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Spent Fuel Pools: Assessing the Threat at Damaged Nuclear Plant

March 17, 2011 at 7:00 PM EST
American and Japanese officials have offered sharply different assessments of the situation at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. Judy Woodruff weighs the threat of the spend fuel pools with the University of Southern California's Najmedin Meshkati and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Rearch's Arjun Makhijani.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, sorting through the latest news in Japan and the risks as experts see it.

Najmedin Meshkati is a civil and industrial engineer who has studied nuclear safety for two decades. He’s with the University of Southern California. And Arjun Makhijani is an engineer specializing in nuclear fusion. He’s the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which has advocated against nuclear fission energy, warning of its dangers.

Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us.

I’m going to start with you, Najmedin Meshkati in California.

Size up for us right now the situation at the most endangered nuclear plants.

NAJMEDIN MESHKATI, University of Southern California: Based on what we hear from your reporters in the morning — from the ITN, and also the morning news that I checked, the biggest problem right now is the spent fuel pool at reactor number four, which it has basically lost all its power — water, and the water has boiled out.

And, according to the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday, he also said the same thing. Right now, this reactor number four spent fuel pool, which doesn’t have any containment building, because spent fuel pools are not within the containment building, and the roof on this reactor number four spent fuel pool has been blown out, this is, I think, the most riskiest and the most hazardous element that we have over there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Arjun Makhijani, what would you add to that?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research: Well, you know, each reactor has two elements at risk. There’s a reactor, which is like a pressure cooker. And you have to carry away the heat from the pressure cooker regularly because it’s generating it from the inside. And there’s a spent fuel pool inside the reactor building.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what we just heard Dr. Meshkati talk about.    

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Yes, which is what we just heard.

So there are four reactors that have damaged buildings and cooling problems, so there are eight elements. And out of that, in all, there — there seem to be two cooling pools that are having cooling problems and the water is boiling, and two reactors that have some damage. And so there are four elements that the workers there are struggling to keep cool.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we’re hearing a disagreement, Dr. Makhijani, about what is — about how — whether that — the — the spent fuel rods are completely without water or not. Is that a distinction without a difference? How does that matter at this point?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: It may be to some extent. If you cannot really add water and there’s a little bit of water in pool number four, you’re going to have a very serious problem anyway. You’re going to have hydrogen generation. You’re going to have melting. And you might have fires, as you illustrated at the start of your report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s, of course, Dr. Makhijani.

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: My apologies.

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: No problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn now back to you, Najmedin Meshkati.

On this question, again, of the spent fuel rods, there’s a disagreement, not only about the state there, but I gather there’s a disagreement between science — scientists, between the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Academy of Sciences, about just how great the danger is there.

NAJMEDIN MESHKATI: You’re absolutely right.

In fact, based on my information from my friends at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, they don’t have a very good reading on that. Basically, there are three levels of disagreement here in Japan and in Vienna.

The bottom line, I think, I trust our chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s statements and testimony before Congress, that he said all the water has been boiled off.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you trust that view more than the others?

NAJMEDIN MESHKATI: Because, traditionally, at least, I have been through this research and looking at Japan’s nuclear safety issues since the Tokaimura accident of 1999. There has been some sort of a culture and secrecy, lack of transparency, in Japan, in the TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company, and also government.

That’s why I do not think that we may get the most accurate reading from our Japanese colleagues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Arjun Makhijani, how do you read that?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well, independent of whether there’s some water or a lot of water, I think we also — I wish the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair had said something about the spent fuel pools in this country, because the Brookhaven National Lab did a study for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1997, estimating the damages at anywhere from $700 million to $500 billion, with a B.

And that…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re talking about in this country?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: In this country…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s — which is a different…

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: … at boiling water reactors, and so indicating that precautionary measures should be taken here.

So, I think…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But — but — I was just going to say, to keep the focus on Japan…

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … because that’s where we are today, if — what are the questions at this point that you think most need to be answered that you’re not hearing answers to?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well, one of the things I think Tokyo Electric should be doing in view of the whole…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tokyo Electric being the company that…

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Power company.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … runs the…

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: That’s right, that owns the plants — is, I think they ought to be measuring radiation out to, you know, into the area where people are actually living and in the houses that have been evacuated and publishing updates, so we can actually have some idea as to where all this radioactivity is going.

It’s not at the level of Chernobyl yet, but if it does get worse, we will have some basis to tell how dangerous things are getting, and people could take action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we did hear some numbers, some reports on radiation levels in that — in that ITN report a moment ago.

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: That’s right. That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying there needs to be more regular reporting?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well, yes.

I have seen the numbers, and they do illustrate the situation near the plant, but they don’t tell the situation where the people are actually living in a consistent way, because radiation levels are going up and down, and there’s no actual record for people to estimate what their risk would be, so they can make intelligent decisions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Najmedin Meshkati, what, for you, are the important questions that are not answered yet here?

NAJMEDIN MESHKATI: I think, as Dr. Makhijani said, this is an important issue.

One thing that I would like to see in this case which didn’t happen, unfortunately, in the case of Chernobyl is we have now sophisticated software and models for looking at the dispersion modeling. And, with the climatological softwares that we have, we could get some understanding about basically this vapor, this fallout traveling and in what direction it may go with some sort of certainty. That’s called dispersion modeling, my business.

I think if we can do that, it would help us, basically, to protect our downwind population much better. On the other side, on the plant side, I would really like to see a very good, honest estimate of the radiation level by TEPCO about the nature of the hazards and what are some of their contingency plans.

This issue of the lack of transparency within TEPCO, Tokyo Power Electric Company, and that was to the point that, even the Japanese prime minister yesterday, he complained about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, a number of questions that we will all be looking for answers for.

Gentlemen, thank you very much.

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much for having me.