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Japan Works to Restore Reactors’ Power Supplies; Fear of Contaminated Food Rises

March 21, 2011 at 5:31 PM EST
Japanese officials reported new concerns over radiation levels in food and water from areas close to the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. Alex Thomson of Independent Television News reports from Japan, and Judy Woodruff talks with former IAEA official Olli Heinonen about the struggle to control the radiation threat.
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GWEN IFILL: Engineers in Japan pressed forward today with efforts to restore power to a crippled nuclear plant. They made progress over the weekend toward getting the cooling system back on.

In Washington, a top official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said three of the six reactors at the Fukushima plant have core damage. But he said all are contained, and it appears emergency crews are getting closer to controlling the situation.

BILL BORCHARDT, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission: We believe that the spent fuel pools on units three and four, which had been two components that were of significant safety concern, that the situation there is stabilizing, that the containment in three — all three units one, two and three — appear to be functional, and that there’s water being injected into the reactor vessels in units one, two and three.

JIM LEHRER: At one point today, smoke billowed from two of the reactors, but officials reported no increase in radiation.

Meanwhile, police said the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami has now reached 8,800, and could top 18,000. For the survivors, day-to-day living has become a grinding struggle.

Alex Thomson of Independent Television News reports from Taro on the northeastern coast.

ALEX THOMSON: Fuel shortages remain serious here, 250 cars, two miles to get a seven-liter ration. Emergency volunteers do get fuel, but even they are finding it hard.

We picked up with this delivery of rice, noodles and nappies. Taro’s old people’s home survived the tsunami, so now it’s home for more than old people — 30 homeless families also billeted here now.

Unloading, Mamoru Yamamuto, a port worker here before the port was obliterated, now one more, though, of the army of volunteers getting Japan moving. Mamoru’s family is safe, but his house is destroyed. And as for working at the port, when the port has been wrecked?

MAMORU YAMAMUTO (through translator): Well, I have no idea when I will be working again.

ALEX THOMSON: Back in what was Taro, the army are going the extra mile, too — mercifully, no bodies to recover here, so they have set to, to recover a woman’s wardrobe, item by item.

And a solution of sorts here to what could well be the world’s biggest rubbish problem. Round the clock, they cart the rubble off to the edge of town. And they’re dumping it in the town’s baseball stadium. They’re not going to play baseball here anymore, fringed, ironically, by the tsunami walls, which were inadequate.

Big questions being asked up and down Japan now, not just about how to make the sea defenses here adequate, but whether people should be living in areas like this at all. The port’s website still boasts that the vast seawalls here will stand any tsunami. They took 25 years to build. The massive sluice gate capable of withstanding anything.

Look at those gates today, bust open, high-grade steel contorted like cheap plastic. Look at the tsunami walls they were so proud of. No wonder the debate here is beginning, not about how to rebuild and redefend but whether to.

GWEN IFILL: Judy Woodruff has more about the efforts to contain the problems at the nuclear plants.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for that, we’re joined by Olli Heinonen. He served as deputy director general for the International Atomic Energy Agency. He now teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

Mr. Heinonen, thanks very much for being with us.

There was the bad news about smoke coming out of some of these reactors today, but then there seemed to be some good news, that the pumps are working in a couple of the reactors, that the power lines are restored. How significant is all this?

OLLI HEINONEN, former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector: Well, first of all, the situation is still very serious, as we heard today. And this has by far not been resolved.

But we see that the engineers are working hard. And once they get the power restored properly, they can look how the equipment has been damaged, which equipment can be used, and which equipment needs to be replaced. Then we start to see light at the end of this long, long tunnel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when we hear Mr. Borchardt at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission saying that there is, I think he used the term, containment has been — is now functional in three of the reactors, what does that mean?

OLLI HEINONEN: It means that the fuel which was in reactor itself is contained properly, so there is no emergency to that end.

But the company has still to maintain and restore the adequate cooling of those reactors for those four units which he mentioned. And this is still a big work to be done. Then, the additional problems are those spent fuels which are at the top of the reactor in the reactor hulls, which don’t have any containment and which have been artificially cooled in the last few days using water which has been dropped from the helicopters or brought by fire brigades in place.

And that is a serious problem which also needs to be fixed before we can start the real recovery operations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it’s still all about getting enough water back in these reactors?

OLLI HEINONEN: That’s what it is all about. And it only can come when there is adequate electricity in the place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what — what — do we know enough to know what has to be done physically, from an engineering standpoint, to get things to a place where it’s safe?

OLLI HEINONEN: I think at — at this point of time, they are still doing damage assessment, because the radiation fields are fairly high there. They don’t which equipment is functional, which is damaged beyond repair and needs to be replaced. This will take a few days of time before they can come to this conclusion.

And then we can go to the routine recovery operations. And before that, we have this somewhat temporary arrangements there in the place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s interesting you speak about the radiation levels being high, because we also heard today the spokesman with the International Atomic Energy Agency said it was encouraging that radiation levels are at, I think he used the term, background levels in dozens of Japanese cities.

OLLI HEINONEN: That’s true, but I was talking about the radiation level for those people who do the recovery operations at the reactors and try to stabilize them.

Then the radiation outside of the Fukushima power plants, if you go to 20-kilometer or 30-kilometer zone, they indeed have come in the last few days down. So this is encouraging.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me also ask you, Mr. Heinonen, about the food reports, because we hear on the one hand that milk, green vegetables that are being grown in the area near the reactors, the water supply, that there’s been some radioactive contamination. On the other hand, we hear that these levels are not dangerous to humans.

So, how concerned should people be?

OLLI HEINONEN: I think that people should follow the recommendations of the authorities. They have the best knowledge on current situation. And I also see that the IAEA has done its independent evaluation and looked on those, and World Health Organization.

So, I think that this system — this part of the problem is under control, provided that nothing changes at the nuclear power plants, because if there are more releases, then all this needs to be revisited.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, at this point, Dr. Heinonen, what are the questions that you would like to have answered in the coming days?

OLLI HEINONEN: I think that we need to understand what’s the real damage to these reactors, how to fix those in such a way that we can cool the fuel on reactor hulls and cool the reactor cores and stabilize the situation.

And those facts only come actually when the electricity is brought into these facilities, so that the engineers can see which are the water levels in various places, which are the temperatures, which are the actual radiation fields, so that then they can start with the cleaning operations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Dr. Olli Heinonen, we thank you once again for being with us. We appreciate it.

OLLI HEINONEN: Thank you very much, indeed.