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.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

28 thoughts on “An NRC Official Writes About His First-Hand View of the Japan Nuclear Disaster”

  1. Excellent post! I absolutely agree that safety should be top priority. We don’t need another rage from Mother Nature to realize what we need to do. Learning our lessons from the Japanese Fukushima accident will ensure that the same thing won’t happen in America. Thank you for sharing this enlightening article.

  2. Keeping people away from their homes when the known Rad-Con levels are 1/4 the known safe levels is not good practice. Forcing them out in the middle of the aftermath of a major earthquake is not good practice either. And recognizing that the Linear No-Threshold model is flawed and that as a minimum a threshold model of some sort can be used is good news, but is hardly just “smiling”.

  3. I see….don’t use models for an evacuation, instead, make sure the people are contaminated first, and that you can prove it with a MIST calibrated instrument, and a peer review, during an massive tradegy, oh sure, that will work out just fine.

    there is PLENTY of evidence of external exposures less than 100mSv causing serious diseases, and its not JUST cancer. And the chance it becoming internal (through air, food, and water) in those Japanese areas is very high. “Decontamination” has been shown to be inneffective.”

    And no, “smiling” won’t prevent the damage.

  4. We note on this,it’s really a valuable lesson for us if we want to increase a safety nuclear plan.

  5. There is a tested and proven solution to treat such a contaminted water without generating any additional sludge. It has been already tested @ nuclear certified laboratory. Test results are now disclosed..
    See the following CCN iReport about it:

  6. This is the second article where NRC people have posted gloomily about the forcibly-evacuated towns near Fukushima Daiichi. They seem oblivious to the fact that it is regulatory action that has produced this wasteland. Take heed, regulators. This “devastation” was unnecessary – the people could have gone on living there on the flip-side of the precautionary principle – DON’T WRECK PEOPLE’S LIVES unless you have solid evidence they are in danger. Not assumptions, not models, not vague statements by long-ago Nobel prize winners – you need actual evidence of likely harm to do this to people.

  7. A full staff of unicorns, that is, who will sneeze out the gold dust necessary to pay both the insurance on an unproductive building and their own salaries. Though why you would need any significant insurance on a defueled nuclear plant is a mystery, perhaps known only to those who believe that even saying the word “nuclear” is some kind of mortal danger.

  8. The Fukushima FUD-Con disaster was very real. The Fukushima Rad-Con “disaster”, not so much.

  9. But the fossil fuel gander has a LOT more money it can use to cook the nuclear goose. And it is certainly using it.

  10. This is an excellent post. But I would add a couple of points.

    The the tsunami caused by the rupture of subduction faults during the Great East Japan Earthquake killed almost 20,000 people. It had been known scientifically for over 10 years that these types of tsunamis occur in this region at least every 1000 years.

    The Japanese nuclear regulatory agency clearly made a major mistake in not acknowledging the geologic scientific evidence that very large subduction-fault induced tsunamis capable occurred at least every thousand years.

    Exactly the same situation exists in the U.S. Pacific northwest, and in Canada and Alaska. There are no coastal nuclear plants in this area, but there are a lot of people. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake, the U.S. Government has actually reduced funding for the NOAA Pacific Northeast tsunami warning system.,0,2124861.story#axzz2vo9EIfTo

    This is obviously stupid, but also is understandable. The key issue for safety is to also have the capability to respond effectively even if bad things happen. My critique with this post is that it does not address the response part directly, and instead only the preventing-the-need-to-respond part.

    The Great East Japan Earthquake occurs about every 1000 years in Japan. Oregon, Washington state, British Columbia, and Alaska face the same tsunami threat.

    There are no U.S. nuclear power plants near similar subduction faults.

    On the U.S. side, we need to make sure that every U.S. nuclear plant has procedures and has trained and provided resources its staff to respond effectively to any event, even those that might occur every 1000 or 10,000 years. This was already largely done under the U.S. response to 9/11 plane crashes, which required U.S. utilities to acquire portable pumps and electrical generators, and develop procedures and training for plant staff to use this equipment in the event that the worst happened.

    So for safety, the most important lessons of the Japanese Fukushima accident is that we must assure that the plant staff have the training, authority, and resources needed to respond to any accident.

    And it would make a lot of sense to further improve our tsunami warning system for the northwestern U.S.

    -Per Peterson

  11. @Rich

    The government-established exclusion zone might still exist in the region near the Chernobyl reactor, but there seems to be a lot of wildlife that pays little or no attention to government edits. Mary Mycio, a Ukrainian-American journalist, visited the area many times and slowly began to realize that the abandonment was not caused by radiation, but by government decision making. I highly recommend her book, Wormwood Forest, about the area.

    For a quick summary of what she found without reading the book, you might want to listen to this 2006 interview.

    There are also a few stubborn babushka’s who refused to leave their homes and have been living an agrarian life in the exclusion zone for the past 28 years.

    It is absurd to think that an area with a dose rate of less than 10 mSv per year is “uninhabitable” due to the radiation exposure. It is far more logical to recognize that it might be uninhabitable because of the damage to water systems, electricity distribution systems, and other parts of the infrastructure as a result of the tsunami.

    You seem to have little faith in governments and nuclear plant operators, but have you ever considered the power of the government interests and large multinational petroleum companies that benefit by selling more diesel fuel and LNG when nuclear reactors are not running but people are still using electricity?

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  12. Here is a link to a recent paper providing evidence to change the threshold of evacuation to 700mSv per year. Also note that the paper shows a beneficial response (hormetic) at around 100mSv per year. This means that people living around Fukushima will be healthier.

    Click to access g371w56515724pj0.pdf

  13. Be it fossil or nuclear, the safest plant is the one defueled, yet continues to maintain a full staff and pay insurance premiums.

  14. Let’s mandatorily evacuate all children living within ten miles downwind of any coal or oil or garbage fired power plant since we’ve LONG known as a certified medical fact that their pollution and particulates enter and accumulate in their lungs and GI tract, not by guesswork and speculation as with trivial radiation effects. Watch health hypocrisy climb! Hey, what’s good for the nuclear goose is definitely overdue for the fossil gander.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  15. I would like to thank Mr. Leeds for blogging concerning this. I agree that institutionalizing ‘Lessons Learned’ is critical to avoiding repeating history….

    For a good scientific review of the long term damage, our National Academy of Sciences recently published “Radiation dose rates now and in the future for residents neighboring restricted areas of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant”

    The abstract closes on a positive note concerning future re-habitation of much that area,
    “… the extra lifetime integrated dose after 2012 is estimated to elevate lifetime risk of cancer incidence by a factor of 1.03 to 1.05 at most, which is unlikely to be epidemiologically detectable.”

  16. The sentiments expressed by Mr. Leeds are those that are putting our country at risk of high energy prices and lack of technological edge. The solutions you “are convinced” about are wasteful, unnecessary and divert the focus of energy companies from finding real solutions to a sustainable energy future. It is abundantly clear the aim of the NRC is to shut them all down – death by a thousand (more like a billion) cuts. Keep at it – you’re well on your way to achieving your goal.

  17. Even 200mSv per year internal is infinitisimal compared to other risks we accept every day. 20 times worse than not bad at all is still not bad at all. kitemansa is right on. Stop the insanity.

  18. The Japanese are not removingoccupational limits on areas until they achieve 1mSv/y above natural background. The IAEA limit is 220mSv/y which includes the effects of unanticipated injestion like dust and dirt on hands etc… as long as the food and drink meet the requirements too. We are talking major differences here. Japan is being absurdly restrictive and their restrictiveness just feeds the fear, uncertainty and doubt.

  19. I ask that the Mr. Leeds explain why he is making the statement that the town of Tomioka is “…uninhabitable because of radiological contamination (about 1 microsievert an hour).” The town of Guarapari is in Brazil. About 100,000 people live there. Here is a link to a video of a woman with a geiger counter as she is sitting on the beach. You can clearly see readings of 30-50 microsieverts an hour.

  20. Rich, exactly, the plant owners will down play the hazard and if it goes a head and blows up NRC will be protected because they can say that the plant operators gave them bad reports.


    Japan’s Nuclear Fever

    RE: the ama-agari system is “like having cops and thieves working in the same police station.”
    The Japanese people, like many others people in most of the Countries that have nuclear power plants, actually now have no choice over what kinds of energy those in charge of their Government choose to provide, since there is a powerful international nuclear industry group that actually controls the very people that make these decisions! The IAEA is the public front for this group but aside from them are all the large Corporations that are using Nuclear energy generation to both keep ratepayers as their energy “slaves” and to further their own nuclear backed position in World politics.

    In essence, we are seeing an elaborately staged show, in which many distinguished actors profess their loyalty to the desires of all the people watching, using speeches that proclaim that nuclear safety and its security are paramount. But we have seen this show many times before and have learned that no matter what these actors say or do, in the end that they are just actors that are receiving a fat paycheck for doing their job to the best of their ability, which is to make us believe that nuclear is somehow “good for us” when in fact it is N☢T. Nuclear is expensive, cradle to grave, it has the potential to go BAD like at Fukushima and it generates enormous amounts of radioactive waste that takes decades if not generations to deal with, but the really big problem with not using nuclear is that the above mentioned Group will lose their control over us because the big secret is out: Solar allows ratepayers to generate energy themselves (Energy Freedom, after the initial payback) and therefore it costs less than the energy that Utility are providing to us long term!

    Due to Fukushima and Countries like Germany, which have called out the Nuclear Industry, we are now seeing the effects of a well-orchestrated Pro-nuclear, industry-wide media blitz that is Global in nature. Said another way, this is an yet another attempt by the nuclear industry to save itself from the increasing penetration of Solar (of all flavors) into the World’s energy generation marketplace. Because Solar is growing rapidly in both residential and now large-scale Utility sized installations, Solar continues to acquire ever more of the total Energy generation market and especially the percentage of energy generation that used to belong to and was tightly controlled by, Big Nuclear. Additionally if the cost to decommission aging nuclear power plants was much lower and there was a place to “hide” nuclear waste, many if not most of our older nuclear power plants that are still in operation today would now be either fully decommissioned or well along in the process. Today, it is now not only both far less expensive and much less RISKY to generate energy with Solar (of all flavors) and/or natural gas fired generation but the ratio of installation and operation costs of Solar/Natural Gas vs. Nuclear continues to decline almost monthly!

    Unless there is a major scientific breakthrough in nuclear physics, nuclear generation will only be installed where Government and/or elected Leaders place what is good for their nuclear industries ahead of what is good for their people.

    Examples of this forced use of Nuclear:
    1. In Japan, where the people clearly do not want their reactors restarted, yet their Leaders/ Utility Gangs push nuclear upon them.
    a. The Yakuza and the Nuclear Mafia: Nationalization Looms for TEPCO – disqus_threadb.
    c. Former Prime Minister of #Japan: We’ve been lied to, #nuclear experts lying to us…file://localhost/They’ve been telling a pack of lies http/
    d. NHK News Giant in Japan Seen as Being Compromised

    2. In the UK, where the proposed Hinkley C Nuclear Power Plant project has been shown to be more expensive that installing solar.
    a. Hinkley C Nuclear Power Plant To Get Twice The Rate As Solar PV From UK Government Standard For Nuclear Energy & Wind Energy In UK?
    b. Solar Power Cheaper Than Nuclear In Cloudy Old England – RH7GXpCcfKFgUrkB.99

    3. In the USA, where multi-billion dollar cost over runs, safety issues, nuclear waste and decommissioning costs have continued to plague the US nuclear industry.
    a. “Cheap” nuclear power a myth, suggests economist
    b. Nuclear Energy Operators Say Market Stacked Against Them
    c. Fukushima – it can happen in America – new book

    To be fair, sometimes those in the Nuclear Industry do get it right but what they have to say is not welcomed by their associates, even though it is the truth:

    “Clearly we’re witnessing one of the greatest disasters in modern time.”
    – AREVA Executive VP
    March 21, 2011

  22. You are looking at it wrong. You said >1 millSv per year is your understanding of why people are being kept away. The statement is 1 micro Sv per hour. Or a little over 10 mSv per year….EXTERNAL. However, it is very likely that this radiation will become internal, At which point it is at least 20 times worse. That would be 200mSv per year.

    Certainly even it it is just 10mSv….children should be allowed there. They did a more responsible job at Chernobyl

  23. Keeping people away from their homes because on a >1mSv/y exposure rate is down right criminal. The IAEA safe exposure limit is 25µSv/h, or nearly 220 times the 1mSv/y limit.

    Wht a criminal waste!

  24. Are You now accepting that the ignition of firestorm in the reactor core can and should be prevented by venting of steam and depressurizing the reactor, and indeed gravity flooding of the core? Which means that the non-design basis events could be prevented, the fuel will remain intact in any event.
    I also propose to design only demonstrated safe reactor systems, which means that the reactor must be placed in a containment designed for the consumption of the entire Zirconium inventory and the worst detonation of the Hydrogen produced from that (1000 kg in 10 seconds for PWR and 1800 kg in 10 sec for BWR) in the containment. Even if we prevent the ignition of the firestorm in the core.
    Only such a doubled safety could be considered real safe nuclear power plant design.

  25. Taking Fukushima Seriously
    If it takes taxpayer-funded trips by NRC leaders to Japan to really take the accident at Fukushima seriously then the trips are very worthwhile. Perhaps trips to Chernobyl and its 20-mile exclusion zone will help these leaders to take Chernobyl more seriously as well. The Chernobyl accident occurred in 1986 and 28 years later this exclusion zone still exists. I think most people understand the complete devastating nature of both these accidents even without the benefit of an actual visit to the accident sites. Now the question is will the NRC really accelerate completion of the safety reviews that have been in progress for 3 years. The NRC is allowing each affected plant licensee to evaluate its own operation with respect to earthquake and tsunami protection. I question how these reviews can possibly be thorough and unbiased. I fear it will be an exercise in pencil-whipping away potential problems.

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