Inside the White House During Fukushima

Managing Multiple Crises

Houses swept away in the wake of the tsunami. The following essay is adapted from the author's book, Obama and China's Rise: An Insider's Account of America's Asia Strategy. (Kyodo / Courtesy Reuters)

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

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