A Lasting Legacy of the Fukushima Rescue Mission: The Navy Life -- Into the Abyss

To the U.S. government, Operation Tomodachi was just another big humanitarian aid and rescue mission in which the nearest Navy fleet and many land-based personnel rushed to the aid of an ally in need. In this case, the northeast coast of Japan had been flattened by a massive earthquake and tsunami which destroyed infrastructure and killed some 20,000 citizens.

Operation Tomodachi -- named after the Japanese word for Friend -- began as a large logistical exercise. It seemed that way to the American sailors, both land based and in the USS Ronald Reagan Aircraft Carrier Strike Group. The view from Washington was that Operation Tomodachi would enhance the long ties between allies.

Then everything changed.

The nuclear fuel in reactors 1, 2, and 3 at Fukushima Daiichi overheated and melted down, creating a hydrogen cloud in the process which exploded, spiking radiation readings on detection monitors across Japan. Hydrogen from Unit 3 migrated through a shared venting system into Unit 4 and blew off its roof as well, exposing the spent fuel pool and its 1,500 bundles of fuel rods containing a lethal mix of cesium, iodine and plutonium.

Transcripts of meetings and conference calls hosted by Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko showed steadily increasing concern as newer data contradicted previous data and measurements of radiation from the Navy differed markedly from the information coming from the Japanese government and TEPCO, the giant utility which owned the stricken reactors.

The NRC itself was flying blind. The agency had believed it was virtually impossible to have multiple meltdowns at the same site. As a result, their emergency models all involved the healthy plant using its working systems to control critical systems in the stricken plant until the problems were solved. Jaczko had publicly urged calm and for Americans in Japan to follow the guidelines of the Japanese government. NRC press releases in the United States all stated prominently that there was no danger from radioactive fallout.

But the transcripts tell another story.

On March 14 Jaczko's conference call was interrupted by senior executive Jack Grob with bad news:

"JACK GROB: Okay, guys, I apologize for bothering you, but things are degenerating quickly. This reminds me of the drill. [...]

what's really troubling is that we, we have had that wind shift -- the Chairman's here, by the way -- we've had that wind shift and the wind is out of the northeast blowing towards the southwest. That's inland and towards Tokyo. And there's an aircraft carrier in the port just south of Tokyo. It's about 180 miles from the site, about 10 miles southwest of Tokyo, and they're measuring on the order of 10 to 20 millirem over a 12-hour period total effective dose and roughly five to 10 times that, thyroid. [...]

JACK GROB: The, the answer is the dose rates don't seem to be consistent either with what would be released or with the timing that it would take for a plume to get 180 miles away from the site to the southwest.

MIKE WEBER: Yeah, well, that's what I struck me when you told us what's going on.

JACK GROB: Yet, but the, the feedback through Trapp from the admiral is that they used multi* instruments and confirmed this in multiple ways [BLACKED OUT]


JACK GROB: They do operate nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, so they must have a level of competence that's fairly decent. [...]"

This was new territory, and they could not trust data from the Japanese.

For the Americans in Operation Tomodachi, this meant they would be improvising throughout the crisis. They faced the dual needs to conduct search and rescue missions in a devastated landscape with little functioning infrastructure while guarding against unseen contamination from the stricken reactors.

To officials at the Defense and State Departments, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Operation Tomodachi was a successful, limited duration event in which the military worked in a civilian humanitarian mission. It was requested, logged, and finished.

But military operations are carried out in real time by people implementing orders from half a world away who have to live with the consequences of making the mission succeed.

And for some of the Americans sent into action, Operation Tomodachi would mean the end of a career and dream of service in the U.S. Navy, and the start of a new life laced with anxiety.

This is Part 2 of a series on Fukushima fallout cross-posted by Roger Witherspoon at his Energy Matters blog. The first part can be accessed here. Coming next: Part 3 -- "Cat and Mouse with a Nuclear Ghost."