– Japan Concedes Severity of Blast (Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2011):
Japan disclosed Monday that its nuclear accident was more severe in its first days than it had previously admitted—casting new light on how Tokyo’s early handling of the disaster briefly sent its relations with the U.S. into one of the tensest periods in years.
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency on Monday more than doubled its estimate for the amount of radiation released from the plant in the first week of the March disaster and said holes may have formed around pipes attached to reactor containment vessels. It also said it believes that reactor cores at some of the units at the complex melted much faster than the plant operator previously suggested.
U.S. and Japanese officials say differences over the accident’s severity nearly boiled over in the days after the March 11 earthquake and tsumami that disabled cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear. That, in turn, prompted a scramble to repair an alliance seen as critical to security in East Asia.
The U.S. was alarmed at the Japanese government’s initial response, while Japanese officials resented U.S. demands for more information as they were struggling to come to grips with a natural disaster of unprecedented scale.
“The frustration was so serious that mutual trust between the U.S. and Japan, I think, was endangered,” said Akihisa Nagashima, a senior lawmaker in Japan’s ruling Democratic Party and former deputy defense minister. Some of the U.S. fears turned out to be overblown. But its initial worries about a large radiation release were given new currency Monday.
Tokyo’s nuclear regulator revealed an apparent leak in the lid of Reactor No. 2’s containment vessel. That container was a crucial barrier between the overheating nuclear fuel rods at the reactor and the outside world, and the new information suggests radioactive substances were surging through holes that were collectively the size of a business card.
Estimates by NISA now put the total amount of radiation released into the atmosphere in the first week of the crisis at 770,000 terabecquerels. This compares with a previous estimate, made April 12, of 370,000 terabecquerels for the first month of the crisis. A terabecquerel is equivalent to one trillion becquerels. A becquerel represents one radioactive event per second.
The new estimate now brings NISA’s estimate more in line with that of another government watchdog, the Nuclear Safety Commission, which has projected the total radiation release at 630,000 terabecquerels. The commission calculated emissions based on measures of radiation taken on the ground, while NISA’s estimates were based on analysis of the conditions of the reactors.
Government safety officials played down any suggestion of a greater impact on human health or food safety in the affected area. It also said the new report wouldn’t alter the timeline for bringing the nuclear reactors to a safe shutdown.
U.S. officials cited fears of unknown problems in the early days when they called for U.S. citizens to evacuate a 50-mile zone around the plant. That zone was far larger than the 12-mile zone set by the Japanese government, and appeared to undercut the authority of Tokyo’s own judgment of where its residents were safe.
“In those early hours, they didn’t seem to understand the severity of the situation,” said one U.S. official in Tokyo. “In the beginning, they weren’t taking any suggestions from us at all.”
Officials of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have taken Tokyo’s recent revisions on the accident’s severity as evidence that their initial surmises about were essentially correct, and justified the 50-mile zone.
“We felt pretty confident [within a few days of the accident] that there was significant fuel damage,” Bill Borchardt, the NRC’s operations chief, said in New York late last month. “There were numerous indications of high radiation levels that can only come from damaged fuel at those kinds of levels.”
In the accident’s early days, the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, John Roos, made “around the clock” phone calls to Japanese officials, according to a U.S. official. Upset by the slow trickle of data from Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s office, he began calling Cabinet-level officials representing the ministries of defense, foreign affairs and even finance, this official says.
That annoyed the Japanese foreign ministry, according to one senior Japanese official, which was trying on its own to coordinate the response to Washington’s urgent pleas.
Worried by the data deficit, the U.S. Navy began running simulations of the radioactive plume using detectors on Navy aircraft. On March 14, the Navy’s Seventh Fleet redeployed after detecting low-level contamination in the air about 100 miles northeast of the Daiichi plant.
The U.S. was particularly worried about the spent-fuel pool at the plant’s reactor No. 4, where active fuel rods were stored as the reactor was offline.
“We believe … there is no water in the spent-fuel pool,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told a House panel on March 16. Ultimately, Tepco officials were able to confirm the presence of water, although the fuel rods were damaged and leaked radiation.
Hours before Mr. Jaczko’s testimony, Mr. Roos, the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, had said Americans in Japan should “continue to follow the advice of the Japanese government” on the 12-mile evacuation zone. But later that day, the U.S. told Americans within 50 miles of the plant to get out. The State Department also urged U.S. citizens to defer travel to Japan.
A U.S. official said Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell called Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki, a longtime friend, to his office four or five times on March 16. Mr. Campbell told Mr. Fujisaki that the U.S. might have issue broader evacuation warnings, and brushed aside the ambassador’s fears that the divergent views on evacuation could embarrass Japan.
One U.S. official says Mr. Campbell told Mr. Fujisaki that “the survival of your nation” was at stake.
Mr. Fujisaki recalls the sticking point was that information wasn’t coming quickly enough from the stricken plant. He said Japan appreciated the U.S. help and quickly worked to take advantage of it. On March 18, NRC experts in Tokyo finally got their first meeting with Tokyo Electric Power, or Tepco. But instead of being taken to the second floor “war room” Tepco had set up to deal with the nuclear crisis, they were ushered into a conference room on another floor and introduced to two low-level employees. “Tepco [had] seemed to make no preparation. It was just chaos,” said Mr. Nagashima, the ruling-party lawmaker.
Goshi Hosono, a special adviser to the Japanese prime minister on the nuclear issue, asked Mr. Nagashima to smooth relations with the U.S., and the two sides agreed to hold two-hour-long meetings of 20 to 30 high level U.S. and Japanese representatives. The first was held on March 21. Both sides say those meetings, which gave the U.S. extraordinary input into Japan’s decision-making process on cooling the plant, gave the U.S. the chance to get information and prod Japanese decision makers.
The patch signaled the alliance’s underlying strength, which officials on both sides say was also reflected in a simultaneous joint effort by the two countries’ armed forces to help quake and tsunami survivors.
Mr. Nagashima said the nuclear issue exposed weakness in Japan’s capacity for crisis management. “Frankly speaking, there would have been no reason for this meeting if that was working well,” he said.
On April 15, the U.S. lifted its travel advisory for Japan. In retrospect, U.S. and Japanese officials say their relationship has been strengthened by the experience of working so closely together under intense pressure.