Obama cited bureaucratic barriers in nuclear crisis response

October 21, 2013

By TOSHIHIRO OKUYAMA/ Senior Staff Writer

U.S. President Barack Obama feared that entrenched bureaucratic behavior would exacerbate an unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan and called on Tokyo to remove those barriers to avert a catastrophe, Foreign Ministry records show.

Obama talked with the prime minister, Naoto Kan, days after the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was damaged by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami.

The two leaders spoke for 33 minutes from 10:22 a.m. on March 17, 2011. It was their second telephone conversation after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck six days earlier.

Obama was alarmed at the situation at the Fukushima plant and felt the Japanese government was not responding with sufficient urgency, according to the documents obtained by The Asahi Shimbun based on the freedom of information law.

The U.S. president told Kan he hoped a catastrophic situation could be avoided.

He also griped about bureaucratic barriers to offers of overseas assistance and said he hoped they would be removed so that support could be realized.

The two leaders spoke at the request of the U.S. side. It is not known how Obama spoke because the records were kept in Japanese.

At that time, U.S. officials believed that the pool holding spent nuclear fuel for the No. 4 reactor had lost water.

Earlier on March 17, John Roos, the U.S. ambassador to Japan at the time, had advised U.S. nationals to evacuate from an 80-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant.

Kan told Obama, “We do not have the word ‘retreat’ (in our vocabulary). We are going all out to deal with (the crisis),” according to the Foreign Ministry records. He also said Japanese and U.S. experts were sharing information “without holding back anything.”

The prime minister explained what was going on with the reactors and the spent nuclear fuel storage pools.

He said U.S. officials in charge of nuclear power plants were shown video footage of water remaining in the No. 4 reactor pool during discussions with their Japanese counterparts, which lasted until early March 17.

He also said Self-Defense Forces helicopters had dumped water over the No. 3 reactor pool shortly before their telephone conversation started.

Toward the end, Obama said he would keep in close touch with Kan. He promised to be ready to take a phone call from Kan at any time.

Kan said he would keep the U.S. side fully informed, particularly about the nuclear crisis.

It turned out that Kan and Obama did not discuss the situation again until March 30, or 13 days later. Their first conversation after the earthquake and tsunami was early on March 12.

* * *

In a recent interview, Kan said it was no surprise that the U.S. side felt there were bureaucratic obstacles in the early stages of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

“I think the president was feeling what I was feeling,” Kan said. “Accurate information did not reach me. Information conduits were clogged up.”

Kan said information started to flow smoothly only after an integrated response headquarters set up in Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator, was up and running.

By TOSHIHIRO OKUYAMA/ Senior Staff Writer
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U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Deauville, France, on May 26, 2011 (Pool)

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Deauville, France, on May 26, 2011 (Pool)

  • U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Deauville, France, on May 26, 2011 (Pool)
  • An explosion tore through the No. 4 reactor, background, at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 15, 2011. (Provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

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