Nuclear Crisis: Americans in Japan Frustrated by Government

As helicopters dump water on overheating nuclear reactors, a U.S. official says the next 48 hours are "critical." Lennox Samuels, in Japan, talks to Americans there about their frustration.

Handout image showing the destruction at Daiichi nuclear facility in Fukushima, Japan. White smoke can be seen rising from reactor block 3 (L) and remains of reactor block number 4 (R), following explosions. (Photo: Tokyo Electric Power Co. / Landov),TEPC

The U.S. government said Thursday that their data collectors have not seen any significant progress on the cooling of the Japanese nuclear reactors. U.S. aircraft usually used to monitor North Korean nuclear weapon activity were dispatched to fly over the reactor, as the U.S. pressured the Japanese to stop relying on numbers from the operator of the plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company. But the right for anyone other than the Japanese measuring the radioactivity has been a bitter battle, as the U.S. government called Wednesday for a 50-mile evacuation around the Fukushima Daiichi plant rather than the 12 miles suggested by Japanese officials. The numbers released Thursday indicated no contamination had spread beyond the 18 mile range established by Japanese authorities.

The Daily Beast’s Lennox Samuels reports from Japan on how Americans there are frustrated by mixed messages from the Japanese government about the radiation risks.

Japanese authorities launched new efforts to cool nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant, using 2 Chinook helicopters to dump a total of 15 tons of water on the complex and even dispatching 11 fire trucks to shoot water from below. The combination of advanced and old-fashioned methods is the latest desperate bid to rein in the growing nuclear crisis that has gripped the county since it was hit by a powerful earthquake on Friday, which in turn led to a massive tsunami that damaged the reactors.

Gripping Photos: Devastation in Japan

The strategy went into effect amid evidence that the United States is increasingly regarding the nuclear situation as more dangerous than the Japanese government does—or has indicated publicly. U.S. Ambassador John V. Roos sent a letter to American citizens recommending that those who live within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant evacuate the area. The letter said the embassy took the action after reviewing “scientific and technical information…collected from assets in country, as well as what the Government of Japan has disseminated in response to the deteriorating situation.” The Japanese have recommended evacuation by residents who live within 30 kilometers of the plant.

“We want to underscore that there are numerous factors in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, including weather, wind direction and speed, and the nature of the reactor problem that affect the risk of radioactive contamination within this 50 mile (80 km) radius or the possibility of lower-level radioactive materials reaching greater distances,” the letter stated.

The State Department also announced it has approved the departure of family members of U.S. government staffers from areas in Japan most affected by the earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis.

Some American citizens have been expressing frustration with what they consider mixed messages from Japanese authorities—or even a low-balling of the risks involved. And a number told The Daily Beast they were inclined to accept the American assessment over the local one.

“I am only buying the U.S side. My bags are packed,” said Mark Ford, a consultant. “If the ambassador orders an evac, then I will move. Otherwise, I will stay because I am involved with some relief efforts.” Ford says he has received a “flood of calls” from people seeking advice on what the situation is, “whether they should stay, or depart. It feels like things are reaching a tipping point where people are bailing out, though that is only my anecdotal experience.“

Kevin Canning, a company executive long resident in Japan, said the U.S. letter came as a relief because he believes it indicates that “information will be more forthcoming.” Canning said he did not realize how potentially threatening the nuclear situation was until he started watching news segments on the France 2 TV network.

“It is ridiculous when you consider that the people closest to the threat haven't been getting hard-line news until now. An evacuation of only 12 miles does in retrospect seem negligent,” he told The Daily Beast. He said his company will close Friday and Tuesday—Monday is a holiday—to “enable us to see how the nuclear situation will play out” and that company officials are encouraging employees with a place to go in Kansai, meaning the Osaka area, do so.

The water-dumping operation, by the military, began Thursday morning. Two helicopters dropped the water while a third flew alongside, monitoring radiation in the atmosphere. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that operates the plant, decided to start the operation at the Unit 3 reactor after seeing steam coming from it. It is not yet clear how successful the operation was. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters nuclear experts were still assessing the results.

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Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the next priority after cooling Unit 3, and Unit 4—where temperatures also have been rising—would be to restore the power supply that was knocked out by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami that hit the northeaster coast and rattled most of the country last Friday. “Once we get the power supply then we will be able to operate the cooling system using seawater,” an agency official said at a press conference. But it remains to be seen how that next step will come off—pumps for bringing in the seawater are damaged and need to be repaired.

As the U.S. Embassy cautioned Americans, other nations also took steps to protect their citizens, a number going further than the U.S. Britain has advised that its citizens evacuate Tokyo, which also was rocked by the quake and where some minor radiation has been registered, The European Union called for radiation tests on Japanese food imported into its member countries.

Meanwhile, the official death toll topped 5,000 for the first time, with the final number still expected to be at least double that.

Lennox Samuels is a Newsweek/Daily Beast editor based in Bangkok. He covered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.