Foreign Affairs

Inside the White House During Fukushima

On March 11, 2011, I was awakened at 1:45 am by a call from the White House Situation Room reporting that an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale (subsequently raised to 9.0) had struck northeast Japan, and that tsunami warnings had been issued. At the time I was senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council, and immediately we formed an interagency group to address the situation. First, we mobilized relief efforts, and the U.S. Pacific Command provided indispensable support for remote and isolated towns. Those operations generated few difficult policy decisions.

Within a few days, however, a threat emerged: the possibility of multiple meltdowns at the nuclear reactor site in Fukushima, 160 miles northeast of Tokyo. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had six reactors, three of which were online when the earthquake and tsunami struck. The other three were not, but their highly toxic fuel rods were stored in spent-fuel pools on site.

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