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“Serious Danger of a Full Core Meltdown”: Update on Japan’s Nuclear Catastrophe

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Fears of a full-scale nuclear reactor meltdown are increasing as Japanese authorities use military helicopters to dump water on the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The water appears to have missed its target and failed to cool the plant’s reactors and spent fuel rods. “The walls of defense are falling, with the melting of the cores, the collapsing of the—we’re expecting the collapsing of the vessels. And then, with these damaged containments, these are all open windows to the atmosphere,” says Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear. Some experts say U.S. reactors are safer than those in Japan. But investigative journalist, Karl Grossman, notes a 1985 report by the National Regulatory Commission acknowledged a 50 percent chance of a severe core accident among the more than 100 nuclear power plants in the United States over a 20-year period. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Japanese authorities have begun using military helicopters and water cannon to dump water on the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in an attempt to help cool the plant’s reactors and spent fuel rods. But fears of a full-scale nuclear meltdown are increasing as the initial attempts appear to have failed. Water dropped from the helicopters blew off course, and the water from the cannon has failed to reach its target.

There appears to be growing division between Japan and the United States on the severity of the nuclear crisis. On Wednesday, the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, warned that water in the spent fuel pool at one of the plant’s six nuclear reactors had boiled away entirely, leaving extremely high radiation levels. Japan disputed his account.

Meanwhile, the United States has urged all Americans living within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate. So far Japan has only issued evacuation orders for residents living within 12 miles of the plant. On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner explained the U.S. response.

MARK TONER: We’ve been continuing to assess the situation, obviously. And consistent, obviously, with the guidelines of the National — or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, we’re now telling American citizens who live within 50 miles or 80 kilometers of the Fukushima nuclear power plant to evacuate the area and to take shelters indoors if safe evacuation is not practical. Again, this is — this is based on our most current assessment. We’ve got nuclear experts on the ground. And it’s — frankly, it’s what we would advise — it’s based on what we would advise U.S. citizens here to do in a similar situation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Japan is facing an unprecedented triple crisis caused by the earthquake, tsunami and the partial nuclear meltdown. The official death toll has now risen to above 5,000, while 9,400 people remain missing. Fears of radioactivity have severely hampered relief efforts in parts of northern Japan, which was hit with a snow storm on Wednesday.

Some 850,000 households are without power, and 1.5 million homes with no running water. Food and gas supplies have been nearly exhausted in the ravaged northern part of the country. A 21-year-old Japanese mother named Ayumi Yamazaki says she has had trouble finding enough food to feed her child.

AYUMI YAMAZAKI: [translated] We get one bowl of soup or one piece of bread to share among three people, and get a few snacks. We rarely get white rice. So I’m a little concerned about my daughter not getting enough nutrition. But it’s better than not eating at all.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We will go to Japan soon for a report on the recovery efforts, but first we discuss the latest news from the crippled Japanese nuclear plant.

Joining me here in New York is Karl Grossman. He’s an investigative journalist and professor of journalism at SUNY College at Old Westbury. He’s author of several books on the nuclear industry.

And with us in Washington, D.C., is Paul Gunter. He’s a reactor oversight project director at the nuclear watchdog group Beyond Nuclear. He’s also a co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance, an anti-nuclear group.

Paul, I want to begin with you. The latest reports that we got overnight and early this morning about the situation in the reactors of Fukushima, could you give us your sense of what’s happening there?

PAUL GUNTER: Well, obviously, right now, there is a lot of contradictory information. I think that what’s most important to understand is that among these six units at Fukushima Daiichi, Units 4, 5 and 6, the fuel in the reactor core was taken out of the reactor vessel, taken out of containment, and placed in these rooftop spent fuel pools. So all of the radioactive inventory was moved. We’re very concerned about this very large volume of radioactive material that is now in a conflict of information in its state of, you know, no water or water. But clearly, right now, there is a serious danger of a full core meltdown outside of containment at Unit 4. This could occur at Unit 5 and 6, and we still have the crippled reactors at 1, 2 and 3.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the crippled reactor 3, which has also been releasing, pretty regularly now, radioactive steam, there are reports that there has been a breach in the containment vessel there. And that, of course, is the only reactor that had the more toxic mixed oxide fuel that was brought into it in the last couple of years as fuel. Your sense of reactor 3?

PAUL GUNTER: Well, Unit 3 is burning what they call plutonium oxide. They like to call it MOX as an acronym rather than POX, but in fact it’s plutonium oxide. This fuel has a lower melting point, for one, and it’s just loaded with plutonium, which is highly toxic at micro levels.

The containment, which is a Mark I General Electric boiling water reactor — we have 23 of these reactors in the United States, dead ringers for Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 through 6 — it’s right now in this state of — it’s ruptured. Unit 2 has also compromised its containment. These have all been documented. So, you know, the walls of defense are falling, with the melting of the cores, the collapsing of the — we’re expecting the collapsing of the vessels. And then, with these damaged containments, these are all open windows to the atmosphere.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Karl Grossman, you have been following now for decades the claims of the industry, the politicians, about nuclear energy, both in the United States and around the world. Your assessment of what has happened here and what it will mean in terms of nuclear power in the future?

KARL GROSSMAN: What has happened here is an enormous nuclear power tragedy, and we’re on the cusp, I fear, of an even more horrific tragedy, with a loss of cool down accident — and we have multiple loss of cool down accidents underway — and, importantly, breach of containment. And as Paul said, that’s quite possible now. Just the most enormous disaster, except for a loss of water accident in a spent fuel pool, where you have tons upon tons of nuclear poisons — no containment, except for some corrugated steel ceiling. That stuff gets out in a loss of water accident, and it would get out explosively, because of the fuel rods being made of zirconium. And I could explain that. It will just burst into the environment, become airborne, affect not only Japan but much of the world.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Karl, in the reporting that you’ve done in the past on the battles over the siting of nuclear plants in the United States, because, obviously, all of the reports are saying, “Well, that’s all happening in Japan; here in the United States, we’re in a much better situation with our plants.” But one of the things that you uncovered was an assessment that the government did back in the 1980s of the potential — the potential deaths and injuries that might occur from a reactor accident and a breach of containment in the United States. Could you talk about that memo?

KARL GROSSMAN: Yeah. They have known the consequences all along. This is a report — it’s called “Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences 2” — done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not Greenpeace, and it projects peak early fatalities, peak injuries, peak cancer deaths, scale cost in billions in terms of property damage, and a large hunk of the earth being rendered uninhabitable for millennia. And just, for example, for the Indian Point 3 nuclear plant, which is about 35 miles from where we sit now in New York, 50,000 peak early fatalities; 167,000 peak early injuries; cancer deaths, 14,000; scale cost of billions, they say $314 billion — in 1980s dollars, we’re talking about a trillion.

As to the likelihood of a severe core melt accident, in 1985 the NRC acknowledged that, over a 20-year period, the likelihood of a severe core melt accident to be basically 50/50 among the 100 nuclear power plants — there’s 104 now — in the United States. They’ve known all along here in this country that disaster could come, and there’s a good likelihood of it coming, and they’ve known the consequences.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You’re saying that the NRC itself estimated a 50/50 chance of a meltdown in our plants here within 20 years?

KARL GROSSMAN: Over a 20-year period. That was formal testimony provided to a watchdog committee in Congress chaired by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, when he asked the question, “What does the NRC and its staff believe the likelihood to be of a severe core meltdown?” So, you know, when you hear these lines about, “Oh, the chances of a severe core meltdown, infinitesimal,” and if there is, like you’re hearing these reports out of Japan, an accident, “Oh, just some minor effects among the population” — not at all.

You go to the documents. And many of them were, well, secret for years. In my book — I did a book in 1980, Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know about Nuclear Power — there’s a line in a Atomic Energy Commission report, ”WASH-740-Update”: “The possible size of the area of such a disaster” — this is a meltdown with loss of containment — “might be equal to that of the State of Pennsylvania” — in other words, covering the whole state of what would be the state of Pennsylvania, which almost occurred with the Three Mile Island accident. We’re talking about huge disasters here. And with a loss of water accident in a spent fuel pool, because you’ve got much more nuclear garbage — and again, no containment — it would be even worse.

And just let me mention one other thing. Everybody should, when you hear about these hydrogen explosions, understand that the fuel rods are composed of a substance called zircaloy. It’s based on something called zirconium. And way back in the late '40s and ’50s, they were looking for something to build these — not control rods — fuel rods with, and they decided to use zirconium, because it allowed the neutrons to move from fuel rod to fuel rod and keep the chain reaction going. Problem was zirconium, the other major industrial use is the speck on a flashbulb. Zirconium is explosive; at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, it explodes. Before that, it emits hydrogen gases, which have exploded in several of these plants. There's, in a nuclear plant itself — this is in my book — 20 tons of zirconium. At spent fuel pool, you’re talking about, because there’s all these old fuel rods, hundreds of tons. That stuff, again, as things get hot, explodes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I also wanted to talk about the history of the type of nuclear reactors. There have been warnings about the design going back for decades. The organization Nuclear Information and Resource Service recently released and posted online three memos [11/11/71, 9/20/72, 9/25/72] from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission on the GE Mark I reactor design. The memos show that the Commission knew of serious problems with the design of these reactors as early as the 1970s. Diane D’Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service spoke with us last evening.

DIANE D’ARRIGO: Back in 1971, Stephen Hanauer of the Atomic Energy Commission did a memo to the Atomic Energy Commission outlining serious problems with the design of the kind of reactors that are operating, and are failing and melting, in Japan right now. In September of 1971, he did a memo that recommended that the United States stop licensing reactors using this pressure suppression system. But his recommendation was rejected by the upper-level Atomic Energy Commission safety officials. The top safety official, Joseph Hendrie, he agreed with the recommendation, but he rejected it, saying that it could well mean the end of nuclear power. Now, the problems that were raised in those earlier memos are what led to the disaster here in Japan. And I wanted to point out that the United States has, since those memos were written and then ignored or rejected, licensed and has operating 23 of this type of nuclear reactor.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I also wanted to — that was Diane D’Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, who spoke with us last night. Paul Gunter, I’d like to ask you about the — the news has been worse each day in the efforts to try to get control of these crippled reactors. But if the government is able now to finally bring electricity back, as they’ve been saying they’ve been trying to string a new line, and to begin bringing water back into these reactors and into the spent fuel pools, do you envision any problems if they’re able — continuing problems, if they’re able to get the water back on?

PAUL GUNTER: Well, let’s first of all realize that what’s been demonstrated at this catastrophe is that nuclear power is going to be more of a liability than it is an asset during natural disaster or national crisis. We sincerely hope that the Tokyo Electric Power Company can restore power. But these six units are history. The best we can do right now is see them buried under concrete, and hopefully that can contain it. That’s the best scenario right now.

But clearly, if you want to actually have civil defense, the real issue here is to prevent this from happening. And we believe that means to be — mean you promptly shut down these most dangerous reactor designs all over the world, and then we begin the rapid phase-out of this inherently dangerous technology and phase in a 21st century energy policy of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Paul Gunter of the nuclear watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, I want to thank you for being with us. Karl Grossman, a professor at SUNY-Old Westbury, thank you, and a continuing investigative journalist on the issue of nuclear power. I want to thank both of you for being with us. We’ll be back in a moment with reports on what is going on in Japan right now.

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