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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.

28 responses to “An NRC Official Writes About His First-Hand View of the Japan Nuclear Disaster

  1. liposuction san antonio July 14, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    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. Tit March 24, 2014 at 10:24 am

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

  3. ACCA March 22, 2014 at 3:46 am

    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:

  4. joffan7 March 18, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    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.

    • stock March 24, 2014 at 11:49 am

      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.

      • kitemansa March 25, 2014 at 10:16 am

        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”.

  5. Per Peterson March 16, 2014 at 2:55 am

    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.


    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

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