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Why Foreign Governments Have to Sound the Alarm About Japan's Meltdown

While the Japanese government continues to roll out press statements and grant interviews without providing any actual information about its burning and possibly melting down Fukushima nuclear power plant facility, the U.S., Europe and China are sounding the alarm.

The Japanese government's lack of transparency isn't terribly new or surprising. The cozy relationship between government regulators and the energy industry, which has led to belatedly reported accidents and radioactive leaks in the past, has been well documented.

Still, it was shocking all the same when U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Congress on Wednesday that all the cooling water had drained from the spent-fuel pool at one of the damaged Fukushima reactors and had caused the release of high levels of radiation. He then urged Americans living in the area to evacuate to 50 miles from the site.

We believe that the secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent-fuel pool. We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government -- the paragon of calm -- stuck to its 12-mile evacuation warning (and for those within 18 miles to stay indoors) and hasn't said much more except that Jaczko is wrong and they're monitoring the situation closely, working with plant operator Tokyo Electric Power ... yada, yada, yada. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Routing around the Japanese info-block
This isn't a case of an ignorant American official wringing his hands from afar. The NRC has 11 officials in Tokyo helping the Japanese government respond to the crisis. The U.S. Energy Department has sent 39 people with more than 17,000 pounds of equipment to Japan, including detectors used to assess contamination on the ground. In short, they have more than an inkling of what's going on.

If anything the U.S. response has been conservative compared to other countries. Well, except for the panicked run on potassium iodide pills along the West Coast.

The U.S. government was similarly raked over the coals for its lack of transparency and action in the first weeks of the BP Gulf oil spill last year. It was an error that the Obama administration tried to quickly remedy, with some success. But even in those initially opaque days, there was still accurate information coming from the U.S. government officials. In Japan, it's anyone's guess.


Photo from Flickr user intamin10, CC 2.0
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