NRC failed to fully disclose their knowledge of events relating to Fukushima Daiichi

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Following the March 11th Fukushima disaster, the NRC was overwhelmed by a constant ringing of phones, and ever escalating number of unread inbox messages.  By Sunday March 13th, Elliot Brenner, sent out an e-mail to upper level NRC counterparts clearly narrating the sequence of events.  “While we know more than what these (press releases) say, we’re sticking to this story for now.” writes Breener, during the weekend he labled “very hectic”.

Elliot Brenner has been director of public affairs at the NRC since April 2004. He does not have a background in the nuclear industry, but rather began his career with 20 years in journalism, covering everything from sports to presidential campaigns. He subsequently became a speech writer for Dick Cheney in his final year as Defense secretary.

During the first weeks following the disaster, the Japanese government officials secretly handed radiation reports and contamination levels of produce around the country to US ambassadors and staff in Tokyo, who transmitted the information discreetly back to the United States.  This was not made publicly known until late in 2011, and the United States never took an official stance on whether they approved of the Japanese handling of the nuclear disaster.

In many press releases in the first weeks immediately following the disaster, the NRC repeatedly assured citizens that the Japanese protective actions were appropriate, and similar to the same actions that the NRC would expect to undertake if under the same conditions.

The NRC was using their blog and the updates provided by the American Nuclear Society as the main modes of communication with the public.  Interestingly enough, the NRC did also use Twitter to gather information on the event, but declined from using the world-wide popular social networking site to share information with the public.  When asked by the Branch Chief of a standards and process oversight board whether the NRC was using Twitter to share or monitor information, NRC staffer Holly Harrington replied that it was being used for “just monitoring”.

David McIntyre also works in the NRC on public affairs, and spent much of his time creating carefully crafted e-mails that constantly downplayed the disaster, and any relationship that might be made to the safety status of US nuclear stations.    On March 14th, McIntyre received an email Molly McCrea, a reporter for CBS inquired about the status of a law that Senator Markey had authored that would distribute KI to those living within a certain distance from a nuclear power plant, and whether or not it was being followed.  She asked whether or not the pills had been distributed, and why the NRC had been reported to be discouraging the distribution.

McIntyre replied vaguely alluding to the fact that the NRC was not solely responsible, but that it was a “US Government decision, not just the NRC but HHS and others.”

It is true that the NRC has worked hard against the burden of purchasing, storing, and maintaining a fresh supply of KI for those populations closest to nuclear reactors.  In 2009, the NRC actually cancelled it’s policy on KI distribution, stating that it was unnecessary, as it did not protect against all radionuclides that could be potentially released, would cause undue stress on the community, and would delay critical response time by adding more duties to local, state, and federal staff.

The NRC was promptly overwhelmed by a public outcry, and partially reversed their decision on the matter, by admitting that KI would be an benefit to those potentially affected, but passing the responsibility for purchasing and stockpiling a supply on the States, who were unprepared and inadequately prepared or capable of handling such a responsibility.  So the supply of KI has dwindled to near minimal proportions in the United States, and in late 2011 it was revealed that most of the nations supply of KI was due to expire in the opening quarter of 2012, and no purchase orders had been scheduled.  This caused the NRC to deny some states requests for additional KI supply in the fall of 2011.

Following the Fukushima Disaster, the NRC had released various levels of question and answer presentations that had been either distributed to top-level personnel, regional spokespeople, or made publicly available.  On March 14th, Holly Harrington acknowledged that not all of the information was considered suitable to be published for the public.

It also appears that McIntrye used his own personal discretion on which information to release to specific reporters or news services.  On March 14th, he received an e-mail from Molly McCrea again, this time asking if the United States was possibly sending KI to Japan, or had sent KI to Japan to help out, if he could confirm, and if not who should she contact.

McIntyre replied “We have not been asked to provide KI”, and further explained, “We understand the Japanese authorities have included KI as part of their protective action guidelines, which would indicate they have some stockpiled.”  The reply email was sent on Tuesday March 15th, 2011 at 4:07:00 PM.

At 4:10:00 PM, only 3 minutes later, McIntyre rushed a quick note to Matthew Wald, a long-time reporter for the New York Times who has written on nuclear energy for years, with the subject line – “KI Info” stating, “Matt- I’m told we distributed approximately 11 million pills.  Dave”.

While it should be noted that there is nothing wrong by sharing the information with the New York Times reporter, the reasoning behind such a decision by Mr. McIntyre is in serious question.  It should also be noted, that during the period of March 14th through March 20th, Mr. Wald is attributed to at least 6 articles on the New York Times website, none of which include the information about the KI as relayed by McIntyre.

Did McIntyre assume that Wald would be personally interested in this information, or more appropriate to determine when and if to release it?  Were there any underlying reasons behind his failure to disclose the information to a reporter requesting it specifically?  The answers are not likely to become clear in the near future, if ever, and while the world struggles with the future fate of it’s electrical supply, many questions are also being raised about the adequacy of the nations nuclear regulators.
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