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Wider U.S. Evacuation in Japan Backed in NRC Documents

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission released transcripts that officials said supported Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s recommendation last year to evacuate Americans from within 50 miles of Japan’s crippled reactor.

“If this happened in the U.S., we would go out to 50 miles,” Bill Borchardt, the NRC’s executive director for operations, told Jaczko in a conversation on March 16, five days into the crisis, included among 3,000 pages of documents released today by the agency. “That would be the appropriate guidance to give the ambassador to pass on at this point.”

Republicans in Congress have criticized Jaczko’s leadership during the 2011 disaster, and Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, in May questioned why Jaczko recommended a 50-mile (80-kilometer) evacuation zone when Japan’s government cleared 12 miles. Jaczko has said his response was consistent with what the NRC would propose in a similar U.S. crisis.

The transcripts, some redacted, offer a glimpse into the NRC emergency operations center in Rockville, Maryland, as officials struggled to get accurate information after an earthquake and tsunami almost a year ago crippled the power plant. Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi was unable to keep its nuclear fuel cool, triggering meltdowns and radiation leaks.

A “fog of war” atmosphere hung over the commission and its staff as executives and officials responded to the unfolding crisis, Jaczko said in discussing the transcripts during a conference call with reporters.

‘Very Hectic’

Agency officials found reliable information was scarce and “there was confusion and communication problems” in the first hours after Fukushima lost power, Eliot Brenner, an NRC spokesman, said in a blog post on the NRC’s website today. “The first days were very hectic.”

The five-member NRC is weighing rules to improve safety at 104 U.S. nuclear reactors, including directing owners to be better prepared for power failures, and the agency may issue its first Fukushima-related orders by March 9.

One of Fukushima’s reactors “doesn’t have a spent-fuel pool anymore,” Martin Virgilio, deputy executive director for reactor and preparedness programs, told Jaczko on March 16, according to the transcripts. Damage to the cooling pools turned out less dire than initially thought.

Jaczko asked his four colleagues to stay out of the emergency operations center in the days after the Fukushima crisis began. He “broadly interprets the authority granted to the NRC chairman,” a Dec. 13 report from Republicans on the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said.

Jaczko has said he assumed increased authority as Fukushimna unfolded because of powers granted to the chairman in 1980, following a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a year earlier.

The NRC released the transcripts in response to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.

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