by nuclearhistory

Records Show Confusion in U.S. at Start of Japan’s Atomic Crisis
Published: February 21, 2012

WASHINGTON — Something resembling a “fog of war” prevailed at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s headquarters in the first hours and days after the Fukushima accident began last March, the N.R.C.’s chairman said Tuesday, as the agency released a cache of transcripts of internal conference calls beginning hours after the earthquake.

The N.R.C. got some of its information from the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, the utility whose Fukushima Daiichi reactors were stricken by the tsunami after the quake, but a great deal of the information came from news accounts, according to various officials whose contemporaneous assessments were captured in the transcripts.

For example, on the second day of the crisis, one official referred to “unconfirmed reports of boiling” in spent fuel pools, but the reports did not say which of the six reactors were involved, a maddening ambiguity for officials who oversaw similar reactors in the United States.

In hindsight, some of the information was simply wrong. John D. Monninger, an engineer at the N.R.C., reported that an explosion at Unit 4 had broken open the spent fuel pool, which had more radioactive materials in it than the Unit 4 reactor, and that “there’s no water in there whatsoever.” He added, “Somebody has talked about dropping sand in there, et cetera.”

The belief that the pool in Unit 4 was dry led the N.R.C. chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, to recommend that Americans be evacuated to a radius of 50 miles — far larger than the area the Japanese government was recommending. But N.R.C. officials said on Tuesday that given the actual releases of radioactive material, that move was sound

In one of several instances where frustration is evident among experienced regulators and engineers groping with fragmentary information half a world away, Mr. Monninger said, “To us, I mean the simple, obvious answer, of course, is water, water, water.” Even though the pool was not dry, Tepco eventually did what he was calling for, using fire trucks to squirt water into the pools through the wreckage of the exploded buildings.

There were also discussions of related frustrations, including reports that American companies had assembled and shipped water pumps to Japan, but that Tepco was not picking them up.

An undercurrent of the transcripts is how the United States would handle such an event.

On Day 7, a participant who is not identified by name said that the Japanese had asked the N.R.C. “how we deal with extending dose,” or allowing workers to soak up higher amounts of radiation in an emergency. “We just told them for emergencies and a condition like this, we have guidelines that let us go to a certain limit. But in this case, you need to do what you need to do to get it done,” said the unidentified N.R.C. voice on the line.

“This government has got tremendous, tremendous, I mean, unfathomable challenges,” said another official, Charles Casto, the deputy administrator for the N.R.C. region that covers the western United States.

Speaking from Tokyo, he predicted that rising levels of radioactivity might stop airliners from coming to Tokyo. (This did not happen.) He remarked on his own tiredness, and rambled a bit. “When you’ve got a thousand dead bodies washing up on the shore, you know, it’s — you know, these people — I don’t know, I mean, we — you know, I think we’d be prepared for it, but it’s — this is — it is a tough time for them, and we’re over here barking at them.”

He also remarked that there would be questions about the safety of reactors in the United States with the same design. “I think we have to take the position that we’re safe,” he said. “We were safe yesterday, we’re safe today, and we’re going to be safer tomorrow based on what we’ve learned.”

At that point, an unidentified participant responded: “This is good. I mean, the president is calling for an assessment of the safety of nuclear power in this country. And I’m not exactly sure what that means yet, but I think we have an opportunity to shape it. And I would jump in and shape it in roughly the same direction you’re pointing.”

END QUOTE. fission = low point of science.