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 Daiichi nuclear power plant had six reactors, three of which were online when the earthquake and tsunami struck. The other three were not, but their highly toxic fuel rods were stored in spent-fuel pools on site.
The reactors survived the earthquake, but the tidal wave rose to 46 feet and overwhelmed the electrical power running the reactor, the backup generators, and the grid servicing the whole region. Without power to the reactors and the spent-fuel pools, it was impossible to cool either the active or the spent fuel rods. In the absence of alternative cooling capacity, the water in the reactors and pools would inevitably boil off, leaving the rods exposed and triggering a partial or complete meltdown.
At the outset we struggled to obtain information about what was going on at Fukushima. Some believed that the Japanese were not being entirely forthcoming with what they knew, trying to put an excessively optimistic gloss on the situation. The president's science adviser, John Holdren, was less critical. He pointed out that none of the instruments used to monitor developments inside the reactors were