After the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) made a conscious effort to downplay the risk of natural disasters to America’s aging nuclear facilities. According to a report from NBC, the commission actively worked to reassure the public about the safety of the US nuclear industry even as the agency’s own experts were questioning safety standards.
Emails obtained by NBC through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that officials intentionally hid nuclear industry safety concerns from the public.
“While we know more than these say, we’re sticking to this story for now,” Scott Burnell, a manager in NRC’s media and public relations wing, wrote in an email to his colleagues, thanking them for sticking to prearranged talking points.
According to NBC, the emails contain “numerous examples” of “apparent misdirection or concealment” during the initial weeks after the devastating Fukushima disaster. The US agency attempted to distance the NRC from the crisis in Japan and cover up the potential risk for a similar disaster at a US nuclear plant:
Trying to distance the U.S. agency from the Japanese crisis, an NRC manager told staff to hide from reporters the presence of Japanese engineers in the NRC’s operations center in Maryland.
If asked whether the Diablo Canyon Power Plant on the California coast could withstand the same size tsunami that had hit Japan, spokespeople were told not to reveal that NRC scientists were still studying that question. As for whether Diablo could survive an earthquake of the same magnitude, “We’re not so sure about, but again we are not talking about that,” said one email.
When skeptical news articles appeared, the NRC dissuaded news organizations from using the NRC’s own data on earthquake risks at U.S. nuclear plants, including the Indian Point Energy Center near New York City.
And when asked to help reporters explain what would happen during the worst-case scenario – a nuclear meltdown – the agency declined to address the questions.
NRC split responses to questions it expected to be asked after Fukushima into two parts: the “public answer” and “additional technical, non-public information.” The response to the question, “What happens when/if a plant ‘melts down?’” included telling the public that US nuclear plants are “designed to be safe” and that there are “multiple barriers between the radioactive material and the environment.” However, the non-public, additional information for the same question stated the following:
The melted core may melt through the bottom of the vessel and flow onto the concrete containment floor. The core may melt through the containment liner and release radioactive material to the environment.
When former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared on CNN on March 20, 2011, he was questioned as to whether US nuclear power plants could withstand an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale. Chu hesitated, but NRC spokesman David McIntyre felt he should have said “yes” unequivocally and worry about the lie later. In an email to his bosses McIntyre wrote:
The NBC report also notes that “The public affairs staff showed disdain in the emails for nuclear watchdog groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and also the Nuclear Control Institute.” NRC also attempted to discredit an MSNBC news report that publicized an NRC study estimating the risk of earthquakes to US nuclear plants.
NRC’s contrived response to the public release of its study was to say that the study represents “a very incomplete look at the overall research and we [NRC] continue to believe US reactors are capable of withstanding the strongest earthquake their sites could experience.”
NRC immediately realized that the Fukushima disaster would create strong interest in the safety of nuclear energy in the United States. The agency’s Office of Public Affairs had written and distributed the first talking points for its employees less than 10 hours after the earthquake hit Fukushima, and NRC’s technical experts were told not to make any public statements, NBC reports.
A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense states that NRC is failing to protect the public and suggests that the agency reevaluate its safety responses. The report asserts that, “NRC is failing to meet the statutory standard of ‘adequate protection’ of the public against the hazard of hydrogen explosions in a severe reactor accident.” America’s nuclear facilities are susceptible to hydrogen explosions and leakage in the event of a natural disaster or other severe accident.
The median age of an operating US nuclear reactor is 34 years and more than 30 of the nation’s 100 reactors have the same brand of General Electric containment system or reactors used at the Fukushima plant, according to NBC.
Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.