Shaken Faith

After the Fukushima disaster, a U.S. mistake undermined the Japanese government.

Gregory B. Jaczko, then-chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, testifies about the nuclear situation in Japan on March 16, 2011, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

It was an honest mistake. On the morning of March 16, 2011, top officials of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that the spent fuel pool in Reactor No. 4 at Fukushima Dai-ichi must be dry.

Thus began an episode that had enormous implications for the trust that Japanese people have in their public officials. To this day, millions of Japanese shun food grown in the northeast region of their country; many who live in that area limit their children’s outdoor play, while others have fled to parts of Japan as far from Fukushima as possible. The reason many of them give is that they simply can’t believe what government authorities say about the dangers of radiation exposure.

Why people became so cynical—and whether they’re right to be—is a subject of intense debate in Japan. The events of March 16, 2011, have been overlooked in this debate. But they shouldn’t be. In retrospect, the episode may be among the most consequential to arise from the accident at the nuclear power plant.

At 6:30 a.m. Washington time, shortly after a third explosion had rocked Fukushima Dai-ichi, Gregory Jaczko, the commission’s then-40-year-old chairman, joined a conference call with members of his staff and other U.S. officials. From staffers who had rushed to Japan came a shocking report of damage the explosion had inflicted.

“Here’s where I think we are,” Jaczko told the group, according to a transcript of the conversation that was released under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. “We probably have to assume at this point that we’re going to have three reactors out of control and possibly up to six spent fuel pools.”

Until then, the agency Jaczko headed had been advising Americans in Japan to follow the Japanese government’s directions, which included a 12-mile evacuation zone around the plant. That advice was suddenly looking shaky because of information about the impact of the explosion on the Reactor No. 4 spent fuel pool, which held more than 1,000 fuel rods and had evidently lost its capacity to retain water. “The walls have crumbled,” one NRC official in Tokyo told Jaczko, “and you’ve just got fuel there.”

Jaczko has a Ph.D. in physics, so along with the chief science advisers in the White House, he well knew the result could be overheated rods catching fire and spewing more radioactive particles into the atmosphere than would likely occur even with a core meltdown.

“I think we need to take whatever actions are necessary to deal with that,” Jaczko said. “If that involves a general evacuation of U.S. citizens, we need to instruct that to be done immediately.”

In fact, unbeknownst to anyone on the call, the pool was adequately full of water and would continue to stay that way. But based in part on their conviction that the pool was empty and probably non-fillable, Jaczko and his colleagues quickly settled on several recommendations for the White House, most notably extending the evacuation zone for U.S. citizens to 50 miles from the plant.

Television cameras zoomed in on Jaczko at a congressional hearing that afternoon. High-strung, with a zest for intellectual combat (he would resign in 2012, under fire from fellow commissioners and staffers for alleged bullying and emotional outbursts), he minced no words: “We believe that secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent fuel pool.” A U.S.-Japan rift appeared to emerge, with a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Company insisting that the pool was stable, while admitting there was no proof.

Media the world over depicted the Japanese as ludicrously optimistic. “This is an earthquake of a different kind. This is a political earthquake,” CNN analyst Jim Walsh told viewers. “The American government’s top nuclear official is coming out and saying things are far worse than the Japanese government has said.” From Tokyo, Anderson Cooper reported “an increasing credibility gap in terms of what the Japanese government is saying. … All of this is compounded by, now, the statements by U.S. officials, which seem to be very frank.”

The Japanese authorities’ loss of credibility on nuclear matters was self-inflicted to a large degree; especially unartful were the repeated assurances of Yukio Edano, then chief government spokesman, that radiation levels posed “no immediate threat to human health.” But it is hard to conceive another single blow so devastating to public faith in Japanese official pronouncements as Jaczko’s statement.

By that evening, Jaczko’s subordinates were already starting to hedge their assessments about the pool when the chairman joined another conference call. The U.S. staffers in Tokyo had heard from Japanese investigators that even though the exterior wall protecting the pool appeared to be demolished, an interior wall was evidently intact; the Japanese offered other evidence as well.

Chuck Casto, the Tokyo-based team leader, related those points to Jaczko, saying he still wasn’t convinced even after seeing a video of what the Japanese claimed was water in the pool. To Casto it was “really inconclusive.” But he acknowledged that the video, taken from a helicopter 14 hours earlier, showed steam emissions.

“So at this point, you no longer believe that the pool is dry? Is that what I’m hearing?” Jaczko asked, according to the transcript.

“I would say, as of 5 o’clock yesterday, the pool had some water in it,” Casto replied.

“OK. Now, I’ve publicly said the pool is dry,” Jaczko said, which Casto knew. “Do you think that’s inaccurate?”

“It’s so inconclusive, we can’t really tell, either way. I mean … ” Casto replied.

“Well, so it’s inaccurate for me to say it’s dry?” Jaczko said. “Is that what you’re saying? It’s OK if that’s the case; just tell me.”

“I would say it’s probably inaccurate to say it’s dry,” Casto replied. “It appears today, with the video, that they had some water in it at 5 o’clock yesterday or it wouldn’t be steaming.”

Although this information wouldn’t change the evacuation zone expansion, it “speak[s] to my credibility—that’s the problem,” Jaczko said.

Instead of promptly acknowledging that his public comment evidently went too far, Jaczko stuck by it in the days that followed. Although he sometimes used phrases like “I hope our information is inaccurate,” his agency did not publicly admit until June 15, 2011, three months later, that the Japanese assessment had been right all along.

In an interview, Jaczko defended the stance he took as based on information he and his staff firmly believed at the time. “We were looking at data and gathering information and trying to assess: Is the pool dry or not? Our conclusion was: The pool was dry,” he said. In fairness to him, the transcripts of calls after the one recounted above show that some staffers overcame their doubts and grew increasingly convinced of the pool’s dryness; at one point Casto said he would “stake my career on it.” But the transcripts are also replete with uncertainty, such as this March 19, 2011, comment from another staffer: “We can hold a poll around the room of what people think is the actual conditions in that pool, and I think—there’s six people, you’ll get seven answers.”

Whatever damage was done on March 16, 2011, it is worth reflecting on a memo that circulated within the commission staff shortly before Casto and the other experts flew to Tokyo.

“Public statements we make going forward will have enormous credibility; extreme caution will be necessary,” said the memo, written by Margaret Doane of the commission’s international staff. “The Japanese are now in their fourth day of responding to these emergencies and will remain the best informed about the current technical, legal, cultural, and regulatory issues. … It will be essential to help the Japanese maintain trust in their leaders. … Any inconsistencies or statements that undermine Japanese authority or expertise will have lasting effects as it could hamper current emergency efforts and their future ability to respond to these issues, long after international assistance recedes. Any interactions with the Japanese, other nations, or public communications should take this into consideration.”

A Japanese-language version of this article was previously published in Newsweek Japan.