they've raised a distasteful and frivolous issue that is in poor taste. Yet when a nuclear disaster occurs and the industry is thrown into confusion and secrecy, the comments on this story indicate that we should not consider it news.

Thank you, Marketplace and Chadwick, for reporting this story.

Marshmaid
Yes, why should we be alarmed? Ok - I'm imagining myself a Fukushima neighbor. Why do i give a rat's patoot about a foregn country's nuclear regulator? I'm more concerned that, tweets or no tweets, neither my own nuclear regulator nor utility were prepared when the auxiliary power failed -- the people at the site couldn't charge their cellphones, flashlights, laptops, ipads, -pods, and -touches. How do you call, let alone telecon, tweet, blog, rss, stream, webitizr, text or anything else with NO juice? And how is this in any way the NRC's issue?

Why should we be alarmed? Is that really the question I am reading in the previous comments? We need to praise Marketplace for sharing this with the public. The NRC's role is as difficult as it is important, difficult in part since over 95% of its funding comes from the very industry it regulates. Please imagine yourself a Fukushima area resident for a moment, or even a Vermont Yankee (same design reactor) neighbor, then ask yourself what you need to know about the inner NRC.

As with most of the comments so far, I think the tone of this article/story is unfair to the men and women of the NRC. To fault a US regulatory agency, focused on domestic nuclear power, that they didn't know within the first few minutes what is going on inside the nuclear reactor on the other side of the planet (in another advanced country) smacks of "gotcha" journalism and is not the kind of thing I've come to expect from Marketplace.

I agree that the situation was exciting and stressful, but instead of suggesting that the NRC (as well as the Department of Energy, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense) were "flat-footed" and should be criticized, why not commend them for coming to the aid of a close ally and trying their best to avert what could have been a far worse disaster.

For the producers of Marketplace: don't have these guys from "Burn" on again, they are behind you.

I think the point was that the NRC obtained quicker and reliable information from Twitter and other social media than from official channels. This is relevant.

The 1995 Hanshin earthquake marked a turning point for the internet in Japan. At that time I had been working in Japan at Panasonic for several years, not far from the quake's epicenter. We relied on the internet for news about relatives and friends - not radio and TV which until then were considered more reliable for such information. Many workplaces were doing the same. Until then, the internet had been treated as more of a plaything.

I agree with the substance of the two earlier comments.

There is little purpose to this story appearing on Marketplace. Its content has nothing to do with the purported aim of the show.

Chadwick is clearly intent on cross-selling his new show, and he suckered the hapless Ryssdal into letting Chadwick advertise for a few minutes on Marketplace.

The story itself, independent of whether it merits an appearance on Marketplace, is poorly done.

I evince NO surprise at all in finding out that the NRC, in the very first hour after the earthquake, was still scrambling to obtain the information needed to understand the nuclear crisis occurring in Japan.

The NRC is a domestic nuclear regulator. It's primary and overwhelming focus is on the nuclear industry within this country. It aids, when it can, other peer regulators in other parts of the world, but that is not its reason for existence.

Chadwick and his producers seems to think he scored some kind of coup for his new program by obtaining these records. He didn't. Instead, he's just given his program (and Marketplace) a black eye by demonstrating that it has no sense of proper journalism.

Now, had he expended his efforts on obtaining the agency's response to relevant lapses of safety regulation by the NRC in _this_ country (of which there are many substantiated cases), we could at least forgive him his misplaced exuberance at finally having learned to use the FOIA filing protocol.

On a related note, when you try to find out more about Burn (either through the link in this story, or through their website (http://burnanenergyjournal.com/), you're simply taken to a Facebook page.

Memo to Chadwick and his producers: if you're so disengaged as to let Facebook host your program's website, you deserve every bit of irrelevance that is coming your way.

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