“In the Information Age, They Have No Information”

February 22, 2012

Photo: A fire engine douses the spent fuel pool of Reactor 3 at Fukushima Daiichi. (Japan Ministry of Defense)

In the hours and days after the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] struggled to stay abreast of exactly what was going on at the crippled facility.

Now we have new audio and transcripts from inside the NRC that shows exactly what information they were receiving, in real time.

“What you get from reading this and listening to it is that they really don’t know what is going on,” explained Alex Chadwick on last night’s Marketplace, noting that, like the rest of the world, the NRC was relying on YouTube and CNN for information. “Here we have this real ultra high-tech crisis going on. In the information age, they have no information.”

Listen to one of the recordings below, which highlights early attempts by NRC officials to ascertain the safety of one reactor’s fuel core. Bill Ruland, a senior NRC official, is heard saying, “They’re at least at a Level III, which is a serious incident. And the only reason we don’t think there are any more is we have sparse information.” The full transcripts can be found on the NRC’s website.

Other revelations from the transcripts, which span from March 11 to March 20, include insights into why NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko issued a 50-mile evacuation order for Americans living near Fukushima (in part due to information, now considered false, that a spent fuel pool was dry and that the pool walls crumbed); confusion about whether reactors were suffering from core damage; and the NRC’s reliance on reports from Tokyo Electric Power Company [TEPCO], the company running the plant.

Next Tuesday, FRONTLINE will air Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown, a rare inside look at the decision-making process inside TEPCO and the Japanese government. Check your local listings here, and watch the trailer above.

We’ll explore the high-level communications – and miscommunications – between then-Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and TEPCO officials on dire issues ranging from whether to vent the reactors to how to balance the safety of the workers in the plant versus the safety of Japanese citizens. We’ll also publish interviews with key players on our website, and tell the stories of ordinary men faced with extraordinary tasks and extraordinary losses.

For more on nuclear safety in the U.S. after Fukushima, take a look at our recent film Nuclear Aftershocks.

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