Photo Credit: Foreign Affairs
OF THE MOST harrowing stories from last year, the terrible series of events behind the Japanese earthquake that led to a cataclysmic tsunami, which then led to an unforeseen overwhelm of the emergency safety system at three of the six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant (after they had miraculously survived the quake), were tops on a rather remarkable list of news events. The tsunami and the subsequent reactor meltdown triggered visions of science fiction’s end-times in our heads; first with images of families being separated by Mother Nature’s angry water-borne hand, live on T.V., and then with news of the degenerating meltdown crisis, radiated food supplies and stories of an unprecedented radioactive plume that dwarfed Chernobyl.
The situation was the worst of the sums of all fears concerning nuclear energy, crises and crisis management. One of the nation’s largest energy company’s operating in the affected prefectures — directly charged with the oversight of Fukushima Daichi, as it belongs to them — Tokyo Power Electric Company (T.E.P.C.O.), had been highly-criticized and second-guessed by the international community (and even by myself on Twitter). What those who were critical believed, it seems, was that there was a decision by the Japanese government to sublimate any potential panic and downplay the severity of the Fukushima Daichi disaster, especially when the official Japanese government advice for its citizens and foreign workers in the areas were found to be quite different than that of the United States government, which prioritized being much more cautious. One of the main points where questions arose was in the benchmarks for minimal safety distance from the reactors for evacuations with the Japanese officials recommending a 12-mile evacuation zone, while American officials recommended a 50-mile zone for its citizens in the area, which included two military bases housing the greatest percentage of the 90,000 Americans in the potentially affected areas.
A recent Foreign Affairs article penned by Jeffrey A. Bader, senior director of the National Security Council, gives us a new view — from within the halls of American power — and he provides some illumination on the matter, a year later. Of his findings and implications, one of the primary is that the handling of information distribution to the outside by the Japanese government should be understood within an expanded context of how many more people the Japanese government had to accommodate in their evacuations — into already densely packed areas — and how that differed from the U.S. Government, since the American government families were much smaller in number, and responsibility dwindled as they left areas affected by the meltdown, by either returning to the United States or to other bases.
We had to decide whether to declare a larger evacuation zone around Fukushima than Japan did. Modeling conducted by the NRC and the DOE indicated that an evacuation zone of 50 miles would be more consistent with U.S. standards than the Japanese zone of 12 miles, so the administration recommended that all U.S. citizens in the 50-mile zone leave. The discrepancy attracted unwelcome attention and subjected the Japanese government to some criticism. Of course it was considerably easier for us to err on the side of caution, since we had almost no Americans in the area and no responsibility to house or take care of them once they departed, whereas the Japanese had several million people there, all of them the government’s responsibility if they moved.
Further, in understanding that there were longer term implications in every decision and information release — as far as their optics politically and their logistical tail (i.e. providing shelter and water for swaths of still unaccounted) — and the dynamic and unprecedented nature of dealing with that rarest medley: an earthquake, a tsunami, a meltdown at a key national nuclear power plant and the possible longer lasting effect of a large radioactive leak; one can understand how the Japanese government may have appeared to be less forthright and timely with its information and response, to the outside, but it was merely attempting to gain a grasp of all of those scenarios it had burning at once, and with accurate details. Comparing the situation to what is known of Bader’s experience in dealing with it through the National Security Council, the inability to accurately measure radiation levels and find applicable models were an issue that had a great effect on the decision-making. According to Bader, even the American government had widely off-base measures.
Because of the unpredictability of the situation at Fukushima, we needed to draw up contingency plans for the evacuation of all Americans from Tokyo and the bases in the event that the situation warranted it. That was normal and proper, although extremely unlikely. But once Pacific Command began planning for a noncombatant evacuation that, in theory, could involve 90,000 people under panicked conditions, the information would inevitably leak.
It leaked quickly. Stories ran in U.S. military media and the Japanese press that suggested that evacuation was a real possibility. I called the chief of naval operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, with whom I had had very good interactions in the past. I told him of my dismay at the way the story was percolating. I said that I was as strongly in favor of protecting American servicemen’s health as anyone, but that we needed a scientific basis for decisions. We also could not be casual about the future of the alliance by allowing for a whimsical decision-making process. Roughead understood. Within an hour, he had called in the defense press and made unequivocal statements to the effect that our forces were not going anywhere, and that evacuation was not in the cards.
These daily crises in response to wildly speculative assessments and reports were testing our patience, not to mention our sleep cycles. We needed a firm scientific basis for decisions. Fortunately, Holdren and the DOE were about to produce one.
Working with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Holdren developed a series of models based on plausible worst-case scenarios. They depicted simultaneous meltdowns at one or more reactors and complete drainage of the spent fuel pools at two reactors. The results for such worst-case scenarios, assuming unfavorable wind patterns from the reactor site and a lack of precipitation, suggested that radioactive plumes in excess of EPA standards would not reach within 75 to 100 miles of Tokyo, and that we would have several days’ notice before such a contingency could develop. In other words, there was no plausible scenario in which Tokyo, Yokosuka, or Yokota could be subject to dangerous levels of airborne radiation.
Still, the feeling among some of those watching the disaster unfold via the international 24-hour cable news networks and N.H.K., was that the Japanese government had dropped the ball in many ways. And that may still be true, but the utterly unique crisis had no contextualizing event to glean lessons from, and which is why it was so difficult. Towards the end of the nuclear reactor crisis, it had become so bad that T.E.P.C.O. and the Japanese government were gladly accepting septuagenarian and sexagenarian volunteers to work the plant as they handled the meltdown’s effects. The idea was that any radiation exposure to these older volunteers with experience in the matter, were least likely to be adversely affected by such exposures since their life-spans were presumably towards their end. It was a scary and disturbing thing to hear. As of now the global community has begun to reassess nuclear power as a result, with the European Union ordering a risk assessments of all of its members.
Read “Inside the White House During Fukushima” at Foreign Affairs [Here]
Read “Fukushima’s Fate Inspires Nuclear Safety Rethink” at New Scientist [Here]
View the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown via Cryptome’s “eyeball” series [Here]