The flight attendant spied the Nuclear Regulatory Commission logo on Chuck Casto's T-shirt and escorted him to first class.
Three days after the Pacific Ocean had risen and shattered the northern Japanese coast March 11, 2011, Casto's plane headed toward the plume of radiation hanging above the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
He had hastily packed literature for the 14-hour flight -- reference materials, severe accident protocols -- but never finished reading. Instead, for eight hours, the terrified flight crew sat and questioned him one at a time about whether they were risking their safety by flying to the disaster zone.
"That's when it first struck me: You ain't in Kansas anymore. This is for real," Casto said. "I knew this was going to be a different world."
Casto, 56, had spent his career in nuclear power plants planning for disaster -- earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks. But the manuals he had spent decades digesting didn't have the answers. What happened at Dai-ichi was supposed to be impossible. Nuclear plants are built to withstand all possible scenarios.
"Fear was rampant, not only in Japan, but throughout the world," he said. "Buildings had exploded. Ridges had collapsed. Roads destroyed. First responders were gone."
With more than 200,000 Americans in Japan and a promise from President Barack Obama to provide aid to the Japanese throughout the crisis, Casto had been appointed by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko to act as the face of the U.S. nuclear industry in Tokyo.
Expecting to be home within days or weeks, Casto said goodbye to his family and boarded the plane with only one suitcase.
But the crisis deepened, and Casto quickly became indispensable. He stayed for 11 months.
This May, he joined the Midwest office of the NRC in Lisle as its new administrator, responsible for regulating 16 commercial nuclear plants in seven states, including Illinois. His job, as he sees it, is to ensure that a meltdown like the one in Japan can't happen here.
"What those people went through was unbelievable," Casto said.
At Dai-ichi, the computers and instruments inside the nuclear reactors had been lost in the tsunami. With no power and no water, the reactors were melting down, and the nuclear operators were flying blind.
"It's like trying to investigate a homicide and not having access to the crime scene," Casto said.
Casto had once operated a three-unit site in Alabama much like the one at Dai-ichi. He had also worked on Capitol Hill. His combination of political experience and technical know-how proved crucial to coordinating efforts in Japan.
"You're going into a sovereign nation," he said. "You had to be very sensitive. It's not our nuclear plant. It's not one of our licensees. So that's a fine line -- to help, but not boss. And Americans, we sometimes try to do that."
Looking at his past, Casto admits, it would be hard to imagine that one day he would play an important role during an international crisis.
As a teenager in West Virginia, his parents worried he would end up in jail. He was a C student, he said, who cared more about alcohol and girls than education. Neither of his parents had gone to school past the eighth grade.
His family lived paycheck to paycheck, often relying on cash and groceries from his father's labor union during prolonged strikes at the plastics factory or oil refinery.
"At 17, for some reason, I decided either I was going to be a troubled adult or I could go into the military," he said. "I had to get my parents' permission, and I went into the Air Force as an enlisted guy. I was always into adventure as a boy. I had grown up watching Vietnam on television."
His adventure began at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, site of the Incident at Wounded Knee, an armed standoff in 1973 that came out of decades of discontent between Native American tribes and the federal government, and still one of the poorest communities in the nation.
Casto volunteered for the bomb squad. Two FBI agents had been slain by a member of the American Indian Movement, and Casto's job was to disarm homemade explosive devices at the reservation.
It was Casto's first real experience with a culture that wasn't his own, in the thick of one of the most tense periods in American race relations.
"Everybody around my culture was white. In the history of my high school there had been one black girl," he said. "Yet I could relate to those people -- they were poor. They were just a different color than me. I had sympathy for their plight."
A crisis, quickly
The wave that took out the Dai-ichi plant was three times higher than the wall the plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., had built to protect it. The earthquake knocked out power to the plant, and the tsunami took out the backup power. With no power and no cooling systems, the nuclear fuel was beginning to melt -- the most terrifying of outcomes.
Heat coming off the fuel rods inside the reactors had created an explosive soup of hydrogen and radioactive steam. If the buildings weren't vented soon, the reactor buildings would explode.
All told, according to the National Police Agency in Japan, more than 15,000 people died in the earthquake and tsunami, and thousands remain missing. The impact of radiation exposure likely won't be known for years. Three Tepco employees at the Dai-ichi and Daini plants were killed by the earthquake and tsunami, but there were no deaths as a result of the nuclear accident.
Casto quickly found himself at the center of a crisis where cultures and ideas often clashed.
"In the United States, the workforce is more like a jazz ensemble where improvisation is encouraged," said David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety program with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group. "In Japan, it is more like an orchestra where there's a conductor and the orchestra follows."
In a decision that proved controversial, Casto recommended that American citizens evacuate within 50 miles of the plant, more than four times the distance the Japanese government had recommended for its citizens.
Environmental and nuclear watchdog groups have seized on the decision as evidence that evacuation zones surrounding U.S. nuclear plants should be larger. And the difference in risk estimates created tension between the two countries.
"It made people in Japan wonder if the Japanese government was protecting them," Lochbaum said.
Lochbaum, in his work for the nuclear watchdog group, is often on the other side of the aisle from Casto. They have known each other for 30 years and worked together at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Athens, Ala. Although they might not always agree, Lochbaum said, Casto can be trusted for his blunt honesty.
"He's not a used-car salesman," he said. "He doesn't want to just ignore the bad. I don't think he regrets the decision or the tension that it created, because it was the right thing to do under the circumstances."
To Casto, that's part of a nuclear "safety culture" that crosses international borders. When Dai-ichi plant manager Masao Yoshida made the call to prevent a meltdown by ordering that saltwater be dumped on the reactors, destroying them but saving workers' lives against the direct orders of plant owner Tepco, Casto called him a hero.
It soon became clear that Casto's one suitcase wasn't going to be enough.
"He had his wife FedEx-ing him clothes," said James Zumwalt, who was deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Tokyo during the crisis. "He was living in a hotel for the longest time. It was quite a sacrifice. He has a life. He had adult children he sees and a wife. And he was cut off for the longest time from them."
Each morning, Casto's wife, Beverley, would chat with him online via Skype. They talked about family and the food in Japan.
"We would talk about the normal, everyday things so that he would have that half-hour, or sometimes only 15 minutes, break away from what he was doing over there," Beverley said.
It was weeks before it was safe enough for Casto and his team to travel to Dai-ichi. Most of the photos they had seen were taken from the sky.
"The first day I was on the site was a misty, rainy day, and that gives sort of an eeriness to it," Casto said. But it wasn't the leaking reactors or the twisted I-beams or even a destroyed office that left the largest impression on him. It was the 12-mile evacuation zone around the plant.
"It leaves an impression on you that forever reframes and affects the way you do your job," he said. "You see the evacuated area -- towns, villages, homes, businesses, completely evacuated; pets running loose without owners. You would peer into a coffee shop and see coffee cups still sitting on a table. People just left."
A knack for nuclear
Casto's introduction to nuclear power began at the Air Force base in South Dakota, where one of his duties was to work on nuclear weapons and ensure they were stored safely.
"I thought: 'This is a good field. A professional field,' " he said.
He started going to night school. It took him 12 years to finish his undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Science in nuclear. He would later earn a master's in public administration and is pursuing a doctorate in business.
In the meantime, he entered a training program at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama and worked his way up to plant operator.
"He was probably one of the smartest men I have ever been around," said Robert "R.G." Jones, who worked with Casto at Browns Ferry. "He would read something and be able to internalize it and understand it. He has a mind and a memory like I've never seen."
He also spent time working as a nuclear contractor. But after more than a decade on the ground, Casto saw problems he could no longer tolerate.
"The safety culture was not very strong at the time," he said. "I didn't want to be there, because their idea of safety and my idea of safety -- well, our values were completely misaligned."
He moved to the NRC and thrived, earning his master's degree and spending about 20 months on Capitol Hill working on nuclear issues. In 1993, he attended the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, handing his VIP tickets to his wife and daughter while he sat in the cheap seats.
"It was neat for me, a guy of such humble beginnings, working on the Hill and standing in front of the president being inaugurated. I thought, 'Wow, how did I get here?' "
Most of his career, though, was spent in Atlanta, where his family lives.
"I had deep ties in Atlanta," Casto said. "I did work for decades, and volunteer work that I couldn't give up at that time. I was a children's shelter volunteer for abused women and their babies. It comes from my dad, who was a fireman and volunteered with the American Legion and the VFW. That's a big part of who I am."
In some ways, Beverley said, her husband of 38 years leads a double life. His life at home doesn't involve work. He was a soccer coach in Atlanta and a volunteer at the shelter and for the school system in Cobb County, Georgia.
When Casto reflects on his biggest accomplishments, he talks about his volunteer work with the Department of Early Care and Learning in Georgia, where he helped devise a new way to inspect day care centers. A dearth of inspectors had left children vulnerable to abuse and neglect, and Casto saw a connection between his work and his personal goal to improve the child care system.
By applying the NRC's model for inspecting nuclear reactors to day care centers, the state was able to deploy resources more efficiently by spending the most time on centers that had fewer internal controls.
"He tends to have more of a big-picture vision of things, even in just raising the kids," Beverley said. "I was a stay-at-home mom, and I'd be so focused on a certain aspect of something, and he would say, 'Just look at the big picture.' "
For two months before his first day as administrator of the NRC's Region III offices, Casto spent nearly every waking hour visiting the 16 nuclear power plants his office oversees in seven Midwestern states, including Illinois.
U.S. nuclear plant operators are busy incorporating recommendations and orders from the NRC's Japan Task Force.
Operators are checking plant designs to see if they can withstand earthquakes, tsunamis and floods. They are adding an additional layer of backup power and have been ordered to review crisis procedures in great detail.
"It is extensive," said Mike Pacilio, president of Exelon Nuclear and chief nuclear officer for the 11 nuclear plants the Chicago-based company operates in Illinois. "It's extensive in terms of man-hours we are spending to ensure that we're challenging our internal designs, and we're trying to prioritize as an industry to make sure we have the biggest impacts in terms of safety that we can early."
NRC inspectors, said Craig Nesbit, spokesman for Exelon, have access to every piece of equipment, document and person at each of the company's plants.
Casto, who has seen up close the reasons for those recommendations, is ultimately responsible for making sure plant operators are implementing those changes and that the plants are safe.
"It's trust, but verify," he said.
Germany shut down its nuclear plants in response to Fukushima. Asked if America should do the same, Casto shook his head.
"I've never had a time when I thought nuclear power's not worth it. I've had many times where I've thought 'This can't happen.' I think safety is achievable. We're doing it every day here," Casto said.
He continues to get calls about issues in Japan, he said, but is pulling away as much as possible.
"I can't sit here and help Japan and Washington and all that," he said. "So I have to try to step away. I've got to focus here. Because I don't want that to happen on my watch."
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Chuck Casto, regional administrator, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Region III
Family: Wife, Beverley, a schoolteacher. Son Matthew, 29, is heading to Chicago to pursue an education at a brewmaster school. Daughter Jessica, 31, is an attorney. All are in Georgia for now. Casto is living in Illinois and looking for a house in Naperville.
On leadership: "You have to lead people from where they are. Not from where you are."
On hobbies: Casto, a former Ironman triathlete, bikes or runs when he needs to think. "Fitness is a great mental activity. It really gives you time when you're alone with your thoughts."
Fond memory from Japan: A trip to a country-western bar where the crowd was playing games, line dancing and singing in English. "Every Japanese person in that bar, when they found out who I was, shook my hands. The ladies gave me a kiss on the cheek. They said, "Thank you, thank you so much for what you're doing for my country." Finally, there were just five men left in this game of rock, paper, scissors, and I was one of them. They took us up to the stage in front of all these people. They were giving away a set of long horns as a prize. I shot paper, thinking with so many women watching, the other men would try to be studs and throw rock. I won."