Emails obtained by journalists at NBC News reveal that officials at the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission — the government agency that oversees reactor safety and security — purposely misled the media after the Fukushima, Japan disaster in 2011.
On Monday this week — one day shy of the third anniversary of the Fukushima meltdown — NBC published emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act that for the first time exposes on a major scale the efforts that NRC officials undertook in order to diminish the severity of the event in the hours and days after it began to unfold.
“In the tense days after a powerful earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan on March 11, 2011, staff at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission made a concerted effort to play down the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis to America’s aging nuclear plants,” Bill Dedman wrote for NBC.
Through the course of analyzing thousands of internal NRC emails, Dedman and company unearthed evidence that proves nuclear regulators went to great lengths to keep the scary facts about the Fukushima meltdown from being brought into the public eye.
Even when the international media was eager to learn the facts about the Fukushima tragedy while the matter was still developing, emails suggest that the NRC’s public relations wing worked hard to have employees stick to talking points that ignored the actual severity of the meltdown.
"While we know more than these say,” a PR manager wrote in one email to his colleagues, "we're sticking to this story for now."
That story, Dedman wrote, was filled with “numerous examples…of apparent misdirection or concealment” waged by the NRC in an attempt to keep the true nature of the meltdown hidden, especially as concerns grew that a similar event could occur on American soil.
“The talking points written during the emergency for NRC commissioners and other officials were divided into two sections: ‘public answer’ and ‘additional technical, non-public information,’” Dedman wrote. "Often the two parts didn't quite match.”
According to NBC, emails indicate that the NRC insisted on sticking to talking points that painted a much different picture than what was really happening three years ago this week. Japanese engineers employed by the NRC at American facilities were effectively barred from making any comments to the media, some emails suggest, and at other times those regulators rallied employees at the NRC to keep from making any comment that could be used to disclose the detrimental safety standards in place at American facilities.
In one instance cited by Dedman, spokespeople for the NRC were told not to disclose the fact that American scientists were uncertain if any US facilities could sustain an earthquake like the one that ravaged Fukushima .
"We're not so sure about, but again we are not talking about that," reads one email cited by NBC.
At other times, the report added, NRC officials were left in the dark about what was actually unfolding on the other side of the Pacific because access to social media sites had been blocked on their work computers, causing some regulators to only hear about information pertaining to Fukushima once it trickled down to a point where they could access it.
In one email, for example, NRC public affairs official David McIntrye wrote in apparent disbelief to his colleagues that scientist and actor Bill Nye was participating in “an incoherent discussion on CNN” about a potential hydrogen explosion at Fukushima.
“I’m not buying it,” McIntyre wrote.
Five minutes after that email was sent, a colleague responded by writing, “There is a good chance it was a hydrogen explosion that took the roof off that building, though we are not saying that publicly.”
Days later, McIntyre blasted his supervisor for hesitating during a CNN interview in which he was asked if US plants could withstand an earthquake on par with the one suffered by residents of Fukushima.
“He should just say ‘Yes, it can.’” McIntyre wrote, instead of hesitating. “Worry about being wrong when it doesn’t. Sorry if I sound cynical.”
NBC News did not respond specifically to emails published in Dedman’s report, but the agency’s public affairs director emails a statement ensuring that "The NRC Office of Public Affairs strives to be as open and transparent as possible, providing the public accurate information in the proper context."
“We take our communication mission seriously. We did then and we do now. The frustration displayed in the chosen emails reflects more on the extreme stress our team was under at the time to assure accuracy in a context in which information from Japan was scarce to non-existent. These emails fall well short of an accurate picture of our communications with the American public immediately after the event and during the past three years,” NRC Public Affairs Director Eliot Brenner wrote in the email.
Arguably more disheartening than the NRC officials’ attempt to whitewash the disaster, however, are the facts of the matter addressed in secret by the agency but not disclosed publically. More than 30 of the nuclear power reactors in the US are of the same brand used in Fukushima, NBC reported, and some of the oldest facilities in operation have been in use since the 1970s. Despite this, though, the NRC instructed employees to not mention how any of those structures would be able to stand up against a hypothetical disaster.
On Monday, Fukushima expert and author Susan Q. Stranhan published an op-ed carried by the Philadelphia Inquirer which called into question the safety of the several nuclear facilities within the state of Pennsylvania, where a disaster in 1979 at Three Mile Island refocused national attention on the issue of nuclear safety.
“During Fukushima, the NRC recommended that Americans living within 50 miles of the plant evacuate, a wise call based on a dangerous radiation plume that spread about 30 miles northwest of the reactors. Despite that experience, the NRC today remains steadfast in its belief that the existing 10-mile emergency evacuation zone around US nuclear plants is adequate and that there would be plenty of time to expand that zone if conditions warranted,” Stranahan wrote.
“Three years after Fukushima Daiichi, the NRC and the nuclear industry continue to repeat a familiar mantra: The likelihood of a severe accident is so low there is no need to plan for it. That was what the Japanese said, too.”
Meanwhile, RT reported last month that a new lawsuit has been filed by crewmembers who sailed on the USS Ronald Reagan three years ago to assist with relief efforts off of the coast of Fukushima but now say they were poisoned by nuclear fallout. When filed, Attorneys said that “up to 70,000 US citizens [were] potentially affected by the radiation” and might be able to join in their suit.