Handling of Fukushima FOIAs drawing questions about omissions and timeliness

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In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the NRC has been overwhelmed with requests for information through the Federal Freedom of the Information Act, commonly referred to as FOIA requests.  While a special branch within the NRC handles the majority of requests, the Fukushima FOIA’s were further cause for complication which often required senior leadership to become involved in decisions which determined whether particular information was released or not, because the information being traded between government agencies was generally sourced from or related to a nuclear power plant in a foreign country, Japan, which was not sharing the same information with the public that it was within its own agencies or international counterparts.

The NRC releases the Fukushima FOIA documents in three formats, unredacted, partially redacted, and completely redacted, and while the Federal Government has established guidelines and protocol for determining which information is redacted and which information is to be released to the public, the NRC’s approach appears to be more arbitrary in its discrimination of content to be released.

One of the features of the democratic process is the compulsory maintenance of records and production of documents, but all governments seemingly operate with the understanding that not all government information should be released to the public and certain types of government information should remain undisclosed.  In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act establishes the protocol for handling requests of government information, with the foundational belief that the public has the right to know.  Federal agencies are mandated to comply with public requests of information and are subject to penalties for hindering the petition process.

Personally, I have spent thousands of hours reviewing the Fukushima FOIAs, collecting, dissecting, and publishing them here on this site.  Dave Lochbaum with the Union of Concerned Scientists has also spent untold hours extracting information from the NRC through the FOIA process over the past few decades.  Dave and I have kept each other appraised of our FOIA projects and new approaches to receiving the information desired in an acceptable time period.

In the last two years, the majority of our conversations related to FOIAs have been spent discussing documents related to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and often our concerns are related to how information is being released through the FOIA process.  There are many documents which have questionable redactions of unclassified information, including generic reactor status data, but the following situations stand as examples of some of the concerns shared.

Exhibit 1:

In May of 2012, Dave Lochbaum submitted a FOIA request for thousands of high quality photos which were referenced in FOIA documents as having been received from TEPCO by the NRC Team in Japan and sent back to NRC headquarters on a thumbdrive during the first critical weeks of the disaster.  These critical photos were provided to the Team in Japan and General Electric to analyze the potential for extreme spent fuel pool damage and to determine the extent of damage to the reactor buildings and drywells.

FOIA requests are supposed to be responded to in a timely manner, with the cap on response normally set at 30-90 days.  Dave waited nearly a year for the NRC to respond to this single request and ultimately was not even given all available media that was requested, only 200 of the more than 2000 requested images were provided.

Dave and I have also shared concerns about which information was being redacted in some documents and yet released in other documents.

Exhibit 2:

The following two documents extracted from ML13148A066 are an example of the concerns Dave and I shared about the FOIA process.  Both of the faxes are from the NRC Team in Japan which was stationed at the US Embassy in Tokyo and sent to the Reactor Safety Team at the NRC headquarters in Maryland.  Both faxes contain TEPCO’s assessment of structural damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, yet one is fully redacted while the other is nearly unredacted.

The mostly unredacted document contains TEPCO’s assessment of structural damage to the reactor buildings themselves, and contains hand translations and detailed diagrams of the reactor buildings and the damage they sustained.

The mostly redacted document contains TEPCO’s assessment of the structural integrity of a spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi.

20110331 Fukushima Daiichi Tepco Assessment Structural Damage ML13148A066 1 by Enformable

20110401 Fukushima Daiichi Tepco Assessment Spent Fuel Pool Structural Damage ML13148A066 1 by Enformable

As Dave pointed out to me, “Whatever criteria governs redacting cannot parse finely enough between containment integrity and spent fuel pool integrity, especially at Fukushima where the spent fuel pools are within containment, and within the damaged parts of containment. It would appear that, as a minimum, NRC’s redaction is wrong in at least one of these cases. Either they should also have redacted info from the March 31st fax or they should not have redacted info from the April 1st fax. If so, NRC failed to fulfill its legal obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.”

On his first full day in office over 4 years ago, President Obama released a now famous memorandum for heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on the subject of transparency and open government.

The memorandum opens, “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

The President used three bullet points to emphasize his message to these agencies and departments; Government should be transparent, Government should be participatory, and Government should be collaborative.”  Transparency promotes accountability and reasonable assurance, when governments or leaders begin to act capriciously or arbitrarily, the public in general becomes uneasy.

While the aspirations referenced in the President’s memorandum are commendable, they are far from reality, as we have failed as of yet to cultivate the appropriate conditions for their realization.  Once confidence is lost, some have said, so is hope.  Democracy is a process, but what can and should be done if and when the process begins to work more like a roadblock than an informative, collaborative, and open format?

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