The staff at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission made an effort to downplay the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis to America's aging nuclear plants, NBC News reported Monday after reviewing thousands of internal emails it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The emails indicate a campaign to reassure the public about the U.S. nuclear industry came as the agency's experts questioned U.S. safety standards and hustled to determine whether new rules were needed to ensure the March 2011 meltdown in Japan could not occur on U.S. soil.
NBC News said the emails provided examples of apparent misdirection or concealment soon after the Japanese nuclear plant was crippled by a 9-magnitude earthquake and 50-foot tsunami that knocked out power and cooling systems at the six-reactor facility, resulting in releases of radioactive material, such as:
-- An NRC manager telling staff to hide from reporters the presence of Japanese engineers in the agency's operations center in Maryland.
-- Representatives being told not to reveal NRC scientists were still studying whether the Diablo Canyon Power Plant on the California coast could withstand a similar tsunami.
-- The NRC dissuading media outlets from using its data on earthquake risks at U.S. nuclear plants.
-- Declining to address questions about what would happen during a nuclear meltdown, the worst-case scenario.
NBC News said the agency declined to discuss specific emails or communications, but NRC Public Affairs Director Eliot Brenner emailed a statement:
"The NRC Office of Public Affairs strives to be as open and transparent as possible, providing the public accurate information in the proper context. We take our communication mission seriously. We did then and we do now. The frustration displayed in the chosen emails reflects more on the extreme stress our team was under at the time to assure accuracy in a context in which information from Japan was scarce to non-existent. These emails fall well short of an accurate picture of our communications with the American public immediately after the event and during the past three years."