Leaked Emails Expose NRC's Cover-Up of Safety Concerns Days After Fukushima Disaster

When an earthquake and tsunami struck Fukushima, Japan leading to a nuclear disaster three years ago, U.S. residents wondered if the aging nuclear facilities in their own country were at risk. What they didn't know is that the federal government's nuclear arm worked actively in the days after the incident, trying to cover up the perils that existed in the states.

According to a report from NBC, a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) campaign to reassure people about nuclear safety standards coincided with agency experts consistently presenting similar questions behind the scenes. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, NBC acquired a string of March 2011 emails that clearly show the cover-up.

"While we know more than these say, we're sticking to this story for now," Scott Burnell, an NRC public and media relations manager wrote in one email.

Graphic credit: NBC

In the days following the Fukushima disaster, the NRC split its talking points into two segments with different information: "public answer" and "additional technical, non-public information." Here's an example of a question the NRC expected to face, followed by the public and non-public answers:

Q. What happens when/if a plant 'melts down'?

Public Answer: In short, nuclear power plants in the United States are designed to be safe. To prevent the release of radioactive material, there are multiple barriers between the radioactive material and the environment, including the fuel cladding, the heavy steel reactor vessel itself and the containment building, usually a heavily reinforced structure of concrete and steel several feet thick.

Additional, non-technical, non-public information: 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."

One example of a concerted cover-up came five days after the initial reports that an earthquake and tsunami knocked out the power and cooling systems at the six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. MSNBC used NRC estimates to rank the U.S. nuclear plants that were most at risk if an earthquake were to hit nearby land. Burnell and members from the NRC's lobbying arm, the Nuclear Energy Institute, emailed staff members with instructions to find errors in the article, but none came up. He also told experts likely to appear on TV how to deny certain claims.

Graphic credit: NBC

Former U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared on CNN on March 20, 2011 but hesitated when an on-air personality asked him if U.S. nuclear plants could withstand an earthquake that measured 9.0 on the Richter scale. NRC spokesman David McIntyre had his own ideas for how Chu should have handled the question.

Graphic credit: NBC

More than 30 of the country's 100 nuclear power reactors have the same brand of General Electric reactors or containment system that used in Fukushima, according to the NBC report. The median reactor age in the U.S. is 34. The oldest is the Ginna plant near Rochester, N.Y., licensed in 1969. Only four of the reactors began generating power in 1990 or later.

Americans aren't the only ones concerned with old reactors. Last week, 240 Greenpeace activists from national and regional offices took action across Europe to highlight the risk of aging reactors.

Visit EcoWatch’s NUCLEAR page for more related news on this topic.


Show Comments ()
Marine debris laden beach in Hawaii. NOAA Marine Debris Program / Flickr

Ocean Plastic Projected to Triple Within Seven Years

If we don't act now, plastic pollution in the world's oceans is projected to increase three-fold within seven years, according to a startling new report.

The Future of the Sea report, released Wednesday for the UK government, found that human beings across the globe produce more than 300 million metric tons of plastic per year. Unfortunately, a lot of that material ends up in our waters, with the total amount of plastic debris in the sea predicted to increase from 50 million metric tons in 2015 to 150 million metric tons by 2025.

Keep reading... Show less
Thawing permafrost in Noatak National Preserve, Alaska. NPS Climate Change Response

Methane Meltdown: Thawing Permafrost Could Release More Potent Greenhouse Gas Than Expected

A study published in Nature Climate Change Monday shows that thawing permafrost in the Arctic might produce more methane than previously thought. Methane has 28 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide, so the findings indicate scientists might have to reassess how thawing permafrost will contribute to climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Solar shade canopies. University of Hawaii

This College Could Become the First 100% Renewable Campus in U.S.

As a growing number of U.S. cities make pledges towards 100 percent renewables, it's easy to forget that the entire state of Hawaii set this important benchmark three years ago when it mandated that all of its electricity must come from renewable sources no later than 2045.

To help the Aloha State meet this ambitious commitment, in 2015, the University of Hawaii (UH) and the Hawaiian Legislature set a collective goal for the university system to be "net-zero" by Jan. 1, 2035, which means the total amount of energy consumed is equal to the amount of renewable energy created.

Keep reading... Show less

Silver Nanoparticles in Clothing Wash Out, May Be Toxic

By Sukalyan Sengupta and Tabish Nawaz

Humans have known since ancient times that silver kills or stops the growth of many microorganisms. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have used silver preparations for treating ulcers and healing wounds. Until the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, colloidal silver (tiny particles suspended in a liquid) was a mainstay for treating burns, infected wounds and ulcers. Silver is still used today in wound dressings, in creams and as a coating on medical devices.

Keep reading... Show less
4.4 million premature air pollution deaths could be avoided in Kolkata if emissions are reduced swiftly this century. M M / CC BY-SA 2.0

Study Finds Timely Emissions Reductions Could Prevent 153 Million Air Pollution Deaths This Century

One of the roadblocks to swift action on climate change is the human brain's tendency to focus on threats and stimuli that are an obvious and noticeable part of their everyday lives, rather than an abstract and future problem, as Amit Dhir explained in The Decision Lab.

Now, a study published in Nature Climate Change Monday shows that acting quickly to curb greenhouse gas emissions would also reduce the air pollution that is already a major urban killer, thereby saving millions of lives within the next 40 years.

Keep reading... Show less
Lands threatened by BLM's March 2018 sale include Hatch Point. Neal Clark / SUWA

Trump Administration Sells Oil and Gas Leases Near Utah National Monuments

The Interior Department on Tuesday is auctioning off 32 parcels of public lands in southeastern Utah for oil and gas development.

The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) lease sale includes more than 51,000 acres of land near Bears Ears—the national monument significantly scaled back by the Trump administration last year—as well as the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients monuments.

Keep reading... Show less
Katharine Hayhoe talks climate communication hacks at the Natural Products Expo West Convention. Climate Collaborative

Katharine Hayhoe Reveals Surprising Ways to Talk About Climate Change

By Katie O'Reilly

Katharine Hayhoe isn't your typical atmospheric scientist. Throughout her career, the evangelical Christian and daughter of missionaries has had to convince many (including her pastor husband) that science and religion need not be at odds when it comes to climate change. Hayhoe, who directs Texas Tech's University's Climate Science Center, is CEO of ATMOS Research, a scientific consulting company, and produces the PBS Kids' web series Global Weirding, rose to national prominence in early 2012 after then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich dropped her chapter from a book he was editing about the environment. The reason? Hayhoe's arguments affirmed that climate change was no liberal hoax. The Toronto native attracted the fury of Rush Limbaugh, who encouraged his listeners to harass her.

Keep reading... Show less
Rising Tide NA / Twitter

Kinder Morgan Pipeline Protest Grows: Arrests Include a Greenpeace Founder, Juno-Nominated Grandfather

By Andy Rowell

Just because you get older, it doesn't mean you cannot stop taking action for what you believe in. And Monday was a case in point. Two seventy-year-olds, still putting their bodies on the line for environmental justice and indigenous rights.

Early Monday morning, the first seventy-year-old, a grandfather of two, and former nominee for Canada's Juno musical award, slipped into Kinder Morgan's compound at one of its sites for the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline and scaled a tree and then erected a mid-air platform with a hammock up in the air.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!