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NRC releases inside look at U.S. response to Japan nuclear disaster

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 8:26 PM EST, Tue February 21, 2012
The Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan was damaged by an earthquake and tsunami on March 12, 2011.
The Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan was damaged by an earthquake and tsunami on March 12, 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The early hours of the first day or two were very hectic," NRC chairman says
  • The transcripts were released in response to FOIA requests
  • Distance from disaster posed a "significant limitation," NRC officials say
  • NRC chairman says he believes the transcripts reflect well on the agency

Washington (CNN) -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission released Tuesday about 3,000 pages of transcripts of conversations recorded in its operations center after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, conversations that underscore the difficulty the agency had in responding to the nuclear crisis that was unfolding halfway around the world.

"I want to be clear, the early hours of the first day or two were very hectic," NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told reporters Tuesday. "There was not a lot of information. Much of what we knew came from a variety of sources -- some from the Japanese, some from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and a great deal from the news media."

The transcripts, released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, show agency officials struggling to get information about the disaster and trying to ascertain its potential impact on U.S. citizens in Japan, on potential fallout victims in the United States, and on operators of U.S. nuclear reactors of similar design.

An agency spokesman said the "basic facts" of the disaster are already known, but the trove of information provides an inside look at the inner workings of a government agency at a key moment in history.

"I don't know if there were recordings at Three Mile Island," NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said, referring to the 1979 meltdown at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant. "This is a way for us to give the American public a look -- a firsthand look -- at what we do in a time of crisis."

The transcripts are of conversations and phone calls at the NRC's operations center in Rockville, Maryland.

Jaczko acknowledged the transcripts show the confusion within the agency during the early days of the crisis triggered by the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, but said he believes they reflect well on the agency.

"As challenging as these days were, I have never been more honored to be the chairman of this agency than I was while I was leading the staff in this response," Jaczko said. "What we're making public today is in effect a very important historical record, and I'm tremendously proud of the important work here by the staff of the NRC."

Agency officials said the Fukushima experience demonstrated the "significant limitation" the United States had on getting information about an incident "halfway around the world."

"In this country, we would expect to have much more direct access to information," said Dan Dorman, deputy director of engineering and corporate support.

Officials also said that previous exercises in the command center had not fully prepared them for what turned out to be a months-long event that required teams of people working round-the-clock for months.

They said they didn't communicate as fully as they should have with state officials, who were seeking information about the potential for fallout and the safety of their own nuclear plants.

The transcripts are posted at: http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1205/ML120520264.html

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