Censored phone records show U.S. evacuation debate

Transcripts sketch out NRC’s 3/11 confusion

The Washington Post

Transcripts of phone conversations immediately after the March disasters, released Tuesday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, reveal the early sense of urgency and confusion about the crisis unfolding at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The transcripts include lengthy discussions justifying NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s controversial decision to urge Americans living within a 50-mile (80 km) radius of the stricken nuclear plant to evacuate. They show the decision was based in part on an assessment — now thought to be erroneous — that the reactor 4 spent-fuel pool at the No. 1 plant had been drained of liquids and its walls had “crumbled,” in the words of one official, releasing radioactive elements into the environment.

The conversations in the transcripts start on the morning of March 11 and run through March 20. They are redacted in many places, including a 16½-page section from dialogues held March 12. The transcripts were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and are available on the agency’s website.

The phone transcripts reinforce the impression of confusion NRC emails that have long been posted on its website first gave rise to.

In conversations recorded March 16, NRC staff debated the evacuation issue, including how it would be conducted.

The NRC’s executive director for operations, Bill Borchardt, said that “if this happened in the U.S. we would go out to 50 miles,” while Adm. Kirkland Donald of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s office of naval reactors agreed with the agency’s assessment. Jaczko also warned that the situation at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant could deteriorate further.

Japanese officials imposed a 20-km exclusion zone around the Fukushima No. 1 plant and evacuated all residents within it.

The NRC-proposed 80-km evacuation zone far exceeds the radius that U.S. nuclear plant operators are expected to draw up in contingency plans for in the event of an emergency.

At first, Jaczko and his staff focused on the limited impact tsunami triggered by the 9.0-magnitude undersea megaquake that struck off the Tohoku region could have on U.S. plants, especially a California facility at Diablo Canyon.

But their focus changed when the agency received a midmorning cable from the International Atomic Energy Agency using “some somewhat alarming language” about the failure of the backup power and cooling systems at the Fukushima power station, an NRC operations room official said.

By late afternoon, NRC official Bill Ruland said during a conference call that given the likelihood that the Fukushima No. 1 complex was suffering a blackout, “we’re about at the time where they could start to see core damage.”

But Ruland added that information remained “meager.” Speaking later in a conference call with Jaczko, he said, “We’re dying in a sea of silence here, actually.”

The agency remained heavily dependent on Tepco news releases and media reports, especially in the first days of the crisis.

Those early days “reflect the fog of war, so to speak,” Jaczko said Tuesday.

But NRC officials also claimed Tuesday that the agency’s assessments about the radioactivity released had in fact turned out to be substantially correct based on radioactive materials emitted by the plant’s three wrecked reactors.

The NRC’s response to the Fukushima crisis has been the focus of attention as U.S. nuclear power experts debate what lessons American power plants should draw from the crisis, as well as how the NRC could enhance its ability to better help other nations in the future.

Dan Dorman, deputy director for engineering at the NRC’s office of nuclear reactor regulation, said the confusion about what was happening in Japan was “exacerbated by the event being halfway around the world in another country.” He said that in a U.S. incident, the NRC would have direct lines of communication to the reactor’s operator and thus a far clearer idea of what was happening.