Jaczko recalls chaos of Fukushima early days

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

The central government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. fell into chaos when the triple meltdown crisis started at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission also faced a tough crisis-management situation characterized by limited information and mounting pressure to act, a former chief of the NRC said.

“The key characteristic is that information is always confusing, conflicted and simply often not there. Communication is difficult and impossible. Actions and events do not transpire according to plans and drills,” Gregory Jaczko, who chaired the NRC during the early stage of the Fukushima crisis, said of crisis management in a speech Tuesday at a Tokyo symposium.

According to the book “Countdown to Meltdown” written by journalist Yoichi Funabashi, although the NRC sent staff to Japan, they had a hard time getting enough information from the government and Tepco to grasp what was really going on in the first stage of the disaster.

It was not just between Japan and the U.S., but the central government had difficulty getting information from Tepco.

Despite these circumstances, the need to continuously send out information is enormous, what with 24-hour news services and the Internet, Jaczko said.

The difficulty of getting information and understanding what was really going on may be implied in advice the U.S. issued to its citizens in Japan.

On March 17, 2011, the U.S. Embassy advised Americans to stay outside an 80-km radius of the stricken plant, while the Japanese government’s evacuation order was for people within a 20-km radius.

“Because of the compelling need in a crisis to act and to make decisions, we proceeded to make predictions . . . what we found from these analyses was that the radiation releases would . . . potentially extend out to distances of 20, 30, 40 and 50 miles,” he said.

“But one of the missing pieces of information we had was a comparable set of analyses from our counterparts in Japan . . . the information we had was known to be good, but we knew it was not complete and it was not precise. We knew that better information was probably available, but we didn’t have access to it. But we had to take action,” he said.

The NRC thought it was better to be conservative and recommend staying outside a 50-mile radius of the plant, said Jaczko.

Funabashi’s book said the U.S. Navy actually came up with a 200-mile recommendation, but the NRC didn’t see that as unnecessary.

Jaczko also said many in the nuclear industry in the U.S. believed the crisis would be contained more quickly.

“If I’d asked people at NRC, their answer was this would be over by the weekend. And clearly, that was not correct,” he said.

The situation kept deteriorating, as the buildings housing reactors 3 and 4 experienced hydrogen explosions three and four days after the crisis started.

“I think the biggest impression I have is how much time really we had for units 2 and 3″ to really become unrecoverable, he told The Japan Times in an interview after his speech.

Jaczko also mentioned the NRC’s belief that the spent fuel pool in the reactor 4 building had gone dry not long after the crisis started.

He said the subject was repeatedly brought up in his hourly briefings at the NRC and he came to think that it was important to share with the public, which is why he mentioned it during congressional testimony March 16, U.S. time, which came out as shocking news.

“Some of the best NRC technical experts believed very, very strongly that this statement was correct,” he said.

The Japanese government and Tepco confirmed that the pool still contained water in the evening of March 16, Japan time, and told the NRC, which was not fully convinced, according to the Funabashi book.

As it turned out, the pool did still contain water, but if it had gone dry, the spent fuel rods in contained could have melted down and released a massive amount of radioactive materials into the environment.

Jaczko said people can be wrong while managing a crisis due to a lack of information, but it is important to be transparent and provide facts and the rationale for decisions that are made.

“We believed that we were right (about the pool). And hiding that and not releasing it would have been worse in my mind than what we did,” he said

Jaczko said Fukushima taught him the devastating impact and risks of a meltdown calamity and changed his assumptions about reactor safety.

“I have come to appreciate that the consequences of the nuclear reactor accident are very different than what I had believed before,” he said during the interview.

A crisis like Fukushima is not acceptable, he said, as it caused tens of thousands of people to evacuate and many are still unable to return to their homes. It will also result in trillions of yen in compensation, land decontamination and the scrapping of the plant.

Jaczko said the current design of nuclear reactors will probably be phased out in the long term.

Although countries like China plan to build many reactors, once those reactors go through their natural lives — 40 to 60 years — nuclear power will probably be phased out globally, he said.

The disaster has also forced him to change the assumptions regarding reactor safety, Jaczko said, noting safety isn’t assured under existing systems because current reactors have design flaws and their many cooling systems may not protect them.

Systems to cool the fuel rods, no matter how many are in place, will only reduce, but never eliminate, the possibility of an accident, he said.

Therefore, people should start looking into changing the physics of reactors in a way that severe accidents will never happen and the public should demand that the industry design such reactors, he said.

If it is technologically and economically impossible to make such reactors, the world should probably not rely on nuclear power, he said.

  • YY

    He was yelling fire in a crowded theater when there were no objective observations of existence of flames or even of smoke. He gets a pass because his heart is in the right place? At the very least there should have been corrections made much much earlier before a s̶m̶a̶l̶l̶ huge panic pandering industry was built around the myth of #4 pool collapse. This kind of stuff does nothing to bring about a rational exit from boiling water with nukes.

  • mikethurgood

    I have been a supported of nuclear power for going on for 50 years,
    despite the Windscale incident, the Chernobyl disaster and the Fukushima
    serious accident. The USSR had some wretched incident at Khystym, but
    that wasn’t a nuclear reactor.

    I was prepared to accept Windscale
    as a matter of allowing the graphite moderator to get too hot and catch
    fire; Chernobyl as a disaster waiting to happen because of the great
    instability during power-down phases and shutdown, purely a function of
    bad design and concept; and Fukushima, initially, because the emergency
    generators were located below ground level, so they were put out of
    action when they were flooded by the immensely high tsunami. An
    appallingly bad concept to have ever adopted at the construction phase.

    But
    Gregory Jackzo sets a scene as one-time head of the US.NRC, not a job
    for anyone who is against nuclear power. He believes that nuclear power
    should possibly be phased out once all the to-be-built Chinese reactors
    reach the end of their lives. But that begs the point: where else will
    new nuclear reactors have been constructed in the meantime? Therefore
    it’s a doubtful point to raise.

    With global warming ever more
    becoming a reality, we have to stop using fossil fuels which emit carbon
    dioxide into the atmosphere.Wind is intermittent; solar is daylight only, except for the energy concentrated systems; geological heat isn’t everywhere to be found; the sea is terribly corrosive, etc, etc. That leaves thermonuclear power, although I am becoming a bit concerned that it’s always seemingly just around the corner, but the corner never seems to appear! Unless the ITER experiment in Europe does finally provide the answer.

    Otherwise, I don’t really see how nuclear can be phased out for a long, long time. Incidentally, do people really want to never be able to escape from the sight of those ghastly wind generating towers, with their huge props?

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    Have to agree with YY. What I remember is that GJ, who admits he was confused and lacking information, got up in front of the US Congress and purported to know what was going on. Then he misled them. He misled the media and everyone else by claiming to know things that he admits he did not know.

    I think his actions were shameful. He lied by saying he had information he did not have and then accused the Japanese government of lying to its own people.

    He might excuse himself now by saying he was mistaken, etc., but he had a huge responsibility to his agency, Japan, and the world, and he panicked people needlessly.

    I live just north of Fukushima, and if I had listened to GJ, I would have endangered my family by fleeing needlessly into the snowy night on icy dark roads instead of staying put and staying safe in March 2011. It is reprehensible to provide false information and incite panic from a position of authority. Certainly if he had insufficient information, erring on the side of caution does not mean simply assuming the worst.

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    I am a US citizen who was living in Tohoku on March 11, 2011. I remember clearly that Gregory Jaczko testified before the US Congress and provided them information about fuel pools that he now admits was false. He admits he was confused about it. That information contradicted information that had been given to me by the Japanese government.

    At that time, he accused the Japanese government of providing poor information to its citizens, and, I believe, created an atmosphere of distrust of the Japanese government, especially among foreigners.

    I think it was a tremendous disservice done to the Japanese people and the Japanese government, and to me personally.

    This article describes his assessment of chaos in the days following the earthquake. As a public servant of my government, his decision to worsen the situation by assuming the worst and claiming that before the US Congress instead of waiting for more accurate information was irresponsible. I believed Japanese information instead of believing the information from the US NRC. My decision to do so probably saved my life and the lives of my family members.