Bloomberg News

Fukushima Disaster Left U.S. NRC Confused, Documents Show

February 27, 2012

(Updates with potential NRC rules in seventh paragraph.)

Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Relying on information from Japanese officials, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Congress last year that a spent-fuel pool at Japan’s crippled Fukushima plant was dry. It wasn’t true.

“I’ve said publicly the pool is dry,” Jaczko told Chuck Casto, the NRC’s lead official in Japan, on a conference call hours after Jaczko’s March 16 testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Do you think that’s inaccurate?”

“It’s probably inaccurate to say it’s dry,” Casto said.

More than 3,000 pages of transcripts released yesterday by the NRC show the agency was struggling to assess the severity of Japan’s nuclear disaster, even as it gave the White House a recommendation for U.S. citizens to evacuate within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the damaged reactors.

The transcripts highlight what Jaczko called the “fog of war” as the agency responded to the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years. The agency’s information about developments, provided by local officials, news media and Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of Fukushima Dai-Ichi, created a chaotic environment where details weren’t always accurate.

“There was not a lot of information” in the first hours after the accident, Jaczko told reporters yesterday. “Much of what we knew came from a variety of sources,” including the Japanese government and the news media, he said.

Weighing Rules

The five-member NRC is weighing rules to improve safety at 104 U.S. nuclear reactors, and may issue its first Fukushima- related orders by March 9. The orders may require plants to have adequate instruments to monitor spent-fuel cooling pools and equipment to deal with power failures. Regulators also are considering a rule directing plant owners to have sturdy venting systems to relieve pressure in General Electric Co.-designed reactors that are similar to those that failed at Fukushima.

The U.S. nuclear-energy industry yesterday approved its own plan to have portable equipment, including back-up pumps and generators, at power plants to handle emergencies. NRC officials have said the Nuclear Energy Institute-designed plan may speed the regulatory process.

Reports from Tokyo Electric and Japan’s government had indicated the cooling pool to store atomic waste at Fukushima’s Unit 4 reactor was dry, which would cause more radiation to leak into the air, according to comments by staff members. “The nuclear agency here admits that No. 4 doesn’t have any water in it,” Casto said on a conference call from Japan March 17.

Quake, Tsunami

The NRC said June 15, after further examination, that the reactor pool probably never lost all of its water.

A 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami March 11 caused explosions and a loss of power, leaving the pools unable to keep fuel rods cool and triggering meltdowns and radiation leaks.

“It’s hell over here for that government,” Casto said on a March 17 call. “When you’ve got a thousand dead bodies washing up on the shore” it makes it “tough for them, and we’re over here barking at them” about the situation, he said.

Jaczko a day earlier pressed officials on a conference call from the Rockville, Maryland, operations center about advice for U.S. citizens near Fukushima.

“What I need to do is just make sure that the White House knows what our recommendation is,” Jaczko said in reference to the evacuation zone. “We need to get that message as quickly as possible.”

‘Appropriate Guidance’

“If this happened in the U.S., we would go out to 50 miles,” Bill Borchardt, the NRC’s executive director for operations, told Jaczko. “That would be the appropriate guidance to give the ambassador to pass on at this point.”

Republicans in Congress criticized Jaczko’s leadership during the 2011 disaster, and Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, in May questioned why Jaczko recommended a 50-mile evacuation zone when Japan’s government cleared 12 miles. Jaczko has said his response was consistent with what the NRC would propose in a similar U.S. crisis.

Agency officials found reliable information was scarce and “there was confusion and communication problems” in the first hours after Fukushima lost power, Eliot Brenner, an NRC spokesman, said in a blog post on the agency’s website yesterday. “The first days were very hectic.”

Jaczko asked his four colleagues to stay out of the emergency operations center in the days after the Fukushima crisis began. He “broadly interprets the authority granted to the NRC chairman,” a Dec. 13 report from Republicans on the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said.

Jaczko has said he assumed increased authority as Fukushima unfolded because of powers granted to the chairman in 1980, following a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a year earlier.

The NRC released the transcripts in response to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.

--With assistance from Jim Efstathiou Jr. in New York. Editors: Steve Geimann, Daniel Enoch

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Wingfield in Washington at bwingfield3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net


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