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Dispatches: Obama's Science Adviser on Responding to the Fukushima Nuclear Accident

News and notes from Pacific Standard staff and contributors.
Workers continue the decontamination and reconstruction process at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on February 25th, 2016, in Okuma, Japan.

Workers continue the decontamination and reconstruction process at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on February 25th, 2016, in Okuma, Japan.

Last month, Pacific Standard Staff Writer Francie Diep interviewed former Obama presidential science adviser John Holdren in Washington, D.C. During their conversation, Holdren told Diep about when the White House learned that a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, had suffered a meltdown following a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

At about noon on Friday, March 11th, Washington time, radiation levels at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant were reported to be rising. At 4:45 p.m., the Tokyo Electric Power Company reported radioactive material may have leaked. As a plasma physicist, Holdren took the lead on organizing the United States' response. This story was not included in the original interview, and is available here exclusively for Pacific Standard premium members. You can read the rest of the interview here.

Below is Holdren's telling of how the U.S. assisted in developing a coordinated multinational response to the disaster:

Francie Diep: So, you wake up, you learn from the news the Fukushima disaster happened....

John Holdren: We learned about two o'clock in the afternoon, by communication from the U.S. ambassador to Japan, that this was underway.

[President Barack] Obama immediately convened his senior team in the Situation Room and he had the ambassador on the screen. We had a brainstorming session about what ways that the U.S. could help. It went from a little after two in the afternoon to a little after 11 at night and then I went home. At five after midnight, the phone rings and it's the Situation Room saying, "We're going to continue this afternoon's discussion by conference call, starting in 10 minutes."

I was in touch with the chairman of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission by Saturday midday, by phone. By Saturday, Steve Chu and I—Steve Chu was the secretary of energy at the time—were in the process of setting up an advisory body of the country's leading experts on controlling reactor accidents, whether they were in industry, government, or universities. That panel met every day for, typically, two hours, for the next three or four weeks, brainstorming ways to deal with this accident. Then, virtually every night, we would be in touch by phone with the leaders of the Japanese efforts, to share our latest ideas and to get their latest reports on what was going on. So the degree of connectedness was very high.

Diep: What were the major ways the U.S. government aided in the Fukushima response?

Holdren: One was sharing a lot of insights about where the vulnerabilities are once the accident was underway and what could be done to minimize the danger. No. 2, working on the question of where the radioactivity was going and what doses could be delivered to people in different places. One of the things we very quickly figured out was that Tokyo was not in danger and that it was not necessary, therefore, to evacuate the U.S. embassy or to issue an order for other American citizens in Tokyo to leave.

We had a long interaction with the Japanese about exclusion zones and where the plume was going. We had better models than the Japanese did. We also provided robots that were designed to operate in a high-radiation environment, which the Japanese did not have. We sent them over. They sat in Japanese customs for a week while customs authorities argued about whether this didn't violate Japanese laws against importing U.S. robots because Japan was trying to protect its competitive position in robot development. So some strange things happened.

A U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was only about 50 kilometers off the Japanese coast when this happened and in that first video conference with the U.S. ambassador, the ambassador said the Japanese would like our permission to use the USS Ronald Reagan to land Japanese rescue helicopters and refuel them because the aircraft carrier was much closer to the scene than any other place that the helicopters could go to get refueled and reprovisioned. There was a discussion in the Situation Room about this. ... Within two hours of that meeting, the vice chairman of the joint chiefs sent an order from the Situation Room saying, "Make it so."

This dispatch originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of