JAPAN | U.S. ‘frustrated’ over Japan’s lack of N-info

Posted on April 12, 2011

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JAPAN | YOMIURI SHIMBUN | 12 April 2011

One month has passed since the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 triggered a massive tsunami that devastated coastal parts of Tohoku and Kanto. The Yomiuri Shimbun will examine the ensuing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, pinpoint what occurred and analyze how the government, TEPCO and other parties involved should have responded to the series of accidents at the plant that have been an international issue. This is the first installment in a series.

The nuclear power complex crisis has brought to light the vacuum in the government’s crisis management capabilities, which analysts say triggered jitters in the United States.

Shortly before 9 a.m. on March 12, when the gravity of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant began becoming evident, Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, phoned Gen. Ryoichi Oriki, chief of staff of the Self-Defense Forces’ Joint Staff.

Willard was quoted as telling Oriki the U.S. Pacific Command chief had been instructed by the White House to publicly call on Japan to provide accurate information regarding the nuclear plant crisis, including questioning whether the Fukushima plant was safe.

However, at the time, the SDF had no specific information regarding the nuclear crisis, and Oriki could only say in reply, “Experts are now analyzing [the accident at the plant] and I’ll be sure to inform you of their findings,” according to informed sources.

Before dawn March 12, pressure within the containment vessel of the plant’s No. 1 reactor had risen abnormally, plunging the reactor into an emergency.

Just as Willard had feared, the external container structure of the No. 1 reactor gave way in a hydrogen explosion that afternoon, spewing plumes of white smoke. The incident sent shock waves through Japan and abroad.

On that day and thereafter, U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos repeatedly phoned Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, saying the United States wanted to send a team of nuclear experts to Japan and station them at the Prime Minister’s Office.

In response, Edano thanked Roos, but declined the proposal to allow U.S. experts to enter the Prime Minister’s Office, the sources said.

Commenting on the Japanese government’s slow response, a U.S. government source said Washington had offered immediately after the accident to provide a pump to help cool the reactors, but the Kan administration turned down the offer–although Tokyo ended up accepting it later.

Another U.S. government source noted that in the initial stage of the crisis, Japan had taken the stance that there was no room for U.S. assistance when it came to dealing with the problem.

However, the United States has a multitude of nuclear crisis management capabilities, the source said.

The United States, based on its experience in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has been forging ahead with a program to diversify energy sources for all 104 of its nuclear reactors.

Called “B5b measures” after the name of a directive, details of the document have been kept confidential to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.

U.S. officials in charge of enforcing the measures responded immediately to the Fukushima plant crisis.

The aim of such planned countermeasures against accidents and terrorist attacks on nuclear reactors is to ensure continuous power supply to the reactors.

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U.S. fully vigilant

The U.S. government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the State Department and other relevant bodies jump-started around-the-clock surveillance of the Fukushima nuclear power plant just after the accident.

From the standpoint of the U.S. government, which regarded the Fukushima nuclear accident as seriously as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the apparently idle manner in which the Kan administration was approaching the crisis appeared to reflect a lack of urgency, the analysts said.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell met Japanese Ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki at the State Department several times.

The sources said Campbell drove home the point to Fujisaki that the Japanese government should not leave the problem up to the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Campbell even went so far as to say that if the Japanese government did not come up with effective countermeasures, leaving the situation unaddressed, it might be necessary for the U.S. government to have all U.S. nationals in Japan evacuate the country on a mandatory basis, the analysts said.

Also on March 12, the United States drew up several “worst-case scenarios.”

Among them was the assumption of the No. 2 reactor being disrupted completely with its core dispersing radiation continuously for 16 hours or so into the air; and the possibility of a plural number of nuclear fuel pools and reactor cores at the Fukushima facility being uncontrollable due to extremely high temperatures.

Based on these assumptions, the U.S. government decided to set an evacuation radius of 50 miles (about 80 kilometers) from the Fukushima complex for U.S. citizens in Japan.

At TEPCO’s head office in Uchisaiwaicho, Tokyo, on March 18, a visiting expert from the U.S. NRC reportedly took out frustration on Akihisa Nagashima, a former parliamentary secretary of the Defense Ministry who now is a Democratic Party of Japan House of Representatives lawmaker, with the U.S. official saying he was mystified about who was actually in charge of steering Japan’s politics.

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Decay of alliance feared

Two days later, Nagashima called on the Prime Minister’s Office, warning that Washington was “growing poignantly frustrated” with Japan’s handling of the nuclear crisis, adding, “The Japan-U.S. alliance could collapse, completely contrary to [the recent trend of] being strengthened,” if the government’s approach to the nuclear problem remained unchanged.

This signaled the nuclear crisis was threatening to strain the Tokyo-Washington relationship.

The question should therefore be asked, “Why did the government fail to act without wasting time in the initial phase of the nuclear crisis?”

This problem must be severely and carefully scrutinized.

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