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Japan’s Nuclear Uncertainty: Examining the Scope and Risks

March 15, 2011 at 7:24 PM EDT
As Japan struggles cool down damaged nuclear reactors, a new fire broke out in a shut-down reactor at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Jeffrey Brown assesses Japan's dangerous nuclear situation with former International Atomic Energy Agency official Olli Heinonen and Stephanie Cooke, editor of Nuclear Intelligence Weekly.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to a closer look at the dangerous situation at those nuclear power plants.

Olli Heinonen is a former lead inspector and top official with the International Atomic Energy Agency. He’s visited the facilities in Japan and is now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Stephanie Cooke is editor of “Nuclear Intelligence Weekly,” a trade publication that focuses on nuclear energy. She’s also the author of “In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age.”

Olli Heinonen, I will start with you.

We seem to have had modest progress yesterday, and then today some serious problems. What’s your assessment of where things stand tonight?

OLLI HEINONEN, former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector: I think we are still having serious troubles.

But I think, at the same time, there has been progress in the last two days. But most of the serious problems are still in front of us, like stabilization of the unit number two of the Daiichi nuclear power plant, and then the new worry about the drying up of the spent fuel ponds at — probably at several reactors.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Stephanie Cooke, even as we’re sitting here, we’re handed some — a note about a new fire at that — at one of the — at one of the reactors.

Explain what’s going on inside those reactors? As much as anybody knows, what’s going on with the fires and the explosions?

STEPHANIE COOKE, “Nuclear Intelligence Weekly”: Well, this latest news is — is worrying. It’s a fire in reactor four, which had been shut down when the earthquake hit. So, I’m not clear what caused that fire and what the implications of it are, but it’s — it’s not a good sign.

Earlier, there was a fire at the spent fuel pool at reactor four. Most people don’t realize that the — when a reactor — that sitting next to these reactors are big pools full of water which — into which are placed used fuel from the reactors periodically, say, every 12 to 18 months.

And these pools contain irradiated fuel, with radioactive products on the average, say, five to 10 times what is inside a reactor core. So, if they become uncovered, there’s a risk of a fire from the zirconium cladding on the fuel rods.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this was a new — this wasn’t something that we talked about yesterday. This was…

STEPHANIE COOKE: No, no. We knew this…

JEFFREY BROWN: … a new danger that people suddenly realized.

STEPHANIE COOKE: Right. We knew this danger was on the horizon. And, clearly, the authorities knew it was on the horizon.

I’m a little worried, because we don’t know why — whether this was — I’m not quite clear whether this was because of loss of power, because they need power to run the cooling systems in these spent fuel pools, or whether there was structural integrity from the earthquake damage that caused a rupture in the pool, or a combination of both.

But the water seems to have come out somehow.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Olli Heinonen, explain the radiation danger as it stands right now. It’s not — it’s not a leak in the way we normally think of things. What — what is going on, and who is at risk?

OLLI HEINONEN: I think that it’s — the biggest risk for the moment is certainly for the people who operate there.

And you have seen in the last 24 hours that they took a lot of people away and keep only the minimum people who do the job at the site. And I think this is a very good practice. And then when they need additional people, they can send them in without emitting the — any high radiation doses.

But yes, the nuclear material is there. Radioactivity is there. And we need to get these reactors cooled down, the cores cooled down, so that the worst doesn’t happen. And the biggest risk is at this point of time is this unit two, which has had a long time the fuel exposed to air without any cooling.

I understood from Japanese TV a few hours ago that it was as long as six hours, which means that, as the Japanese operators said yesterday, that the fuel is quite damaged. And if this leads to the meltdown, then the consequences will be serious, because in an extreme case, it leads to what is called a steam explosion, which releases a lot of radioactive gases in atmosphere. And then it moves with the winds away — we don’t know which direction.

But this will be the worst-case scenario. At this point of time, I don’t think we can say that this is going to happen — hopefully not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Stephanie Cooke, in the meantime, first, we had the thousands of people ordered to leave, and then today many more thousands told to stay indoors. Now, does that sound like the right advice? Is that enough? What is the thinking there?

STEPHANIE COOKE: Well, the area of the people told to stay indoors was — I think it was 20 to 30 miles outside the reactor zone.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think it was actually up to 20, up to 20 miles. Twelve to 20? We will get that — we will get…

STEPHANIE COOKE: Well, yes. It was sort of a 10 — it was sort of — I think it’s up to 20 that are evacuated, and maybe 20 — maybe — maybe you’re right.


STEPHANIE COOKE: But anyway, there was an extra sort of 10 miles added on for people to stay indoors.

I would be a little bit frightened if I were those people, because it’s — these houses are not going to — no house is airtight. These particles are invisible. They could — you know, you’re — I think the danger or the fear that these people will always live with if they stay indoors, even if they stay indoors, is have I breathed in some awful particle that is lodging in my cell tissue and going to destroy, damage and — and if you’re a child-bearing age, is it going to destroy my — you know, the genetic structure?

So, there are — but it’s a scary thing for people like that. I wouldn’t want to be told that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what would you add to that, Mr. Heinonen?

And, of course, we’re also hearing people are worried about the — or wary, I guess, of the government’s credibility at this point in terms of how safe things are. So, what do you think?

OLLI HEINONEN: Well, first of all, I think that the government has tremendous troubles here because they have actually several firefights at the same time. All these four or five units have some trouble.

So — and, certainly, all the technical people are now focusing to solve those problems, rather than spend time for communication. So, as a result of that, we have communication gaps. We don’t have the details. So, it’s very difficult to assess from outside.

So, I think this is perhaps the biggest problem at this point of time. But we are not alone. We have to remember that there are also a lot of other rescue teams around already by this point of time. We see what kind of radiation doses they receive and measure.

And also, as you know, the U.S. military is around, Air Force, Navy. So, I think that the numbers which we will see will be fairly reliable.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, just to stay with you, what should happen next, and how hard is this to either bring in water? They were talking about bringing in water with helicopters. What — what do you want to see happen? What should happen next?

OLLI HEINONEN: I think we have here two cases to battle.

The first is to bring this core down. And the helicopters have nothing — nothing to do with. This is when they are pumping seawater and try to increase the water level in this damaged unit number two reactor, so that the heat can be removed.

We don’t know at this point of time how successful they are, because they have not released any number. But at least the — it seems at this point of time that the temperature is not at least increasing. There has been no additional release of radioactive.

Then it’s this other battle with the spent fuel ponds, which probably is somewhat easier. But the important — is, as Stephanie said, to keep the water levels high up, so that the cooling is there, that we don’t get these additional explosions.

And if these things dry up, then it’s very difficult to go to the reactor cores because of the high radiation. And this may have an impact to the other operations to bring the temperatures down. So, it’s vitally important get additional water there. Pump it. Bring it with helicopter, depending on the case.

Some of them, you cannot bring from helicopter because the roof will block it. So, they have still a few things to solve. It’s also important to get additional pumping capacity, additional electricity. And there we have seen in last couple of days quite a lot of progress. So, tomorrow will be better, but is the — time is of essence here. So, I hope that we have enough time to rectify the situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Stephanie Cooke, briefly, in the meantime, several countries, people around the world are watching this, of course.


JEFFREY BROWN: Several countries have already taken some plants offline. Is there a review under way worldwide, including the U.S., for similarities and differences?

STEPHANIE COOKE: No, there is not. No. In fact, the Obama administration today was basically declaring the safety of all nuclear power plants in the United States.

And Germany has decided to basically review all their plants and I think take seven offline, if that number is correct. Russia has made noises about it, but meanwhile, signed a deal to build a new reactor in Belarus, so I think that’s basically lip service.

But no, it’s not like a worldwide effort. The thing about accidents to remember is that they all have different sequence of events which cause them. So, to completely obsess about earthquakes causing the next accident isn’t necessarily the way to do — the key thing is, is to try to review safety again at all levels.

What caused the problem here was that they put diesel generators in the basement of the reactors, and a tsunami came in and wiped them out. So, they had a total failure of backup power. And who would have thought? So, that — these are the things that — you can’t think of every eventuality. But those are the kinds of things that will be challenging the nuclear industry in the days ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Stephanie Cooke, Olli Heinonen, thank you both very much.