Special Press Briefing: Under Secretary Pat Kennedy and Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman on the Situation in Japan

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–March 16, 2011.  Via teleconference.  

MR. HAMMER: Thank you very much, everybody, for joining us this evening. You will have Under Secretary for Management at the State Department Pat Kennedy and Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman briefing you in a few moments. They will – Mr. Kennedy will do an opening statement, and then we’ll have time for a few questions.

With that, let me just turn it over to Pat.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Good evening. As a result of the tragic earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11th, the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were badly damaged and have experienced a series of failures that pose a serious hazard in the vicinity of the plant and a potential health hazard to a broader region.

The United States continues to support the strenuous and heroic effort by Japanese responders to address this nuclear emergency and is making available all relevant expertise, assets, equipment, and technology at our disposal. Our commitment to our Japanese ally is unshakable, and as President Obama said, we stand by the Japanese people in this time of trial.

Despite the best efforts of responders, the situation remains very serious. Given the situation, we recommended the evacuation of American citizens to at least 50 miles, in keeping with the guidelines applied in the United States. Since the continued or increased release of windborne radioactive material cannot be ruled out, American citizens in Japan are advised to take prudent precautions against potentially dangerous exposure. As a general matter, residents in areas further from Fukushima Prefecture face less risk of significant exposure, but changing weather conditions and wind direction means that radiation levels in the future might become elevated.

The Department of State urges American residents in Japan to take prudent precautions against the risk of sustained exposure, including relocating for potentially affected areas in northeastern Japan. The Department of State has authorized the voluntary departure, including relocation to safe areas within Japan, for family members and dependents of U.S. Government officials who wish to leave northeast Japan. The U.S. Government is also working to facilitate the departure of private American citizens from the affected areas – that is a 50-mile radius of the reactor – and a Travel Warning containing detailed information has been issued at

All Embassy, consulate, and other U.S. Government operations continue and are unaffected by this action. The Department of Defense has confirmed that U.S. military services and operations also continue without interruption. U.S. disaster relief and humanitarian assistance teams continue to assist the Japanese authorities throughout the area affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

American citizens are encouraged to carefully monitor the website and the associated guidance that it provides.

Thank you.

MR. HAMMER: And with that, Operator, if we could please turn it over to questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. If you would like to ask a question, you may press *1 on your touchtone phone. Please be sure to un-mute your phone and record your name slowly and clearly so I may announce you for your question. Again, at this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1.

Okay, our first question comes from Lalit Jha. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank your for taking this call. Can you give us a sense of how serious the situation is of these three plants there, and are you talking with any other country or IAEA or European countries in this regard taking any collective action to prevent any further damage to – damages to it? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECREARY PONEMAN: I can comment on that. This is Poneman. We are watching the situation of the plants continuously. We’re trying to get some ground data on what the actual condition is. As I think you know, Secretary Chu made available the detectors that will pick up possible contamination on the ground. We sent those over. They’re flying around now. And we hope to have data from that.

We’ve heard a lot of conflicting reports. Obviously, there are elevated levels of radiation at the reactors. We are in consultation, comparing notes. IAEA is sending out regular reports. We’re reading them carefully. And many colleagues professionally have been consulting with each other as well.

MR. HAMMER: All right, thank you very much. Operator, if we could go the next question.

OPERATOR: Next goes to Mary Beth Sheridan. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Pat, I just wondered if you could talk a little more about your comment that State has authorized the voluntary departure of family members and dependents of diplomats who wish to leave the northeast. What would that include? Is that Tokyo or – forgive my ignorance, but, like, which diplomats are we talking about there?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: What we’re talking about is the – is what we call voluntary authorized departure for the family members at the American Embassy in Tokyo, the U.S. Consulate in Nagoya, which is west of Tokyo, and the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, which has a Japanese language training school in Yokohama. It is just those three, those three, not Osaka, not Sapporo in the north.

QUESTION: And excuse me, how many people roughly might that involve?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Well, there are up to about 600 or so American family members who are dependents at those three institutions. So we’re on school vacation now, so some people are just on vacation anyway. But let me just emphasize this is voluntary authorized. We have not ordered them to leave. This is – we have made this opportunity available to them should they choose to exercise it.

MR. HAMMER: All right, thank you very much. Operator, if we could go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Next question, Courtney Kube. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, still on the authorized departure, so does that mean that the government will pay for the flights to take these people out? And then will they be flying – I assume they’ll be flying on charters out of Tokyo, and what kind of safe havens will they be going to? Can you talk a little bit more about the logistics of that?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Sure. Yes, I mean, when we do a voluntary authorized departure, the State Department bears the expense of the transportation. There are still commercial seats available out of Tokyo. However, because we do not wish to consume large numbers of seats that others might need, we are making arrangements to bring a couple of chartered aircraft into Tokyo for both the official U.S. Government family members who have chosen to leave and for any American citizens who might need assistance. We have teams of consular officers at both Haneda and Narita airports, and they will be looking and going – literally going through the terminal looking for American citizens who might be at the airport and who have been unable to make a reservation on a commercial flight that is outbound. And so we will – we were going to – we will assist those people, and if they need transport, we will put them on those – any of our chartered aircraft because we make those seats available equally to American citizens and U.S. Government officials. And we’re still making the arrangements for where those aircraft will go, but they will probably be going to other major airports in the region therefore, and people are welcome – the private citizens are welcome to stay there or they may then continue on commercially. And while they’re doing this, the American Embassy, which continues in full operation, will assist other American citizens with their questions.

MR. HAMMER: Thank you very much. Courtney, do you have a follow-up?

QUESTION: Yeah. Can I just – why is it that you are authorizing this departure for Embassy dependents but not warning other American citizens who are in the country who are in that particular part of the country to leave as well?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No, we – as I mentioned in my opening statement, we have issued a Travel Warning. The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the deteriorating situation. The State Department strongly urges U.S. citizens to defer travel and should consider departing. In other words, we have provided this information and we are saying to them this is information you’ve heard Deputy Secretary Poneman. They – but this is their choice. We are making information available to them and it is their choice, just as we’re offering a choice to family members. This is not an ordered departure. We have not ordered individuals to leave and we are not closing down operations. The only order we have been given, so to speak, is we’re saying that it really – if you’re an American citizen and you’re within that 50-mile radius, as the Embassy statement of this morning said, you should, you must, for your own safety, get out of the 50-mile zone.

MR. HAMMER: Thank you very much. Operator, if we could go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Next one,Viola Gienger. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. I wanted to – what – did you have a lot of requests from personnel because they want – some of them wanted family members to leave? What was it specifically that prompted you to do this at this time?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Well, the State Department’s paramount obligation in our operations overseas is the safety and security of all U.S. citizens who live abroad. And we share with the Embassy and the Consulate this responsibility for the security of the official American community and of the private American community as well. And so by making this available, we are offering this opportunity for the family members to leave, and we are also notifying private American citizens, telling them that commercial space is available but also indicating that if they have difficulty leaving, we will attempt to assist them. And this also, while we’re doing this, by saying to the U.S. Government employees if your family members happen to be concerned, this opportunity is available to them so we can get that 25th and 26th work hour out of the employees.

MR. HAMMER: Thank you very much. We have time for two more questions, Operator.

OPERATOR: Next one is Josh Gerstein. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you tell us how do you decide about what decisions to make vis-à-vis the Embassy personnel themselves? You just suggested that they’re all working full-out at this moment. How do you judge what risk is appropriate for dependents and citizens and what is risk is appropriate for the actual U.S. Government officials, Foreign Service officers, and not to mention country nationals whose work – foreign country nationals whose work might put them at risk?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Well, let me ask the Deputy Secretary to start on that question about the element of risk, and then I will close with our operating modus vivendi.

DEPUTY SECRETARY PONEMAN: Thanks, Under Secretary Kennedy. We are constantly monitoring the safety of our operations. And by the way, we do this on all of our energy sources. And it’s a dynamic situation in which we are always seeking to increase margins of safety, how to do safety better. And just as the Under Secretary said, for State Department the safety of American citizens abroad is of paramount importance. We have exactly the same view: The safety of American citizens here at home is of paramount importance to us.

Now, that having been said, when it comes to making judgment calls of when a level of risk is excessive and when these kinds of warnings need to be laid down, of course, we have an independent regulatory authority, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That was split off in 1974 from the Atomic Energy Commission precisely to provide that kind of disinterested objective analysis of safety conditions. And as soon as they determine that a nuclear reactor is not safe to operate, they will immediately shut it down.

So while we are continuing our efforts to excel in improving safety performance because that’s what our objective always is, we know that we have the independent authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ensure that plants are only operating when they’re safe.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Now, in terms of State Department operating procedures, the State Department operates on a principle, I guess you would call, of reasonable risk with mitigation. We look at a situation, we consult with officials such as Deputy Secretary Poneman and his colleagues, Secretary Chu, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We get information from the Japanese officials. And as we would in any country, we make what we would like to think is an informed judgment about risk and necessity to advance U.S. national interest.

And in this case, we have not reached the point where we would say that we would go to the ordered departure of family members or ordered departure of U.S. Government employees. And so it’s a complicated and complex analysis. It’s a very fluid situation, as the Deputy said. But the State Department makes these decisions all the time all around the world, and sometimes decides the situation is good, sometimes decides the situation warrants essentially an escalating series of steps. And this is, in fact, the lowest step on our hierarchy.

MR. HAMMER: Thank you very much. Operator, one last question, please.

OPERATOR: Jennifer Griffin, your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes. How many planes do you expect to send, and are you planning to help the dependents of the Department of Defense or military families who are there? And also, what is the worst-case scenario that you’re looking at in terms of your assessment of potential radiation? I mean, is there too much alarm out there in terms of your assessment right now, Mr. Poneman? Or are you concerned that the Japanese are under-reporting the radiation, and how serious could it be?

MR. PONEMAN: Well, some of your question I think relates to Under Secretary Kennedy in terms of the planes and so forth. On the second part, look, we are dealing with this situation on a day-to-day, indeed a minute-to-minute, indeed around-the-clock basis. We’re monitoring the situation continuously. We have been talking continuously with our Japanese counterparts. They have made a number of – a lot of the information is available on their government websites or on TEPCO websites.

But it’s a very fluid and indeed it’s a very confused situation. There’s lots of conflicting data. There’s nothing we want more than to have accurate data. That’s why, as I said a few minutes ago, we’re flying those pods that we just sent over yesterday around to pick up better data on the ground and any radiation that might be coming from that.

And the other part of your question in terms of what’s going to happen, again, all I can tell you is what we’re doing, which is we’re doing everything in our power to support the Japanese and their efforts to get water to those reactors, to get water to the spent fuel ponds, and get those fuel elements cooled down. The more success we have at that, the lower the long-term effect is going to be.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: On your other two questions, U.S. forces remain in Japan and the U.S. has the full capability to fulfill our alliance commitments. At the same time, the Department of Defense is going to implement the State Department-approved voluntary departure for eligible Department of Defense dependents stationed in Japan. And as with State Department dependents, this measure is obviously temporary and with the dependents going back.

We have a lash-up between the State Department’s Logistics Office and TRANSCOM. We have DOD personnel who are sitting in our operations center. We are in constant contact with them. We work together, and if we need additional airlift resources, we will turn to them. To the extent that we have excess charter capacity that private American citizens are not utilizing, we will offer that space to DOD dependents who wish to leave. This is a total and complete, in effect, integrated operation with the ambassador and the commander of U.S. Forces in Japan all the way down in the same parallel positive lash-up in Washington.

MR. HAMMER: Thank you very much for joining us this evening. Of course, we will always be notifying the American public should there be any further announcements. Again, thank you for joining us, Deputy Secretary Poneman, Under Secretary Kennedy, and have a good evening.