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2011-03-16

“No Happy Ending”: Nuclear Experts Say Japan’s Disaster is Intensifying

Guests

Philip White, international liaison officer at the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo, Japan.

Peter Bradford, former commissioner at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Three Mile Island nuclear power station disaster.

Peter Ford, Beijing bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor, reporting from Sendai, Japan.

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Japan’s nuclear crisis is intensifying. A second reactor unit at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station may have ruptured and appears to be releasing radioactive steam. The plant has been hit by several explosions after a devastating earthquake and tsunami last Friday damaged its cooling functions. It has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo more than 130 miles away. The company operating the reactors withdrew at least 750 workers on Tuesday, leaving a crew of 50 struggling to lower the temperatures. We go to Japan to speak with Philip White of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo and with Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor in Sendai. We also speak with Peter Bradford, a former commissioner at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The best-case scenario at this point is not a good one, not a good one for the public, not a good one for the nuclear industry,” Bradford says. “There is not going to be a happy ending to this story.” [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Japan’s nuclear crisis is intensifying. A second reactor unit at the damaged Fukushima plant may have ruptured and appears to be releasing radioactive steam. According to the New York Times, it is not clear how serious the breach may be, but the vessel that possibly ruptured is the last fully intact line of defense against large-scale releases of radioactive material.

The plant has been hit by several explosions after a devastating earthquake and tsunami last Friday damaged its cooling functions. It has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo more than 130 miles away.

The radiation levels around the plant are so high that Japanese authorities abandoned a plan on Wednesday to dump water from military helicopters in an attempt to cool the reactors. The plan was made after the company operating the reactors withdrew at least 750 workers, leaving a crew of 50 struggling to lower temperatures. And even those workers were briefly moved to a bunker because of a rise in radiation levels.

Meanwhile, Japanese Emperor Akihito made an extremely rare appearance on live TV to say he is deeply worried about the situation and is praying for the people.

The nuclear crisis has sparked international alarm. France is urging its citizens in Tokyo to move further south or to leave the country. Australia is also advising its citizens to consider leaving the capital, and Turkey has warned against travel to Japan.

We go now to Japan, where we are joined by Philip White of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo. We’re also joined in Washington, D.C., by Peter Bradford, a former commissioner at the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go first to Philip White in Tokyo. Can you tell us what’s the latest, from what you can tell?

PHILIP WHITE: You seem to have covered it fairly well, but certainly, at least three plants have had a significant amount of melting fuel. And certainly one has breached — the containment has been breached. And the question is whether that has also happened in reactor three. And the fourth reactor, which was actually — had actually gone into a — what do you call it? — a periodic inspection at the time the earthquake struck, so it was supposed to be stable, that — because of loss of off-site power, loss of power supply, and inability to cool the spent fuel pool, that spent fuel pool has now gone up into flames and smoke has come out and breached the roof, and a large amount of radioactivity has spewed into the sky. So, that’s a general summary of — as far as the reactors are concerned.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this issue of the breach in one of the reactors — and there were conflicting reports last night here in terms of whether all the workers had been pulled out. They had been pulled back to a bunker. The importance of keeping workers there at the site to keep those — all of the reactors there, the six reactors, under control?

PHILIP WHITE: Well, that’s right. I mean, if they’re not being cooled — and you need water to cool them, and there’s not power — normal power supply to provide that water, then somehow or other you’ve got to have some people in there ensuring that the water supply is provided in some way or another, and were supplying it from the sea. I guess they were pumping it up in some way. And that required human beings to be involved. And if those people are pulled out, then I guess it just goes into natural — whatever escalation or whatever there is. And it’s hard to imagine how it will stop, because there are spent fuel pools in all six of the reactors.

And certainly, the first three reactors, which were operating when the earthquake struck, have very hot fuel loads inside of them. So it’s a massive amount of radioactivity. If you just consider the quantity of radioactivity that’s in all those reactors, it far exceeds what was in Chernobyl, because that was just a single reactor. The question is, how far does it get spewed out into the environment? But even if it doesn’t get spewed out, it’s sort of still sitting there, dribbling away or whatever, and it’s leaving a totally contaminated site.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined also by Peter Bradford, who was a commissioner on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Welcome to Democracy Now!

PETER BRADFORD: Thank you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mr. Bradford, can you tell us, in terms of being able to, in real time, as folks who are dealing with this crisis, have an accurate handle of what is actually happening in those reactors — in your own experience during the time of Three Mile Island, can you talk about the difficulty officials have in knowing exactly what is going on?

PETER BRADFORD: It’s extremely difficult. And, in fact, it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on. The barriers to accurate information flow are very large, to start with, especially given the chaos resulting from the tsunami and the earthquake. On top of that, a lot of the monitoring equipment, the transmitting equipment, has probably been damaged. The people who are at the site, trying to deal with things that they’ve never seen and never been trained to deal with, have very little time to spend communicating and discussing with the outside world. And so, whenever one hears assertions made with a high degree of confidence, it’s important to remember that the unknowable just can’t be stated with certainty. The figures regarding radiation emissions are subject to all the inaccuracies of monitoring, plus the predilection of the government not to want to create panic. The situation in the reactor itself is infinitely complicated by the fact that this is not a situation that has been trained for and analyzed. So, there are no manuals that people not on the site can consult in order to figure out what’s going on and what will happen next.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined by Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor, Beijing bureau chief, who’s been reporting on the ground from Sendai, the city closest to the epicenter of last Friday’s earthquake. Peter, what is your sense of — and especially in the northern part of the country, which is still in the midst of trying to deal with the devastating earthquake and tsunami, what is — what are people feeling as they’re hearing these reports of what is going on in the nuclear reactors?

PETER FORD: Well, it’s just one more thing to worry about. But it’s not, at the moment, the most immediate concern for the people who are in shelters or trying to find shelters or looking for food or gas or water, all of which are in very, very short supply up here. The situation complicated and made even more miserable by the fact that today it started snowing, and temperatures are close to zero. But, of course, in the back of everybody’s minds, and on the front of — and on their television screens are all the images of what’s happening in the reactor and all the uncertainties that Mr. Bradford talked about. And as you said, this is really unknowable. Nobody really knows what to think up here.

At least for the time being, the wind is blowing southeast, away from here, so there is no immediate danger of any radiation that might leak contaminating people up here. But, of course, winds can change, and the radiation levels, which, as the government says at the moment, are not an immediate hazard to human health outside the 20-kilometer exclusion zone, those radiation levels could rise if things go wrong. And it certainly seems, from what we’ve seen today — the failed effort, for example, to send a helicopter in to drop water onto one of the reactors to cool it, because the radiation levels directly above the reactor are too high — it certainly seems that, from what we’ve seen today, the situation is far from being under control.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the government being able to continue the rescue of those directly affected, whose homes were destroyed, and, as you say, supplying these basic necessities — we’ve heard of 100,000 of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces being mobilized — how efficient has that effort been, from what you can tell?

PETER FORD: Well, it’s certainly not been efficient enough, almost by the government’s own admission. They asked today that private businesses start helping to distribute food, as well, to people. But most people are in shelters. There are, I think, still a hundred, perhaps more than that, people who are still cut off in the most remote villages in the areas that were affected by the tsunami, but there are 400,000 — more than 400,000 — people in shelters now, between those who were evacuated from villages that have been destroyed, towns that have been destroyed, and those who have been moved out of the exclusion zone around the Fukushima power plant. Now, that’s an awful lot of people to look after. Not all of them are being fed and watered and sheltered and kept as warm as they might like, but most of them are at least tolerably comfortable. But this is an enormous task. And the government is going to need help from private forces, as well, to try and meet it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Philip White — you’re familiar with the record of Tokyo Electric, the main operator of these plants, and there have been reports in recent days of an increasing rift or conflict between the government and the officials of Tokyo Electric. At one point, the Prime Minister was overheard saying, "What the hell is going on? Why haven’t you given us certain information?" Your sense of the history of Tokyo Electric in handling problems at its plants?

PHILIP WHITE: [inaudible] is basically wired to conceal things. It doesn’t want to give information. We, as an organization that deals with TEPCO directly in negotiations, particularly since the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa — the earthquake that hit that plant three years ago, and you have to extract information as you extract hen’s teeth. They had a massive scandal about 10 years — nearly 10 years ago, in which they concealed cracking within a certain piece of equipment, some equipment in their reactors, and that led to them having been forced to shut down all 17 of their reactors. Since then, they have been under tremendous pressure to improve their performance. And to some extent, they have. But it’s really a fight all the way to get them to change their natural nature, as it were.

In this case, as I — I mean, I’ve been doing lots of interviews and things, so I actually missed many of the press conferences that go on, but the ones that I’ve heard, I mean, what I would notice, firstly, they give very technical reports that no layperson could possibly understand. Then you get an interpreter from the television station telling you what that all meant. And that information, itself, has probably been accurate, but — I assume; we might find that otherwise later — but it has the problem that they haven’t given real-time data on things. And our scientists and engineers have been calling for real-time, much more detailed information, not only on things like the radiation levels, but also on the temperatures of the reactor and the pressure levels and all that sort of technical detail, to help them analyze the situation.

And as for the — both TEPCO and the government, I suppose, are involved in this — but presentation of the risks associated with this radiation, there’s been downplaying of the risks. Now, Mr. Bradford talked about avoiding panic, and that’s a real issue, and I don’t think you should present information in a way that’s going to cause panic, because that will make it much harder to handle the situation. But I think that they have not been frank about the risks with the radiation.

In particular, they have repeatedly said that below — this is a technical figure, but below a dose of 100 millisievert, there is no risk. Sometimes they qualify it by saying there’s no immediate risk, which is perhaps technically accurate. But they have completely refused to point out that these lower levels of radiation are scientifically recognized — there’s maybe some debate — but basically, the consensus is that there’s — your risk is proportional to your dose. And that goes right down, you know, right down to the lowest doses. So, this notion that you’re somehow or other safe below 100 millisieverts is — it’s not recognized in the scientific community. The difference is that there’s no — you’re not going to get acute radiation sickness; you’re looking more at long-term effects, such as cancer. But they have just refused to give that perspective, which — you know, that’s getting to the point of being outright deceptive, I think.

And today, for the first time, I heard a spokesman of the — and the TV station is involved in this, too. The NHK, the national broadcaster, I heard the person who had been putting forward that view and supporting the view of the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the first time, I heard him actually say that there was this risk from lower doses. But you could see that that was in response to our — organizations like mine — saying, "This is inaccurate. You can’t go out and say this." Yeah, [inaudible].

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Peter Bradford, former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, you said that it’s clearly — there’s not enough accurate information to be able to give a sense of what — how this will develop. But can you talk about a worst-case scenario and a best-case scenario, given what we know now, as to how this might end up?

PETER BRADFORD: I have no idea what the worst-case scenario is. It would involve a breach of one or more of the containments in such a way that the radiation was released in a way that propelled it up and out into the atmosphere. But at that point, the direction of the wind still makes a big difference in terms of the consequences.

The best-case scenario at this point is not a good one, not a good one for the public, not a good one for the nuclear industry. There is not going to be a happy ending to this story.

But let me also say, on this question of TEPCO’s corporate character, you know, we had that problem with the licensee at Three Mile Island also, in terms of whether the information was accurate, whether there had been falsification of some relevant records beforehand. And it will be important, in the context of subsequent investigations. Right now, my sense is that if TEPCO’s people were replaced by a band of angels, they still could not give very accurate information with regard to what’s going on within the damaged reactors, because much of the area is inaccessible, a lot of the equipment is disabled, and there are no manuals that describe this situation. So, the problem of inaccurate information has moved past the point at which TEPCO’s corporate character is the driving factor.

As to off-site measurements, both as to emissions levels and as to health effects, it’s certainly true that the conservative assumption that most regulators, public health officials go by is that the risk is proportional to the dose. Much of the measurement is probably not being done by TEPCO at this point. Certainly at Three Mile Island, the off-site measurements done by helicopters in the air were being done by various government agencies, state and federal. And the disagreements over the amounts released, the dosages received, are going on to this day. So, when you hear a particular number stated with great confidence, you have to put very large uncertainty bands on it in the context of what’s happening in Japan now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Peter Bradford, in terms of the — some of the statements from the nuclear industry that this could not happen here in the United States, obviously as the Obama administration and others in Congress are seeking to ramp up the development of nuclear plants here in the United States, your response?

PETER BRADFORD: Well, the statement, "This could not happen here," has a troubled history in the nuclear industry. The Soviet Union came to Three Mile Island and said that accident can’t happen in the Soviet Union. And of course they got Chernobyl. The Japanese, among others, went to Chernobyl and said, "Oh, we don’t have that kind of reactor in Japan," so now they have this. I mean, of course it’s true that particular nuclear accidents are somewhere between unlikely and simply will not repeat themselves from one decade to the next, but the underlying problem of regulators and plant builders, plant operators, deeming certain events to be impossible and therefore not something that has to be designed against and guarded against, it does seem to have a way of recurring at long intervals and rarely, thank heavens. But if you see the sentence "This cannot happen here" in that context, you ought not to believe it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank all of our guests: Peter Bradford, formerly of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Peter Ford, a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor, who is in Sendai; and Philip White of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo.

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