PROMETHEUS TRAP (3): Japanese ambassador felt something not right before State Department meeting

February 01, 2013

By HIDEFUMI NOGAMI/ Staff Writer

Editor's note: This is the third part of a series that has run in the past under the overall title of The Prometheus Trap. This series deals with the differences between Japan and the United States in dealing with the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011. The series will appear on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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The consensus that was developing in the teleconference that began at 1:30 a.m. on March 16, 2011, U.S. Eastern Standard Time, demonstrated the extent to which the U.S. government was willing to take a bold step because it called for immediately evacuating all U.S. citizens living in Japan, including members of the U.S. military.

That would, of course, mean that Washington was prepared for a situation in which the U.S. military had no presence in Japan.

However, the evacuation of the military would require a decision by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Because the teleconference ended at 2:30 a.m. on March 16, there was still some time before the White House would begin making any move.

A special team was assembled at the State Department and various scenarios drawn up for any possible evacuation.

It was already the afternoon of March 16 in Japan.

About 90,000 Americans live in and around the Tokyo area. If an estimate of only a few hours was made for the time it would take for radioactive materials to reach the atmosphere above Tokyo, it would be extremely difficult to evacuate all of those Americans.

As a first step, two private passenger jets each were chartered at Haneda and Narita airports.

That was a time when Self-Defense Forces helicopters were trying to dump water on the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to cool down overheating reactors. However, high radiation levels led to a scrapping of the plan on March 16. The decision had been made to make another attempt on March 17.

As dawn broke in Washington, calculations from a supercomputer reached the desk of Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Energy Department had calculated the possible spread of radioactive materials based on weather information. The result of the calculation was that even in a worst-case scenario, Tokyo would likely be spared from any radioactive fallout.

After discussing the matter with White House officials, Campbell reached the conclusion that the calculations meant an immediate evacuation from Tokyo was no longer necessary.

Instead, the U.S. government came up with its own proposal for how to respond to the Fukushima nuclear accident.

One measure would be to issue an evacuation advisory to all U.S. citizens living within a 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius of the Fukushima plant. The other was to allow family members of U.S. government workers to voluntarily evacuate from Japan.

Those measures were put together while referring to procedures that would be followed should a similar accident occur in the United States as well as based on the opinions of experts. The evacuation area was much wider than the 20-kilometer radius implemented by the Japanese government.

Campbell decided to inform Japanese officials about the U.S. decision. He also felt there was something else he had to pass on--the "anger" felt toward the Japanese government.

At about 8 a.m. on March 16 in Washington, Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki was called by Campbell to come to his office. Fujisaki headed toward the State Department with three embassy officials.

At the entrance to the State Department, staff members were waiting to hold open the elevator door.

"There is something different about the mood here today," Fujisaki whispered.

The Japanese officials were kept waiting for a while in front of Campbell's office.

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The previous installments of this series are available at:

(1) http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201301280006

(2) http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201301300006

By HIDEFUMI NOGAMI/ Staff Writer
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A copy of the evacuation advisory issued by the U.S. government to its citizens in Japan (Hidefumi Nogami)

A copy of the evacuation advisory issued by the U.S. government to its citizens in Japan (Hidefumi Nogami)

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  • A copy of the evacuation advisory issued by the U.S. government to its citizens in Japan (Hidefumi Nogami)

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