Sep 24, 2019

Ep 193: Chuck Casto - Author, Station Blackout

Station Blackout
Play audio

Show notes

A halt to retirement (0:08)
0:08-5:27 (Chuck describes how Fukushima changed his career.)

Q. How did Fukushima change your career?
A. Chuck Castro was close to retirement and had just moved back to Atlanta, Georgia when he was called to go to Japan after the Fukushima accident. Chuck now spends much of his time teaching about the lessons learned from Fukushima. Chuck’s book, Station Blackout, is an important archive of the event, making sure that the younger generation can learn about the accident. Chuck’s primary motivation to write the book was to tell the operators’ story who are unable to tell it themselves as they are considered villains. Further, Chuck wanted to share how America helped behind the scenes.

Writing Station Blackout (5:28)
5:28-10:47 (Chuck explains how he wrote Station Blackout.)

Q. How soon after Fukushima did you write the book?
A. In 2012, Chuck began interviewing Fukushima operators and began writing the book the year after. It took Chuck years to digest the stories and thoroughly check all the facts. He also worked hard to strike a balance between the technical and emotional details, making sure to keep the story accessible to a wider audience.

Prediction errors (10:46)
10:46-16:36 (Chuck explains why accident predictions were wrong. He also describes why the NRC’s evacuation zone was larger than Japan’s.)

Q. How was the tsunami prediction so off?
A. The predicted height of the tsunami was 10 feet high. The actual wave height greatly surpassed this and was 50 to 60 feet high. The earth broke in three places creating an additive effect for the wave, which may have contributed to the prediction error.

Chuck has recently visited Fukushima. He notes that during this visit, he was stuck in a traffic jam on a highway that had been previously closed. He was happy to be stuck as it represented the return of life. Much of the evacuated area has since been remediated.

At the time, there was not enough information about the accident, leading to the NRC’s evacuation zone to be five times larger than Japan’s zone. In the US, the NRC’s resident inspector program is an independent inspector that shares the facts of an accident. Japan does not have this type of program, creating confusion and a loss of confidence in leadership during the accident. There were also many models that provided vastly differing results for what the evacuation zone should be. The US used the larger evacuation zone as a buffer to protect against the unknown information. It also served as a way to tell US citizens not to enter the area to avoid disrupting the Japanese evacuation efforts.

Listen, Learn, Help and Lead (16:37)
16:37-23:41 (Chuck discusses the US’s involvement with Fukushima and how a change in strategy resulted in more successful advisement.)

Q. It seemed like the US just helped the Japanese develop their own solution to the accident. Why do you think this was?
A. At first, the Americans independently analyzed data and came up with a plan. Instructing the Japanese did not work, however, and so the strategy changed to one that aimed to see the problem from the Japanese point of view. Chuck calls this Listen, Learn, Help and Lead. For instance, the US thought it was best to flood the reactor containment building. But after Chuck listened to why this was not possible, they realized that the Japanese were right to not flood the building because the many breaks in the building could potentially cause an overflow into the ocean.

Chuck saw a huge difference once the Listen, Learn, Help and Lead model was adopted. This gave the Japanese confidence, enabling Chuck to gradually ask questions and he eventually developed a repore with the Japanese team. This created a stronger relationship, leading to an acceptance of American advisement. Expressing remorse was also of huge importance to successful advisement. It was important to remember that the Japanese workers were also victims. The operators that stayed at the facility were also unaware of the state of their families outside of the plant. Even Chuck finds it emotional to drive through the evacuation zone, seeing life interrupted such as children’s toys left in yards and the devastation from the plume.

Learning from Fukushima (23:42)
23:42-26:42 (Chuck discusses the measures the US has taken to avoid another Fukushima-like accident.)

Q. How do we prevent this type of event from happening again?
A. We have learned from Fukushima and all other nuclear accidents to implement effective corrective actions. For instance, Flex equipment, which are quickly accessible equipment brought in during an accident, is a good solution that avoided making thousands of small changes to nuclear facilities around the country. The US has also put in place measures to protect against external hazards, including in earthquake zones.

Japan’s nuclear industry and response (26:43)
26:43-36:47 (Chuck explains why Japan adopted nuclear and describes their past and current regulator. He also speaks about Japan’s response to Fukushima.)

Q. Why did Japan pursue nuclear?
A. Japan is an island with few natural resources to produce electricity. Japan needed a high amount of power to rebuild after WWII and to support the population growth. Nuclear presented the most efficient and environmentally friendly option.

Compared to the US’s nuclear industry, Chuck believes Japan’s regulator was not strong or effective at the time of Fukushima. Nuclear promotion and regulation were grouped together. They have since been separated and Japan has given the regulators more power and full responsibility over safety and oversight. Chuck believes this must be balanced, however, giving utilities the responsibility for safety and regulators the responsibility of oversight. While Fukushima made people lose trust in Japan’s nuclear industry, trust in nuclear utilities must be rebuilt.

Chuck believes the issues in the response to Fukushima were more than communications based, but included confidence and effectiveness. The Japanese government lacked knowledge and a national response plan, giving them little structure to respond. Chuck points out, however, that Japan faced the earthquake and tsunami in addition to the Fukushima nuclear accident, creating a desperate and serious situation that caused the loss of over 16,000 lives. Naoto Kan, the prime minister at the time, needed to focus on Tokyo and the evacuation of people, especially those critically injured in buildings damaged from the earthquake. While sheltering in place around Fukushima would have been satisfactory, at the time Japan was unsure of how large the scale of the problem would become. Most people did not return to the nuclear site, but about 40% have, primarily the older generation. The younger generations have remained in the larger cities of Japan.

Chuck’s nuclear journey (36:48)
36:48-46:00 (Chuck explains the future workforce of nuclear and his own journey through the industry.)

Q. Do we see a lot of younger people studying nuclear and learning to operate nuclear plants?
A. The number of nuclear PhD students in the US is the highest it has ever been. Nuclear is clean and could be the future of the US. Chuck encourages the youth to study nuclear as it is a great opportunity for environmental students to make it safer and greener.

Chuck did not study nuclear in school but first entered the field during the Air Force. Part of his job was to work with nuclear weapons, sparking his interest in the nuclear weapons program. After the Air Force, Chuck was attracted to the nuclear energy industry and got a job in construction, later becoming an equipment operator and joining the control room. He was also an instructor before becoming involved in regulation. Chuck enjoys that he jumped into the field and gained hands-on experience. Fukushima later became a pinnacle part of Chuck’s career, stopping his retirement from the industry. He is now interested in academia and helping others grow their careers. Fukushima taught Chuck a great deal about crisis leadership, something he believes he could teach in an executive MBA program.

Post-Fukushima (46:01)
46:01-48:48 (Chuck further expands on how the US’s nuclear industry has changed after Fukushima.)

Q.Have there been any changes in how we regulate and operate post-Fukushima?
A. Chuck believes Flex equipment is a good solution. Everyone must also keep reflecting and remembering Fukushima so an accident does not occur again. The industry has included many lessons learned from Fukushima into training materials, procedures and safety culture. Fukushima proves that the US has an effective emergency plan. We also have many counter measures and well trained people in place to ensure accidents do not occur.

Sign up for our newsletter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.