By David E. Sanger and Matthew L. Wald, New York Times, March 16, 2011
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave a significantly bleaker appraisal of the threat posed by Japan’s nuclear crisis than the Japanese government, saying on Wednesday that the damage at one crippled reactor was much more serious than Japanese officials had acknowledged and advising to Americans to evacuate a wider area around the plant than the perimeter established by Japan.
The announcement marked a new and ominous chapter in the five-day long effort by Japanese engineers to bring four side-by-side reactors under control after their cooling systems were knocked out by an earthquake and tsunami last Friday. It also suggested a serious split between Washington and Tokyo, after American officials concluded that the Japanese warnings were insufficient, and that, deliberately or not, they had understated the potential threat of what is taking place inside the nuclear facility.
Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the commission, said in Congressional testimony that the commission believed that all the water in the spent fuel pool at the No. 4 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station had boiled dry, leaving fuel rods stored there exposed and bleeding radiation. As a result, he said, “We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.”
If his analysis is accurate and Japanese workers have been unable to keep the spent fuel at that inoperative reactor properly cooled — it needs to remain covered with water at all times — radiation levels could make it difficult not only to fix the problem at reactor No. 4, but to keep workers at the Daiichi complex from servicing any of the other problem reactors at the plant.
Mr. Jaczko (the name is pronounced YAZZ-koe) said radiation levels may make it impossible to continue what he called the “backup backup” cooling functions that have so far helped check the fuel melting at the other reactors. Those efforts consist of using fire hoses to dump water on overheated fuel and then letting the radioactive steam vent into the atmosphere.
This is precisely the kind of announcement that the people of Japan have been wondering about the last several days, given their increasing scepticism about the accuracy and veracity of the announcement of their own government. If those spent rods have been uncovered, and if all attempts to fix the problem with reactor #4 are now off the table, this situation could be spiralling downward more quickly than the officials in Japan
can keep pace. And if those facts are more representative of the situation on the ground that the picture painted by the Japanese officials, then the split in "urgency" and in "accuracy" of the two assessments poses different problems.
Why, for instance, is there not an assessment coming from an international body like the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association) that is free from national interests?
Why are the Americans, having to/choosing to/being forced to/over-reaching to...provide this information?
Is this a legitimate attempt to protect the Japanese people from the real dangers of the radiation?
Is this an over-reach of the IAEA on the part of the Americans?
Is this a matter of politics, and not of science and humanitarian interests?
We read that this information came as part of Congressional testimony, and so, on the face of it, this man is providing assessment information to his own government. However, why was a representative of the IAEA not asked to testify before the Congressional committee?
The whole world is attempting to ascertain just how dangerous the situation might be, and is likely to become and having two different governments presenting two vastly different assessments serves neither the people of Japan nor the people of the rest of the world adequately.
One Japanese woman, who called in to NPR's On Point, was astounded that her family and friends still in Japan have, for the last several days, disregarded her warning about the severity of the situation, until she, exasperated, purchased tickets for her parents who have now flown from Tokyo to Boston, in her words, "out of danger."
Economists, on the same program, however, tended to downplay the urgency of the situation, as economists would be expected to do.
Listening to the various broadcasts via television has demonstrated the capacity of the British reporters to assess and describe the various scenes of devastation in the most articulate and commanding language, although they have not been privy to the technical details of the actual dangers and the risks. One such broadcast (I think from an ITN reporter on PBS) told of a solitary man walking the rubble in his town, alone, at 5:00 p.m. the time when all towns in the region normally hear their particular musical selection; his, on this day four days after the initial shocks, was "Yesterday" note of which peeled over the destruction, as his body walked forlonly away from the camera. It was, to say the least, more than a little moving.
North American correspondents, on the other hand, have focused on the immediate observations they have made from their notes, without attempting to paint a picture of the devastation. Their's is more of a narrow brush, illustrating the finer details, while leaving the broad bruch strokes, it would seem, to the British.