Three groups – Friends of the Earth, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and Physicians for Social Responsibility – announced Friday that they have filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get to the bottom of what led the U.S. government to call for a 50-mile evacuation radius for Americans near the Japanese reactor crisis in Fukushima.
The nuclear plant at Fukushima has been the sight of a tense radiological crisis since the reactor was crippled as a result of the massive earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan.
On March 16, Gregory Jazcko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) told Congress that he was recommending the 50-mile evacuation radius.
The scope of the recommended evacuation is highly unusual and suggestive of extraordinarily high radiation levels in excess of those reported to the public in Japan and the United States, the three groups behind the FOIA action say. In the United States, nuclear reactor licensees and local governments are only asked to provide for evacuation out to 10 miles.
As concerns grow about food and water contamination in Japan, the three groups filing the FOIA request are seeking to determine the answer to this key question: What made Jaczko exceed the limits of his own agency’s regulations by five times?
The FOIA requests filed with the NRC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are available online. The three groups say they are not satisfied that the summary provided so far by the DOE at provides the full picture of the scale of the radiation.
“By recommending a 50-mile evacuation zone for U.S. residents, NRC Chairman Jaczko gave a strong signal that the Fukushima accident was much worse than reported by the Japanese government and the utility,” says Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which is located just outside Washington. “We believe that he was getting information about the severity of the accident from airborne radiation measurements taken by U.S. Department of Energy aircraft. But neither DOE nor the NRC has published those measurements in full.”
As the FOIA request explains, the three groups “seek expedited release” of the requested information, “so that they may timely inform their members and the general public about the unfolding events at the Fukushima reactors, including the significance of the public health and environmental threat posed by radiation releases from the Fukushima reactors. Requesters believe that requested disclosures will do a great deal to fill currently existing information gaps and resolve inconsistencies in the currently available reports about the severity of the Japanese radiological releases.”
The groups also contend that expedited release of the information is justified in order to allow them to participate in and comment on any proceedings the federal government may undertake to evaluate the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident, including the 90-day review of the safety of U.S. reactors recently announced by the NRC. According to the FOIA request letter, a better understanding of the severity of the Fukushima releases is “essential to Requesters’ ability to evaluate and participate in any such review.”
Scott Nance is the publisher of the news site The Washington Current, formerly known as On The Hill. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.