Leadership in the Extreme

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Doctoral grad Chuck Casto plays pivotal role after Japan nuclear disaster A tsunami, triggered by a…

Georgia (Aug 22, 2014)

Doctoral grad Chuck Casto plays pivotal role after Japan nuclear disaster

A tsunami, triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the coast of northeastern Japan, caused horrific flooding of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011. Three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors would experience meltdowns in its aftermath.

As those catastrophic events unfolded on television in the days that followed, Chuck Casto, a recent grad of the doctor of business administration program at Kennesaw State, watched. And then came the phone call that changed his life.

Casto was a regional administrator for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency that ensures the safe use of radioactive materials and regulates commercial nuclear power plants. President Barack Obama asked the NRC for someone to lead the relief efforts in Japan, and Casto was chosen.

Within three hours of that call, he was on a plane headed to Japan’s nuclear site. Casto’s extensive knowledge of nuclear safety and regulatory issues and crisis leadership made him a natural choice.

With his radiation monitor pinned to his lapel and an NRC logo on his shirt, he was quickly whisked to first class and questioned by fearful flight attendants. He reassured them that the pilots – and the airline company – would not fly into a plume of radiation.

“While the U.S. government has often helped third-world countries, like Haiti, during crisis, it was the first time that the U.S. government offered to help as extensively as they did for a first-world country,” Casto said.

Casto soon joined Operation Tomodachi (a Japanese word meaning “friend”), a U.S. military operation to support Japanese forces in disaster relief operations in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“As soon as I arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Japan that day, all hell broke loose,” said Casto. With 150 personnel in the U.S. Embassy there, resources were plenty, but the work to be done was far more intense than he expected.

“When I got to my hotel that night to get some sleep, I thought ‘that was the craziest day of my life,’” he said. “Until the next day.”

The level of importance as each day passed seemed to intensify. There were talks of evacuating Tokyo and fear from the news networks, he explained.

Operation Tomodachi was to provide technical assistance to the Japanese and protect the 200,000 American citizens in Japan.

Casto faced his greatest challenge – being on a world stage, helping the U.S. ambassador to Japan, 20 NRC staff and 150 U.S. government employees navigate one of the largest nuclear disasters in history.

“This was the pinnacle of my career,” Casto said. “I didn’t want to say something to offend a first-world alliance in a crisis.”

He learned how to be a diplomat on the fly, but in his mind, he was just a country boy from West Virginia.

DERAILMENT TO DIPLOMAT

Casto’s began his career in the U.S. Nuclear Air Force, then served on the Tennessee Valley Authority before joining the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1985.

“When I took a job on Capitol Hill, a colleague told me that I was derailing my career,” he said. “But having that government and legislative experience as part of my NRC work paid off.”

During Operation Tomodachi, the Japanese Prime Minister’s cabinet would meet every night with U.S. officials, including Casto, and discuss the latest developments. Casto was there to give advice. Without that governmental experience on Capitol Hill, he believes he wouldn’t have succeeded in his work with Japanese officials.

“They would talk about issues, threats, challenges and solutions,” said Casto. “Dealing with the challenges and finding solutions is what made me a true diplomat. I had to learn very quickly how to do that.”

Not knowing the Japanese language, Casto found his interpreter to be his most valuable resource. He would meet her in advance so he could explain his objectives. He wanted her to interpret his message rather than just translate the words he would say.

Thrust into the limelight quickly and unexpectedly, Casto listened to the Japanese officials and suggested automating the water intake for 10 days – that way no person would need to be inside the plant when the radiation levels were already so high. To avoid meltdown, they needed to flood the core of the reactor with water to cool it.

CRISES LEADERSHIP AND THE CLASSROOM

Casto had packed one bag for what he thought would be a few weeks in Japan. The unfolding crises kept him there for the next 11 months.

Casto, who lives in Kennesaw with his wife, Beverley, made monthly round-trip visits to Georgia, spending the entire weekend at Kennesaw State in class to complete his D.B.A. with his cohort.

“We emphasize in the program that students could not miss class,” said Joseph Hair, founder of the D.B.A. program and professor of marketing and professional sales, who recruited Casto to the program. “Because we only meet once a month for a weekend, so much is covered and it would be too difficult to catch up.”

Although Hair said Casto’s circumstances were unusual, he calls Casto an exceptional student.

“Chuck represents our perfect candidate,” said Hair. “Truthfully, we have a lot of great people, but we continue to recruit individuals who have had successful careers. These are folks who have spent 25 years in their careers and are in positions to now share their knowledge with students.”

Students enrolled in the D.B.A. program often seek a terminal degree so they can teach at the college and university level, which Casto hopes to do one day as well as turn his dissertation into a book.

“Crisis leadership typically involves routine events, like house fires,” Casto said. “There is very little literature on extreme crises because there are so few, like Hurricane Sandy or Fukushima.”

A RETURN TO THE HOMELAND

When Casto returned from Japan, he was honored by President Obama with the 2012 Presidential Distinguished Rank Award, the highest honor given for government executives for his distinguished service in Operation Tomodachi. Casto received the Presidential Meritorious Rank Award in 2009.

These top presidential awards further cement Casto’s commitment to service. At Kennesaw State, he serves on the advisory board for the Bagwell College of Education, and he has volunteered his time to the Cobb County School District to help place Smart Board technology in every classroom.

After completing 38 years of federal service, Casto retired from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in August 2013 and now works as a consultant, working with companies on improving organizational effectiveness.

 

-- Tiffany Capuano


 

A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its approximately 41,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status, and one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu

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