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Fukushima Reinforces Worst Fears for Japanese Who Are Anti-Nuclear Power

August 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
How are the Japanese people reacting to the news of the continuing contamination leak and what does it mean for Japan's energy policy? Jeffrey Brown talks with Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Kenji Kushida of Stanford University about what the government may do to stop the flow.

And we’re joined by Arjun Makhijani, an engineer — engineer specializing in nuclear fusion. He’s the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. And Kenji Kushida, research associate in Japanese studies at Stanford University.

Well, Arjun Makhijani, let me start with you. Translate for us first to bring us up to date. What exactly is the problem now and how serious is it?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research: So there are a couple of different problems. One of the problems is what they have found in the groundwater and what actually is there.

So, so far, we have been concerned about an element called cesium, cesium 137 and 134, which is radioactive. But now they have found strontium-90, which is much more dangerous, at levels that are 30 times more than cesium. So to give you an idea of the level of contamination, if somebody drank that water for a year, they would almost certainly get cancer. So it’s very contaminated.

So that’s one problem. The other is the defenses to hold back this water from the sea seem to be overcome. So now the contaminated waters, 70,000, 80,000 gallons is flowing into the sea every day.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do we know how far out to sea this contaminated water is going and what happens to it when it goes into the sea?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well, when it goes into the sea, of course, some of it will disperse and dilute. Some of it goes into the sediment and some of it is taken up by the life in the sea.

And the unfortunate thing about strontium especially is that it bioaccumulates in algae, it bioaccumulates in fish. It targets the bone, because it’s like calcium. And so this is a problem. We don’t have measurements far out to sea. The Woods Hole Institute has done some surveys. And they were surprised by how much continuing radioactivity they found, but no clear explanation yet.


Well, Kenji Kushida, how has this news been received in Japan and what is the level of trust at this point in both the company and the government?

KENJI KUSHIDA, Stanford University: Well, clearly, trust in the company has gone down quite seriously, even from a low point after the accident.

And the government does need to — basically, they don’t have to call an election for about three years, so the government is trying to shore up its decision to support restarting nuclear reactors by showing some kind of commitment to preventing this disaster from getting too much worse.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what kind of steps is it taking and how much has it — we just heard the clips in the setup talking about action. What kinds of things are they proposing and how energized, how seriously are they taking this?

KENJI KUSHIDA: Well, it seems to be fairly serious, because the budget that they’re asking for is for the following year, for the fiscal year of 2014, to help shore up the defenses against this.

And TEPCO itself, it’s been de facto nationalized. So, in essence, it’s basically the government’s problem. The buck stops with the government. So how to deal with this 400 tons a day of water pouring from the underground passageways into the reactor buildings, that’s a problem that the government has to deal with.

And about 50 percent of the population in a recent poll was against restarting nuclear reactors after certifying their safety, and about 40 percent were supporting the restarting. And the government, as a strong supporter of restarting reactors, do feel it’s quite a bit of their responsibility to deal with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, I want to come back to that subject, but first, Arjun Makhijani, what about these measures that they’re taking to try to stop the contamination, the leaking water, building tanks, walls, freezing the ground?


Well, you know, they already built this chemical-reinforced wall, and what happened, of course, it’s like a dam, so you have water coming in from upstream, above the plant. And then at a certain point, it’s going to get — overtop the dam. It’s like constant rain coming into a reservoir.

And so that has been the problem, is those defenses have been breached because there’s too much water and not enough wall. And at a certain point that’s always going to be the case. It seems to me that there’s a risk the same thing will happen with this new wall, because they already had a wall and it didn’t work. So, building a new and longer wall would work for some time.

The other problem is, of course, you need a massive amount of water to freeze that much soil. It would be a mile-long, apparently. If you have a power failure, another major earthquake — they had a power failure a few months ago when a rat ate through a wire — and that would then be very, very problematic, because now you have got so much water behind.

We actually sent a proposal to Japan two years ago, some colleagues of mine and I, saying you should park a supertanker or a large tanker offshore, and put the water in it, and send it off someplace else so that the water treatment and the water management is not such a huge, constant issue. But…

JEFFREY BROWN: It sounds like still an ongoing experiment.


JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kenji Kushida, come back to this question you were raising about the politics of this and the culture of nuclear power there.

There are still a lot of people that want to — that feel it’s necessary for Japan. Right? So, where does all that stand?

KENJI KUSHIDA: Well, the funny thing about the recent Japanese politics is that the nuclear issue didn’t — wasn’t part of the main issues that were debated.

It was mostly about the economy. And there was partly a reason for that. As I just mentioned, the public is pretty deeply divided over this. But, interestingly, in Tokyo, the local candidate from Tokyo metropolitan area was running on an anti-nuclear power platform, and he got elected pretty safely.

So what we see here is the anti-nuclear power public, I mean, this is reinforces all their worst fears. You have the operator that doesn’t seem to be in control, the government that says it’s going to back it up, but the technological hurdles are just very high to doing that.

And, on the other hand, you have a fairly silent majority — minority of about 40 percent who do think that some of the other reactors are necessary for maintaining Japan’s economic competitiveness, because Japan doesn’t have any natural resources. So, in the absence of nuclear power, they have to import very large amounts of liquid natural gas to basically generate the power that they need.

So there’s this economic constraint that they see. And that’s sort of where the public stands in its divisions.

JEFFREY BROWN: And very briefly…


JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, I’m sorry.

I was going to ask very briefly, Arjun Makhijani, is — those kinds of debates, is what happened still rattling the whole industry worldwide?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well, I think it is different in different places. It rattled Germany, and they decided to shut down. I don’t think it’s rattled the U.S. industry very much.

The French are somewhere in between. They, of course, get 75 percent of their power from nuclear, and they have decided or at least the president has said that they will decrease their nuclear to 50 percent. They’re having a big energy debate, much more serious than we have had.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Arjun Makhijani and Kenji Kushida, thank you both very much.