Kyle Cleveland, my colleague at Temple University Japan, recently published a report in the online Asia-Pacific Journal, “Mobilizing Nuclear Bias: The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis and the Politics of Uncertainty” that has drawn widespread media attention. Based on numerous interviews with government officials, military officers and nuclear energy experts, along with documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests to U.S. government agencies, Cleveland has pieced together a critical, but nuanced picture of a crisis that was closer to careening out of control than is generally acknowledged. There was a great deal of confusion in the early weeks of the crisis as different actors had different information and made varied assessments about what the information indicated.

Cleveland elucidates the yawning chasm between the minimizing and downplaying efforts of Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the U.S. government’s assessments of the nuclear crisis. Because the Japanese government was reliant on Tepco for information this also created a gulf of perceptions between the two governments.

The USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, arrived off the tsunami stricken coast of Tohoku on March 13, 2011, to provide rescue and relief assistance. Naval officers, according to Freedom of Information Act documents scrutinized by Cleveland, discovered the level of radiation was far worse than they anticipated. Radiation gauges on the ship measured levels of radiation at 100 nautical miles off the coast that were 30 times greater than normal. Aircrews that ventured closer to the stricken plant were found to have high levels of radiation on their shoes and clothing. Tepco’s downplaying of the crisis and misleading information is at issue in a lawsuit filed by sailors from the U.S.S Reagan, who claim that they have had significant health problems due to exposure to radiation during their rescue efforts. Had Tepco acted responsibly by clarifying the scale of the crisis, the plaintiffs assert, they would not be suffering various cancers they attribute to exposure to high doses of radiation.

The higher than expected radiation readings created a delicate diplomatic situation as the U.S. did not want to embarrass or offend its ally, but it also wanted to ensure the safety of its military and government personnel, their dependents and American civilians. Cleveland finds that there was considerable disagreement between various U.S. agencies about the severity of the risk, but in the end the Defense Department ruled that there were no adverse health consequences from the reported radiation doses.

The international media has been lashed for exaggerating the risks to Tokyo, but Cleveland believes this 20/20 hindsight is misleading. Critics often cite Jeffrey Bader’s 2012 article in Foreign Affairs, “Inside the White House During Fukushima” to assert that the U.S. government never considered the risk sufficient to justify evacuation of Tokyo. Bader served as the senior director for East Asian Affairs on the U.S. National Security Council from January 2009 until April 2011, but he would not be the first insider to put a gloss on what happened on his watch.

Bader explains that the U.S. decided to expand the exclusionary zone to 80 km, exceeding the Japanese government’s 20-km evacuation zone, because the available data indicated that this is what the U.S. government would do in a similar situation at home. Washington also authorized a voluntary departure for dependents of U.S. personnel and issued a travel advisory recommending U.S. citizens consider leaving Japan. John Holdren, the president’s science adviser, argued that U.S. Navy nuclear experts were overstating the risks, but as Cleveland explains, when science meets policy, politics prevails. Bader acknowledges that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from bases in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Yokota in western Tokyo would have stoked panic among Japanese and gravely damaged the alliance.

Based on Holder’s interpretation of worst-case scenarios developed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory working with the NRC, Bader concludes that, “there was no plausible scenario in which Tokyo, Yokosuka, or Yokota could be subject to dangerous levels of airborne radiation.” Cleveland’s sources disagree. He suggests that Bader,”downplays the level of discord and debate among the radiation experts and privileges interpretations by State Department folks whose guiding concerns were the diplomatic impact of expanding evacuation/exclusionary zones, the implications of an actionable worst-case scenario and military departures. State essentially refereed the decision-making and pushed for less conservative measures to align more closely with the Japanese, with a close eye on implications for the American nuclear industry.”

In Cleveland’s view, the navy was, “more risk averse than either the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) or State, and from day one was ringing alarms that were not entirely understood, not completely validated and not well received by the NRC and State. The navy was pushing the other federal agencies to take more aggressive actions because their radiation measurements were indicating dose rates that were more significant than what was implied by the abstract modeling that guided the NRC and Holdren’s views.” Given that the U.S. government expanded the exclusionary zone in Fukushima to 80 km and developed contingency plans for a massive evacuation while shredding of documents continued for four days at the U.S. Embassy and military bases in Japan, somebody was obviously very worried.

Regarding accusations that The New York Times exaggerated the crisis, Cleveland argues, “The reporting of the NYT was warranted by the information known at the time. Their discussion of worst-case scenarios and their withering view of Tepco and the J-Gov were based on solid reporting. . . . Their views were based on interviews with insiders who provided this information and so their coverage was not unduly alarmist. . . . If anything, the NYT was a mainstream, moderate voice in line with mainstream experts and the policy decisions being debated by elite-level insiders.” Some of his insider sources tell him that the crisis was actually far worse than anyone acknowledged at the time and that information was withheld to prevent a panic.

Cleveland concludes that Japan’s nuclear reactors should not be restarted. As one American nuclear expert told him, “Without a qualitatively different regulatory system, and in light of how Japan/Tepco responded to this crisis, Japan has not earned the right to have nuclear energy. No critically minded and informed person can evaluate this disaster and look at how Japan has responded in the aftermath and have any confidence that Japan will use nuclear energy safely. And in the most seismically active country in the world, even if Japan had a robust regulatory structure and thoroughly integrated crisis protocols, nature conspires against the best-laid-plans of human institutions. And what Japan has is certainly not the best plan by any measure.”

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan

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