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.