An NRC Official Writes About His First-Hand View of the Japan Nuclear Disaster

Eric Leeds
Director, Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation
 

Last month, I traveled to Japan with a group of senior NRC executives, including all four Regional Administrators. We spent a busy week meeting with representatives from various Japanese organizations involved in nuclear activities, as well as touring the Kashiwazaki Kariwa, Fukushima Dai-ni and Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plants.

At the end of almost every day, we took time to reflect, to discuss what we learned, and to record our thoughts. I wanted to offer a few personal insights from what I found to be a profound experience.

On the bus ride to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of the accident in 2011, we passed through the town of Tomioka, about 7 to 10 km south of the site. Before the accident, Tomioka had been a vibrant seaside village of approximately 16,000 residents. It was a resort town, with its own train stop, beachfront, restaurants and hotels.

test11The town is now empty, uninhabitable because of radiological contamination (about 1 microsievert an hour). There are no inhabitants, no electricity, no running water. The damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami remains. Those who had lived in the town are now allowed to enter to visit their homes, but they can’t stay overnight. The authorities are decontaminating the town and plan to have it inhabitable in about three years. Thinking about the people who, for all this time, have lost their homes, lost their jobs, and lost their community leaves me feeling sick to my stomach. For me, a career safety regulator, the feeling is very personal.

When we reached the site, we boarded a different bus, a bus prepared for a contaminated site, with plastic herculite covering the seats and more plastic and duct tape covering the floor. We donned a full set of anti-contamination clothing, shoe covers, and respirators. There are about 250 cars, trucks, and buses on site, ferrying a site workforce of about 4,000 workers. As we passed workers at the site and in other vehicles, it struck me that everyone was wearing full anti-Cs, respirators, and helmets. It left me with an eerie feeling, as if I were in a science fiction movie.

We toured the site, often leaving the bus to see specific site areas. While a great deal of work has already been accomplished, much of the damage from the earthquake and tsunami remains, if only pushed to the side. Broken buildings, twisted metal, crushed concrete and smashed vehicles still litter the site. TEPCO is currently moving the spent fuel from the Unit 4 spent fuel pool to the common pool for the site, and we toured both pools. Since we could not get into the containments of the damaged reactors due to the ongoing high dose rates, our hosts took us to the torus room of the undamaged Unit 5 containment, to show us where the containment vent valves were located on the damaged units. This was done so we could understand the difficulty the operators faced in trying to manually open the valves.

ericquote1I tried to picture the challenge for the operators, going into this confined area in pitch black, the heat stifling, the dose rate steadily increasing, looking for the valves they’d have to operate manually. The descriptions of the accident from the operators who lived through the ordeal will stay with me forever. Many of them truly believed they were going to die. They had no idea if their families survived the tsunami or where their families were. Yet they stayed and fought the accident. They were incredibly courageous.

I am more convinced than ever that the Fukushima lessons learned we are requiring the industry to implement are critical to ensure an accident like the one at Fukushima doesn’t happen here. We have to ensure the licensees fully implement, maintain, and exercise the Fukushima lessons learned. We have to make sure the licensees prepare their facilities and are ready to confront the unexpected. We are the ones who are accountable to and responsible for protecting the American public. It’s our job. For me, it’s personal. It’s what I’m here to do.