Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster (2015)



From the first days of the accident, Yukio Edano, a forty-six-year-old lawyer, became the face of the government. As chief cabinet secretary, responsible for coordinating the executive ministries and agencies, he was omnipresent on live TV.1

Although Edano gained certain celebrity status, his carefully worded statements later came in for criticism. Even as he announced evacuations, he failed to adequately explain to the public the reason for the orders; other important details often were missing from his summaries.

As the accident unfolded, the briefings of various government agencies, as well as the updates provided by TEPCO and NISA, other government ministries, and local governments, were a disjointed mix of reassurances and frustratingly vague descriptions of what was taking place at the plant. At times, the authorities provided conflicting information.

By March 18, official responses to the accident seemed to become a numbers game, with statistics bandied about in a confusing blur. That day, NISA elevated the ranking of the Fukushima Daiichi accident from a level 4 to a level 5 on the seven-level International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) because of fuel damage to the cores at Units 1, 2, and 3. In a press release announcing the change, TEPCO blamed the reactor crisis on “the marvels of nature,” a reference to the tsunami and earthquake.

While the significance of that increase from level 4 to level 5 undoubtedly escaped many in the public, for regulators and the Japanese nuclear industry it was as much a symbolic as a substantive change. Japan’s worst nuclear accident to date, the 1999 criticality incident at the Tokai fuel fabrication facility that killed two workers, had rated a level 4 on INES. Three Mile Island was a level 5, and now Fukushima Daiichi was joining Three Mile Island on that dubious global list.

What Tokyo and the Japanese nuclear industry dreaded even more was having to acknowledge that the accident warranted a level 7 rating, defined as a major accident with widespread health and environmental effects and the external release of a significant fraction of reactor core inventory. Only one accident in history had been deemed that serious: Chernobyl.

It would be almost four more weeks before Japanese authorities announced—belatedly, according to many—that the events in Fukushima indeed rated a level 7 ranking. In the annals of nuclear history, Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl would forever be linked.

Edano’s news briefings routinely contained two messages: the latest radiation readings posed no “immediate risk to health,” followed by these words: “Remain calm.” The Japanese heard that advice from their government frequently during March as radioactive plumes spilled from the plant, as the expanding danger zone forced evacuees to move repeatedly, and as authorities continually failed to contain—or even explain—the accident. If more evidence was needed that things were out of control, videos of the explosions and damage at Fukushima Daiichi played repeatedly on TV and websites, occasionally serving as background illustrations for newsreaders repeating the government’s reassuring statements.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano was the government’s primary spokesperson during the accident …

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano was the government’s primary spokesperson during the accident. Frequently advising the public to remain calm, he later came under criticism by investigators for downplaying the seriousness of threats posed by events at Fukushima Daiichi. AP

Such assurances had begun to ring hollow. “People in Fukushima are reaching the limit of anxiety and anger,” the governor of Fukushima Prefecture complained a week into the accident. They weren’t the only ones. Across Japan, millions of people struggled to make sense of what was happening, and many began looking for alternative sources of information.

Criticism was also mounting internationally about Japan’s candor regarding conditions at the plant and the degree of risk posted by radiation emissions. This clearly had grown beyond a domestic event. Early on, fears that dangerous levels of radiation could contaminate areas far beyond Japan gained legitimacy in part because of the dearth of information. The fragments of data experts could glean from Fukushima Daiichi painted a picture often at odds with the assessments coming out of Tokyo. The NRC’s experts undoubtedly were not the only ones abroad engaged in debates about the potential radiation hazard.

The International Atomic Energy Agency was faulted for its sluggish and confusing response. The agency’s head, Yukiya Amano, a career Japanese diplomat, paid a one-day visit to Tokyo on March 18 to announce that the IAEA and the international community were “standing by Japan.” Critics argued that instead of standing by, the IAEA should be wading in and participating much more directly in efforts to assess the threats posed by the reactors. Some blamed the organization’s backseat role in part on Amano’s ties to Tokyo’s political and nuclear establishment. (That criticism increased when the IAEA declared in late May that Japan’s response to the accident had been “exemplary.”)

However, even if the IAEA could have done more, it was hamstrung by its lack of authority to intervene in the internal nuclear safety affairs of sovereign states. With regard to civilian nuclear power safety, the organization functioned more to set standards and practices than to be a nuclear cop on the beat. And at the beginning, the IAEA scientists were as starved for information as those everywhere else outside the Japanese government and TEPCO.

Logically, many Japanese turned to the news media for help. There, too, they were often ill served. For journalists, the events at Fukushima Daiichi posed unique reporting challenges. The accident superimposed a complex technological failure involving multiple reactors on a catastrophic natural disaster that itself was a major story. Nuclear jargon was confusing and unfamiliar; radiation measurements were baffling. Information came secondhand; access to the plant and those working inside was impossible.

Reporters from Japan’s major media outlets stayed well outside the twelve-mile (twenty-kilometer) evacuation zone, not traveling closer for more than a month after the accident. Rather than do on-scene reporting, journalists often just repeated government and utility statements, supplementing them with interviews of academics or industry spokesmen, whose objectivity soon came into question.

Some foreign journalists and Japanese freelance reporters ventured as close to the disaster scene as they could go, talking with evacuees and providing vivid descriptions of the confusion and miscues in the accident response. At times their accounts were so at odds with what major Japanese media were reporting that these journalists were accused of sensationalizing.

The international and independent reports were often posted or streamed on websites. For those with Internet access who saw the accounts, the events at Fukushima Daiichi seemed far more alarming than how they were portrayed in regular updates from official sources.

Advocacy groups, including the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, quickly became sought-after providers of trusted information. On March 12, the center began conducting extensive daily briefings in Japanese and in English, delivered by independent nuclear experts. Streamed live on the Internet, the sessions provided details and analysis often unavailable elsewhere. They quickly developed a large following, with viewers e-mailing questions for the experts to answer. International organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, also conducted detailed briefings, posting transcripts and relevant documents online and responding to hundreds of media inquiries from the United States, Japan, and elsewhere.

As the days progressed, and the hunger for information grew, new media outlets—the Internet, Twitter, blogs, Web-based broadcast media—played an increasingly vital role. Some of the content for these outlets came from those most immediately affected: disaster victims, evacuees, and even emergency workers who captured events on cell phones or reported them via text messages, blogs, and Twitter feeds. Again, the stories they told were often at odds with the official assessments.

One of the most compelling accounts came from Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma, a devastated coastal community about fifteen miles from Fukushima Daiichi. Sakurai sat down in front of a camcorder in his office and pleaded for assistance from anyone. The natural disaster and the nuclear accident had made conditions in his city untenable, he said. Food and fuel deliveries had stopped; residents who had not already fled had been ordered to remain indoors. “With the scarce information we can gather from the government or TEPCO, we are left isolated,” Sakurai said, looking into the camera. “I beg you to help us… . Helping each other is what makes us human being[s].” The eleven-minute recording, posted on YouTube, was viewed by more than two hundred thousand people in the course of three weeks, and relief poured into the beleaguered city.

Even as up-to-date technology made disseminating the news faster and simpler, many Japanese journalists labored under the influence of traditional politics, economics, and culture, which did not reward confrontation.

As a result, TEPCO often got a free ride from potential critics in and out of government, and it grew to symbolize much of what was wrong in corporate management and regulatory oversight in Japan. Despite its well-known history of covering up safety problems, the utility was regarded by many as a “cornerstone of corporate Japan,” relying on political muscle, public goodwill, and deferential watchdogs to keep its nuclear facilities and the billions invested in them operating without serious challenge. TEPCO had committed to building more reactors at home and overseas, and was even planning to help fund a two-reactor project in Texas. What confidence could reporters have that the company was now being forthright?

In the absence of company president Masataka Shimizu, who had vanished from public view, the utility put junior executives before the cameras to apologize for “causing inconvenience.” But they offered little in the way of new details. TEPCO’s press releases occasionally omitted crucial information. The utility announced that it had successfully begun injecting seawater into the Unit 2 reactor at 11:00 p.m. on March 14, for example, but failed to mention that radiation levels had jumped at the plant entrance about four hours earlier.

Members of the media camped out for days at TEPCO headquarters, squeezed into a cluttered room off the first floor lobby. Utility officials would appear to make brief announcements at all hours. When pressed by reporters for details and explanations, they often were unable or unwilling to answer.

In better times, TEPCO had been a savvy corporate communicator with deep pockets and enviable national clout. For years the company had financed a sophisticated and expensive public relations program to promote the benefits—and safety—of nuclear power. TEPCO, like Japan’s other nuclear utilities, erected elaborate visitor centers that resembled theme parks, filled with animated characters extolling the wonders of nuclear power. TEPCO’s mascot, Denko-chan, promoted the company to the younger set and their families.

TEPCO ranked alongside Japan’s internationally known corporations—Panasonic, Toyota, Sharp—in dollars invested for advertising. But when things went awry, TEPCO seemed to have no crisis communications plan in place, just as it lacked a workable accident plan.

As for government officials, they also had incentives to downplay the accident. Japan had pinned its energy future on nuclear power. Every journalist was aware of the historically close ties between industry and government. What confidence could reporters have that public officials would now provide crucial information that reflected poorly on such an influential industry—or on the policy decisions that had promoted its expansion?

Public trust was an early casualty. Yet trust is critical, noted a Diet-appointed committee, led by Yotaro Hatamura, that investigated the crisis and detailed its findings in a lengthy report. The Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Company wrote, “Inappropriate provision of information can lead to unnecessary fear among the nation.”

The report echoed the findings of another independent investigative commission, which criticized the government for withholding information on the basis that it had yet to be completely verified. By “sacrificing ‘promptness’ in order to ensure ‘accuracy,’ there is conversely a danger of inviting citizen’s [sic] mistrust and concern,” the committee noted, acknowledging the difficult balancing act that often faces officials in times of emergency. That was particularly true when news was flooding in from multiple sources other than the government.

Perhaps the greatest chasm between what was being said and what the public needed to hear concerned the complex issue of radiation exposure and health risks. The looming question on everyone’s mind was the obvious one: are we safe? There could be no unqualified answer; a “safe” level of radiation is an issue on which scientists and health experts often disagree. Even so, the government failed to provide basic guidance, a criticism leveled by the Hatamura committee.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano and others repeatedly used the ambiguous phrase “it does not have immediate effects on health.” As the Hatamura investigation noted, that expression could be interpreted in two conflicting ways: that the radiation was harmless, or that it might produce cancer, just not right away. Citizens were left to ferret out the truth on their own.

Time and again, the government bungled its handling of the radiation and health issue. On March 16, for example, as the United States was ordering a fifty-mile evacuation for its own citizens in view of rising radiation levels, Edano declared that only the government’s Nuclear Safety Commission could provide an accurate analysis of radiation data. But the chairman of the NSC, Haruki Madarame, was occupied advising Prime Minister Kan and apparently unavailable. On March 23, nearly two weeks into the accident, Madarame held his first news briefing and informed reporters that no analyses were available “because we are very understaffed.”

By then, citizen activists, armed with their own radiation monitoring equipment, had begun to gather readings around the country and post them online. The flurry of numbers—some reliable, some unverifiable—only compounded the confusion. For parents desperate to protect their children, trustworthy answers were hard to find.

A child receives radiation screening at a gymnasium in Fukushima on March 24, 2011 …

A child receives radiation screening at a gymnasium in Fukushima on March 24, 2011. AP

In an effort to avoid arousing fears, the government also deliberately withheld crucial information—a fact that confirmed the suspicions and inflamed the distrust of many when the omissions came to light.

It wasn’t until June, for example, that officials publicly acknowledged meltdowns at the three reactors—information the government had possessed since March 12, based on the off-site detection of tellurium-132, a fission product that could only have come from a melted core. By June it was old news to anyone in Japan who had Internet access and cared to search for Fukushima analysis from other sources. Moreover, the Japanese had acknowledged on April 12 that Fukushima Daiichi was a level 7 accident on INES, a ranking that certainly implied a meltdown. The official disclosure of the meltdowns finally arrived shortly before details about them were to be released at an international conference.

And there was the Japanese media itself. It, too, operated under a cloud. Reports about Fukushima Daiichi frequently came colored with the built-in biases of the publication or broadcast outlet: for or against nuclear power, for or against the political party in office, for or against Japan’s powerful but faceless elite who influenced policy but seemed unaccountable for their actions.

Japan’s news media for decades have functioned through a system of press clubs whose “members”—the journalists from mainstream media—work from newsrooms inside government offices and have ready access to the public officials and agencies they are assigned to cover. Nonmembers, who include reporters working for the growing number of Web-based or independent news organizations as well as freelance journalists, are left to their own devices, briefed less frequently and otherwise isolated from the daily official media loop. (Foreign journalists have their own press club, which accords them certain privileges, but they also are generally less constrained in their relationships with public and private newsmakers.)

Critics of the press club system have long argued that it fosters a too-cozy relationship between reporters and those they cover. Journalists can be reluctant to challenge the official line for fear of alienating sources and losing access. Politicians and bureaucrats, for their part, know their pronouncements will be duly reported without countervailing views because that is what’s expected of Japanese press club members. Aggressive investigative reporting, common in many other countries, has been the exception rather than the rule for many years in Japan.

The press clubs also can limit coverage of those who take issue with government policies. Japanese antinuclear activist Aileen Mioko Smith, who heads Kyoto-based Green Action, described the difficulty of attracting media attention to nuclear safety issues. “The Japanese press club system has proven very effective at keeping nuclear news out of mainstream media,” she wrote shortly after the accident. “I often say, ‘If you want to make sure that you don’t get any media coverage, go to the METI press club.’ ” (METI, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, oversaw nuclear safety until a government reorganization after the Fukushima Daiichi accident.)

And thus, in the frantic days following March 11, when information became the coin of the realm, millions of Japanese felt themselves abandoned. The institutions they had long depended on and trusted—government, corporations, the media—now seemed ineffectual, even suspect, failing to deliver as a result of intent, ineptitude, or the sheer immensity of the unfolding crisis.

The experience left its mark on many Japanese. “There is a sense of betrayal,” says Dr. Evelyn Bromet, a psychiatric epidemiologist at the University of New York at Stony Brook whose research includes the mental health impacts of the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima accidents. She visited Fukushima and examined detailed survey responses collected from evacuees. The responses reveal a high level of fear, anger, and emotional stress among many Japanese, she says. “There’s nobody that they trust any more for information.”

“You shouldn’t assume that people can’t handle the truth,” says Bromet. “It may be difficult to swallow, but it’s better to be open and straight with them.”

During the Fukushima Daiichi accident, Japanese authorities ignored that basic tenet of crisis management, concluded Japan’s Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission in its July 2012 report. “[T]he government chose to release information purely from a subjective perspective, rather than reacting to the needs of the public.”

Just as the NRC’s technical staff rapidly geared up in response to the events at Fukushima Daiichi on March 11, so did the commission’s public information arm. Although the accident was taking place halfway around the world, U.S. media would have questions.

As the hours passed and details trickled out of Japan, it became increasingly clear that these distant events could have major implications for American citizens abroad, and even at home, if radiation releases became severe enough. In addition to those issues, the public affairs staff also was sensitive to possible repercussions for the U.S. nuclear establishment, only now getting back on its feet after a lengthy, involuntary hibernation.

Construction had resumed on the first new American reactor in decades, and the NRC was well on its way toward approving combined construction and operating licenses for four more reactors. The White House supported the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. energy mix, and the NRC was systematically extending the licenses for aging plants, giving them another twenty years of operation. Some were even calling this a nuclear “renaissance.”

Now, however, opponents of the growing footprint of nuclear power in the United States, including those who had long argued that it posed serious risks to public health and safety, would be able to bolster their case by uttering one word: Fukushima. Three Mile Island had had the same impact three decades earlier, and the U.S. industry was only now recovering.

One thing was certain as the disturbing reports continued to arrive: this was a developing drama that would dominate the twenty-four-hour news cycle for days, if not weeks. As a result, some serious messaging would be required by all sides in the nuclear debate, and the NRC would be in the thick of it.

Shortly after 5:00 a.m. on March 11, just as word was reaching the United States of the crisis in Japan, Scott Burnell of the NRC’s Office of Public Affairs e-mailed the headquarters operations officer at White Flint that he was headed in to work. “Always interesting to wake up and find huge news has occurred,” he noted. At this point, he had no idea how huge.

The job of public relations, whether performed for a public agency or a private enterprise, entails dual missions: to provide accurate information and to deliver that information in the light most favorable to the presenter. Those missions can conflict. At the NRC, the Office of Public Affairs has to perform a particularly challenging balancing act. The agency is often caught in the crosshairs between critics who feel the agency is too lax on safety issues, too “pro-nuke,” and an industry that pushes back against regulations it sees as too strict and has the political muscle in Washington to get its way.

Although regulatory conflicts with industry and its allies do arise, they usually occur under the media radar. As a result, the NRC is far more accustomed to defending its performance against critics in the public sector who claim the commission is too lax. And when those critics take aim, the NRC’s public affairs staff tends to circle the wagons to protect its own.

Fukushima wasn’t an accident in a backwater country; it was occurring in highly educated, science-savvy Japan, using technology and a regulatory playbook largely borrowed from the Americans. Thirty-one aging carbon copies of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were operating around the United States. Assurances about reactor safety, repeated so often in the United States, had also become the mantra in Japan. Regulators and industry were cozy—another complaint heard in both countries. Those connections were pretty hard to ignore, and the news media latched on to them almost immediately.

By 10:30 a.m. on March 11, the media calls and e-mails were pouring in to the NRC, and the Office of Public Affairs had already assembled its first set of talking points, a script of sorts to make sure everyone delivered the same message. A list of likely questions and their answers was prepared for Chairman Jaczko, who would soon be in front of cameras fielding queries from politicians and the media. The list included the obvious:

Q: “Can this happen here?”

A: “The events that have occurred in Japan are the result of a combination of highly unlikely natural disasters. It is extremely unlikely that a similar event could occur in the United States.”

Q: “Is there a danger of radiation making it to the United States?”

A: “Given the thousands of miles between the two countries, Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories, and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”

Q: “Has this incident changed the NRC perception about earthquake risk?”

A: “There has been no change in the NRC’s perception of earthquake hazard (i.e., ground shaking levels) for U.S. nuclear plants. As is prudent, the NRC will certainly be looking closely at this incident and the effects on the Japanese nuclear power plant in the future to see if any changes are necessary to NRC regulations.”

Those were the responses marked “public answer” on the briefing materials, with this note attached: “Talk from but do not distribute.” They were not to be shared without “explicit” permission from Jaczko’s office. As for the NRC staff itself, the communications lid was clamped tightly; all comments had to come through the Office of Public Affairs.

Most of the Fukushima responses drafted for the chairman also contained what was marked as “additional, technical non-public information,” which tended to paint a somewhat different picture of the situation. For example:

Q: “What happens when/if a plant ‘melts down’?”

A: 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.” Nonpublic addendum: “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.”

Q: “Will this incident affect new reactor licensing?”

A: Public answer: “It is not appropriate to hypothesize on such a future scenario at this point.” Nonpublic addendum: “This event could potentially call into question the NRC’s seismic requirements, which could require the staff to re-evaluate the staff’s approval of the AP1000 and ESBWR [new reactor] design and certifications.”

As to the question about the risk to U.S. residents from fallout, the public answer—the one that downplayed dangers because of distance—also included a non-public detail that didn’t sound quite so optimistic. “NRC is working with DHS [the Department of Homeland Security], EPA and other federal partners to ensure monitoring equipment for confirmatory readings is properly positioned, based on meteorological and other relevant information.”

It’s unclear for whom the “non-public” information was intended, but the public responses were utilized repeatedly in coming days. When Jaczko testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 17, he offered a nearly verbatim reassurance on risks to the United States: “Given the thousands of miles between Japan and the United States, Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. territories, and the West Coast, we are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”

By Sunday evening, March 13, the media onslaught over Fukushima was only building. “This is a marathon, not a 50-yard dash,” wrote Eliot Brenner of the Office of Public Affairs to his staff about the flood of inquiries. Brenner reminded his troops not to stray from the information contained in press releases or official blog posts. “While we know more than what these say, we’re sticking to this story for now.”

By Monday, March 14, U.S. reporters were beginning to home in on a logical local angle to the events in Japan: the vulnerability of U.S. reactors to earthquakes. Their instincts were good.

Six years before, the NRC had begun a review of new data from the U.S. Geological Survey about seismic activity in portions of the country once deemed at low risk of damaging earthquakes, namely the eastern and central United States. Just as in Japan, advances in seismology now were raising questions about earlier risk assessments—assessments used to site, design, and construct America’s reactors. The study, conducted in partnership with the nuclear industry, was known by the shorthand name of Generic Issue 199, or GI-199.

“Recent data and models indicate that estimates of the potential for earthquake hazards for some nuclear power plants in the Central and Eastern United States may be larger than previous estimates,” the NRC said in a 2010 document describing the study. And that “could reduce available safety margins” at operating reactors.

Reactors are designed to shut down automatically when a certain level of ground motion is detected, just as the reactors did at Fukushima. (Those levels are set individually for each plant, based on historical earthquake data, which in the United States—unlike Japan—dates back only a century or two.) Other systems needed to maintain the reactor in a safe state, such as coolant pumps, have to be able to work after a so-called safe shutdown earthquake. But what if that ground motion is much stronger than designers had estimated? Would all the required systems still work? Or could vital equipment fail and core cooling be lost? “Updated estimates of seismic hazard values at some of the sites could potentially exceed the design basis” for the plants, the NRC study found.

The GI-199 findings didn’t gain much media attention until the magnitude

9.0 quake hit northeastern Japan. For journalists, the findings represented a Fukushima follow-up that readers and viewers in the United States could identify with. Some at the NRC weren’t happy with the newfound media interest. “Frankly, it is not a good story for us,” wrote Annie Kammerer, a senior seismologist and earthquake engineer at the NRC, shortly after midnight on March 15.

The day before, Bill Dedman, a reporter for NBC News and, had e-mailed the NRC about the seismic safety data. Dedman, a veteran investigative reporter, had trolled the massive public online archives maintained by the NRC and come across the GI-199 document titled “Implications of Updated Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Estimates in Central and Eastern United States on Existing Plants.” Appendix D of the report caught his eye. The appendix contained revised assessments of the risk of earthquake-induced core damage at ninety-six reactors in the eastern and central United States. Now he had some questions for the NRC.

Hearing nothing back from his initial e-mail inquiry, Dedman sought out some math professors to help ensure that he understood the complex calculations. Early on March 15 he bypassed the Office of Public Affairs and e-mailed the authors of the NRC report, outlining how he interpreted the data. “I’d like to make sure that I accurately place in layman’s terms the seismic hazard estimates,” he explained. Dedman also requested information about western reactors not on the list, which the NRC provided to him that afternoon.

Early the next morning, Dedman’s article, “What are the odds? US nuke plants ranked by quake risk,” was posted on the website. Based on the NRC’s estimates, the reactor at highest risk of core damage from an earthquake was not Diablo Canyon or San Onofre, located in earthquake-prone California, but rather Indian Point Unit 3, sitting thirty-five miles north of Manhattan.

The NRC’s immediate reaction was to discredit Dedman’s story, even while the commission’s experts were poring over it. Scott Burnell e-mailed Dedman: “I understand you’re making a honest effort to convey the latest research, but I have no doubt the technical staff are going to have significant problems with how you’ve presented it.” Burnell then e-mailed Kammerer: “Apart from ‘you’re totally off-base,’ what specific technical corrections can we ask for?”

As other media calls and inquiries about Fukushima continued to pile up in the Office of Public Affairs, the morning of March 16 was spent attempting to impugn Dedman’s report, which Burnell characterized as “jaw-flapping.” “Folks,” he wrote at midmorning to the technical staff assigned to scrutinize Dedman’s analysis, “the expected calls [about the story] are coming in—We need a better response ASAP!” The Nuclear Energy Institute was also urging the NRC to reply.

The story created an immediate stir, triggering interest from the Associated Press, CNN, the New York Times, New York’s congressional delegation, the Congressional Research Service, and reporters around the country. (Soon after Dedman’s report appeared, New York governor Andrew Cuomo ordered a safety review of the Indian Point plant, in part based on the new risk data.)

About 12:30 p.m. on March 16, Benjamin Beasley of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research e-mailed Burnell that the experts had come up empty-handed. “I have received no concerns or corrections regarding the article,” wrote Beasley.

What the NRC’s public affairs staff most objected to was that Dedman went a step beyond the information they had provided: he gave it meaning for a general audience. By sorting through the commission’s voluminous data, Dedman had arrived at risk rankings for the nation’s 104 operating reactors. (The NRC had provided the raw data for each reactor, listing the plants alphabetically but not taking the final step of ranking them in order of risk, consistent with its long-standing practice of trying to avoid identifying the most dangerous plants.) That, Dedman said in response to complaints from the NRC’s Eliot Brenner, is like the U.S. Census Bureau publishing poverty figures for metropolitan areas but not then identifying the poorest of the poor “lest anyone feel bad.” It’s left to reporters to inform the public of the numbers’ meaning. “That’s our job,” Dedman told Brenner.

In a conversation long after the kerfuffle, Dedman blamed the NRC’s Office of Public Affairs for caring more about the agency’s image than about informing the public. By attempting to discredit the messenger, versus acknowledging the public value of the information, “they lost credibility for their organization.”

As the number of Japanese leaving their homes continued to climb, hastily opened shelters beyond the evacuation zones began to fill. These nuclear nomads, who fled with few possessions, were now crowded into makeshift quarters that often lacked adequate heat, food, water, or sanitary facilities. For them, the impact on daily life was immediate and burdensome.

Many had no idea why their lives had been turned on end. Without power, the ability to obtain news was gone.2 While the rest of the world was watching the nuclear crisis unfold, those most threatened by the deteriorating conditions inside the reactors were living in an information bubble.

As the displaced populace waited for explanations, the evacuation zones kept expanding outward. In those first tumultuous days, some evacuees were forced to relocate six times or more, fleeing ever farther from the reactors, their few belongings stuffed in bags or tucked under their arms. Others, however, were forgotten, with fatal consequences.

Evacuees crowded into school gymnasiums and other public buildings, where living conditions were harsh and privacy nonexistent …

Evacuees crowded into school gymnasiums and other public buildings, where living conditions were harsh and privacy nonexistent. Many of those who fled their homes had little or no idea why they had been ordered to relocate. As conditions at the reactors worsened, large numbers of evacuees were forced to move several times. Voice of America

Hours after the second evacuation notice was issued early in the morning of March 12, preparations got under way to move the two hundred and nine ambulatory patients and staff out of Futaba Hospital, located about three miles (five kilometers) from the plant. Left behind, however, were one hundred and thirty bedridden hospital patients and ninety-eight residents of a nearby nursing home. The SDF reportedly were en route to transport them. Owing to a series of bureaucratic errors and communication mix-ups, the troops didn’t arrive for two days, during which time the facilities had no power or heat and caregivers had departed. By then, four patients were dead. When the troops finally showed up, the patients began a grueling odyssey, spending hours on the road before the troops found a shelter that would accept them. Fourteen more died during the trip. But thirty-five patients were accidentally left behind, forgotten and not rescued until March 16. By the end of that month, officials reported that among the Futaba evacuees a total of forty patients and ten nursing home residents had died.

In a society accustomed to order and predictability, the accident response increasingly seemed chaotic and leaderless. The confusing and incomplete information coming from the government offered little guidance for Japanese seeking to understand the threat from Fukushima Daiichi. Later, officials would defend their withholding of facts by claiming they did not want to alarm people. But for many, this show of paternalism was tantamount to putting lives at risk.

Events in the scenic mountain town of Iitate, like the bungled evacuation of Futaba Hospital, came to symbolize the breakdown of the government’s response and the consequences for those left to fend for themselves.

Following the explosion at Unit 3 on March 15, the prevailing winds shifted, carrying radiation to the northwest toward villages such as Iitate, population six thousand, located about twenty-five miles (forty kilometers) from Fukushima Daiichi and thus well outside the official evacuation zone. An evening snowfall blanketed the region, carrying with it particles of radioactive iodine, tellurium, and cesium. SPEEDI, the sophisticated computer tracking system, had predicted that Iitate and the town of Namie were in the path of the plume, but top officials in Tokyo dismissed the data as unreliable. Nearly two weeks after the March 15 release, government officials realized that Iitate and its neighbors had become “hot spots,” with areas of radiation far above background levels. As officials debated whether evacuation was warranted, the residents of Iitate stayed put, caring for their families, their farms, and their prized cattle.

A map of the emergency response zones near Fukushima Daiichi established by the Japanese government as of the end of April 2011 …

A map of the emergency response zones near Fukushima Daiichi established by the Japanese government as of the end of April 2011. The region marked “deliberate evacuation area,” extending northwest of the plant to Iitate, was created nearly six weeks after the accident began. Authorities had been forced to confront the fact that winds and precipitation had spread dangerous levels of radioactive contamination well beyond the twelve-mile (twenty-kilometer) evacuation zone established soon after the accident. Government of Japan

All the while, radiation data from a wide radius around Fukushima Daiichi was appearing online, showing elevated levels in Iitate and other areas to the northwest of the reactors. Based on that information, some local residents grew alarmed about the lack of protective measures, expressing their frustrations to anyone who would listen. “We have been sacrificed so that Tokyo can enjoy bright lights,” a tobacco farmer told a New York Times reporter, visiting Iitate the same day as an IAEA inspection team, dressed in protective clothing, arrived to take radiation readings among farmers working the fields. Even after the discovery of the hot spots, the government failed to act. Later, one Iitate resident expressed what many were thinking about their government: “Do they really value our lives?”

Japanese authorities, however, continued to drag their feet. Finally, on April 22, Tokyo ordered the evacuation of Iitate by the end of May. When the order came at last, the residents of Iitate were confronted with decisions both pragmatic and poignant. Some residents, especially those with young children, had already fled. A priest told a visitor, “Anyone who thinks about the future has left our village.”

For others, severing ties was a wrenching experience. They already had been exposed to the radiation; had the damage already been done? Many lived on land that had been in their families for generations; could this soil be farmed again in their lifetimes? Their children’s lifetimes? And what of their beloved cattle, considered almost like pets? Photos of abandoned livestock, dead or dying, in evacuation zones elsewhere had been published around the globe.

Knowing that no one would buy their animals for fear of contamination, and not wanting them to suffer, Iitate’s farmers saw no choice. Before departing, they slaughtered nearly three thousand cattle. Soon, Iitate, which the year before had been declared one of the most beautiful villages in Japan, became a ghost town.