Nuclear AftershocksView Film
Miles O'Brien & Jon Palfreman
PRODUCED & DIRECTED BY
ANNOUNCER: The world watched helplessly as a tsunami took down the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
NEWSCASTER: Radiation levels are extremely high—
ANNOUNCER: What went wrong? And will it cripple Japan's nuclear program?
JAPANESE PROTESTER: [subtitles] Build a society without nukes!
CHARLES FERGUSON, Pres., Federation of American Scientists: Pretty soon, Japan will have essentially no reactors operating.
ANNOUNCER: The aftershocks of the meltdown are reverberating around the world.
Prof. CLAUDIA KEMFERT, Dir., German Inst. of Economic Research: The Germans are very much afraid of nuclear power. They don't want it, they hate it.
PROTESTER: Before the meltdown!
MILES O'BRIEN, Correspondent: So Indian point is right here? Right on the fault line.
ANNOUNCER: Correspondent Miles O'Brien investigates if America is prepared for a nuclear disaster.
GREGORY JACZKO, Chmn., Nuclear Regulatory Commission: The likelihood of a Fukushima accident happening here is very low, but we know it's not impossible.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, Nuclear Aftershocks.
GEORGE APOSTOLAKIS, Nuclear Regulatory Commission: If it can happen to Japan, it can happen anywhere.
MILES O'BRIEN, Correspondent: [voice-over] There's something that's both scary and awesome about nuclear energy.
PLANT WORKER: They'll give you the rate at which you're receiving radiation, as well as how much has accumulated.
MILES O'BRIEN: Thanks to the magic of nuclear fission, this plant, Indian Point, generates about a quarter of New York City's electricity, with no greenhouse gases or air pollution.
But the reality is, Indian Point's nuclear technology is not cutting edge, it's old.
PLANT WORKER: So this is one of three emergency diesel generators.
MILES O'BRIEN: The two working reactors here came on line some 40 years ago.
[on camera] So this is like a locomotive engine. Westinghouse makes those, so I guess that makes sense. How many of these do you have, first of all?
[voice-over] Old as the plant is, Indian Point's owner, Entergy, wants to run it for another 20 years, and that makes some people uneasy. After all, this plant is in the most densely populated region in the U.S. Times Square is only about 35 miles away.
1st PROTESTER: Shutdown before the meltdown!
2nd PROTESTER: You are 35 miles from Indian Point nuclear power plant, with twice as much spent fuel as Fukushima Daiichi, and no evacuation plan for New York City! What would you do in a meltdown?
MILES O'BRIEN: Since the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, Japan, the fight over Indian Point has grown much more contentious. At issue in this controversy are major worries about the evacuation plan, and according to critics, a series of unresolved safety issues.
DAVID LOCHBAUM, Union of Concerned Scientists: Indian Point's not safe when it doesn't meet safety regulations. Right now, it doesn't meet safety regulations. Those known safety problems need to be fixed.
MILES O'BRIEN: But proponents argue that New York City needs the energy. It's become a classic New York political brawl. Entergy has hired former mayor Rudy Giuliani to make its case.
RUDY GIULIANI ®, Fmr. NYC Mayor: [Entergy commercial] That's clean, reliable and lower-cost electricity that powers our region and the greatest city on Earth.
MILES O'BRIEN: In the other corner is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
NEWSCASTER: Governor Andrew Cuomo says the plant's location on a fault line makes it a disaster waiting to happen.
Gov. ANDREW CUOMO (D), New York: I understand the power and the benefit. I also understand the risk. And this plant in this proximity to New York City was never a good risk. But this is new information—
MILES O'BRIEN: The long-simmering fight over Indian Point — and nuclear power in general — came to a head after the catastrophic nuclear disaster that took place half a world away, in Fukushima, Japan. On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, at 2:46 PM, a massive earthquake shook Japan. The event was captured in real time on cell phones and security cameras. The epicenter of the so-called Tohoku quake was 80 miles off Japan's northeast coast.
Nuclear plants around the country automatically shut down, including the three operating reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, the largest utility in Japan.
The massive earthquake triggered blackouts throughout the area. Inside the plant, TEPCO workers lost electric power, vital for pumping cooling water onto the hot nuclear cores. But as planned, 12 emergency diesel generators kicked in, giant locomotive-size machines like this, producing backup electricity to run all the plant's safety systems.
But what happened next changed everything.
Prof. HISAHI NINOKATA, Tokyo Institute of Technology: Everything was working fine until tsunami came.
MILES O'BRIEN: Barely half an hour after the quake, the first of a series of tsunami waves hit Japan's coast. The world watched as the waves washed over 1,300 miles of coastline, destroying communities and killing thousands.
Then at about 3:30, just 45 minutes after the earthquake, one of the giant waves inundated the Fukushima nuclear plant. The plant's seawall was designed to block a 17-foot tsunami. The actual wave was at least three times that height.
SATOSHI SATO, Nuclear Energy Industry Consultant: I was really surprised when I saw the picture showing the peak of tsunami wave hit the plant. It exceeded the height of the reactor building. It began to destroy, you know, everything.
MILES O'BRIEN: The emergency diesel generators that had been powering the safety systems were destroyed in the deluge. The giant wave also knocked out crucial wires, circuit breakers and transformers, and washed one of the generators' fuel tanks out to sea.
Prof. RON BALLINGER, MIT, Nuclear Science & Engineering: They had no power. Zero. Nothing. It's what's called a station blackout. That is the most difficult situation to deal with at a power plant like this.
MILES O'BRIEN: Trapped in a station blackout without any electricity, the plant workers turned to their last resort, a bank of backup batteries designed to buy them just a few hours of time.
They then made a desperate plea for help, but there was little to be found. The tsunami had devastated the area around the plant, blocking roads, knocking out communications and power lines.
JACOPO BUONGIORNO, Assoc. Prof., MIT, Nuclear Science & Engineering: It must have been a really dire situation. Completely dark. And most worrisome, of course, must have been the fact that they did not have readings of the instruments, and so they didn't really know what was going on in the reactor.
NEIL TODREAS, Prof. Emeritus, MIT, Nuclear Science & Eng.: They had no telephone communication. They sent people out into the parking lots to scavenge batteries from automobiles, and they hooked them together. They got some critical DC power for valve operation and for instrumentation. But you shouldn't have to do that.
MILES O'BRIEN: TEPCO then ordered special trucks with generators from another power company. But they soon hit a problem.
HIRO HASEGAWA, Spokesman, Tokyo Electric Power Co.: Just after the accident, we tried to get electricity coming back to the station. But without electricity, it was very tough. It failed.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] There was traffic. The trucks couldn't get in?
HIRO HASEGAWA: Yes, one of the reasons was the traffic problems. We failed in using electricity cars to cool down units.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] Unable to restore electricity, the Fukushima complex then suffered breakdown after breakdown.
NEWSCASTER: A blast was heard, smoke rising from reactor number one.
NEWSCASTER: —Fukushima nuclear plant—
GERMAN NEWSCASTER: [subtitles] A huge hydrogen gas explosion has shaken the unfortunate Japanese Fukushima nuclear plant.
MILES O'BRIEN: Over the next few days, the reports grew more alarming— explosions at three reactors, radioactive contamination spewing into the environment. Rescue forces rushed to the scene. Helicopters, firefighters and police with water cannons desperately tried to keep the hot radioactive fuel rods covered with water.
On March 15, four days into the crisis, the prime minister at the time, Naoto Kan, addressed the nation.
NAOTO KAN, Prime Minister: [through interpreter] Please listen to my message calmly. The emergency diesel engines that should have been used to cool down the reactors have all gone out of function. Radiation has spread from these reactors, and the readings of the levels seems very high. We need now for everybody to move out of the 20-kilometer radius from the number one plant. And in areas from 20 to 30 kilometers, we would like to ask you to remain indoors at home or in your offices.
MILES O'BRIEN: The unprecedented evacuation would ultimately displace more than 160,000 people.
Meanwhile, workers continued their frantic struggle to get control of the crippled reactors. The plant remained off-limits to the public and media, photographed only from a distance.
But six weeks after the disaster, a member of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission was invited to the plant. Shigeharu Aoyama captured these scenes with his camera.
SHIGEHARU AOYAMA: [Aoyama video, subtitles] This is the main gate of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant.
Im coming inside. Thank you for your hard work.
They are sorting contaminated clothing.
Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for your hard work.
MILES O'BRIEN: Aoyama documented teams of workers wearing hot, uncomfortable protective gear navigating a labyrinth of airlocks, struggling to clean up a huge radioactive mess. He then ventured outside to the destroyed reactors themselves.
SHIGEHARU AOYAMA: [Aoyama video, subtitles] This is what I look like.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] Is that you?
SHIGEHARU AOYAMA: Yes.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] His rarely seen footage, which he shared with FRONTLINE, is the most complete record of life inside the plant shortly after the accident.
SHIGEHARU AOYAMA: This is truly first case of entrance to the site I play.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] Wow.
SHIGEHARU AOYAMA: Yeah.
[Aoyama video, subtitles] God, it's awful here.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] His stark footage shows the massive damage caused by the explosions.
SHIGEHARU AOYAMA: [video, subtitles] The top of the building was blown away. You see the red machine on your right? That is being used to send water, to the spent fuel pool. I'm standing in front of the fourth reactor. Because radiation is very high, I have to get back in the car soon.
MILES O'BRIEN: Aoyama photographed the apocalyptic tsunami damage on the plant's ocean side, where the emergency generators and seawater pumps had been.
SHIGEHARU AOYAMA: [subtitles] This is the very area that the tsunami hit. Tough steel frames are bent. This is scenery beyond my imagination.
MILES O'BRIEN: Here and all around the world, nuclear experts were troubled by a vexing question: How could this happen in Japan, a country so well known for its technological and engineering brilliance?
HIDEKATSU YOSHII, Member of Japanese Diet: [subtitles] The government and the power industry, including TEPCO, were deluded by the myth of nuclear safety.
MILES O'BRIEN: Hidekatsu Yoshii is a former nuclear engineer and a member of Japan's parliament.
HIDEKATSU YOSHII: [subtitles] Their overconfidence was a big mistake.
MILES O'BRIEN: It's clear that when TEPCO designed and built the plant more than 40 years ago, it wasn't prepared for an event of this enormity. As this old promotional film shows, the utility was confident that the plant's seawall was more than sufficient to fend off whatever nature threw at it.
TEPCO FILM: [subtitles] The tetrapods are carefully stacked in the breakwater area. This port will protect against wild ocean waves. And the plant will be able to use the ocean water as a coolant.
HIDEKATSU YOSHII: [subtitles] Given geographical conditions, Japan has frequent earthquakes. And Japan has experienced many tsunamis. They should have designed the plant suitable for such a country.
MILES O'BRIEN: In fact, we now know many experts had repeatedly warned TEPCO for years that a major tsunami could overwhelm the seawall designed to protect the plant. One of the experts, paleontologist Koji Minoura, began raising the warning flags decades ago.
KOJI MINOURA, Paleontologist: [subtitles] This document shows that a similar tsunami hit the area a long time ago.
MILES O'BRIEN: Minoura's research was inspired by a famous ancient poem. "Do you remember our sleeves wet with mutual tears in oath never to leave each other as the famed waves of Sue-No-Matsuyama."
It occurred to Minoura the poet might have been writing about an ancient earthquake and tsunami. So he dug through some old records, and sure enough, there it was— July 13th in the year 869, a huge quake and tsunami hit Japan. It's known as the Jogan event.
KOJI MINOURA: [subtitles] The record shows the tsunami hit Tagajo and killed more than 1,000 people. But people soon forgot about the tsunami. I visited Sendai, where the tsunami hit, and found geological evidence.
MILES O'BRIEN: To look back in time, Minoura dug deep into rice paddies far from the sea. There he found a layer of marine sediment that told a clear story, the ocean water reached two-and-a- half miles inland in 869.
[voice-over] That's what you did? That's in a rice paddy?
KOJI MINOURA: [subtitles] This is the trench wall where I dug out evidence. This is the trace of the tsunami. My age measurement showed that this is the sediment from the 869 Jogan tsunami.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] Minoura didn't stop there. He dug deeper and found more marine layers, clear proof of similar giant tsunamis every thousand years or so like geologic clockwork.
Over the course of the next 20 years, he would publish his findings in major scientific journals.
KOJI MINOURA: [through interpreter] Really, I regret that nobody paid attention to anything to my thesis.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] Why not??
KOJI MINOURA: I don't know.
MILES O'BRIEN: So now people are coming and talking to you.
KOJI MINOURA: Yes.
MILES O'BRIEN: But it's too late.
KOJI MINOURA: But too late, yes. Yes. Too late.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] So what did TEPCO know and when did it know it?
[on camera] We spoke to a researcher who uncovered evidence of a very large tsunami in 869, which I know you're familiar with now, and he published this information 20 years ago. Why was that not considered at Fukushima?
HIRO HASEGAWA, Spokesman, TEPCO: We don't know. But I heard that, you know, TEPCO and people in the education have been talking about, you know, considering that tsunami also. But I heard that we were— we were in the process of considering that, but you know, this accident occurred during that process, I think..
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] But even if they had heeded the warnings of a giant tsunami, was there anything TEPCO could have done to protect the plant, or was this site inherently too dangerous?
[on camera] Is it possible to conceive of a nuclear plant at that location that could withstand what happened on March 11th?
JACOPO BUONGIORNO, Assoc. Prof., MIT, Nuclear Science & Eng.: I would say so. If the emergency diesel generators had been located in a higher elevation — not the whole plant, just the emergency diesel generators — or the batteries had been in waterproof rooms, a lot of this would have probably not happened.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] But as it happened on March 11th, the operators found it impossible to control the reactor without the diesel generators. Here's what nuclear engineers say happened on that awful day.
The General Electric-designed boiling water reactor used at Fukushima and in many U.S. plants is enshrouded in a massive concrete and steel containment structure. Inside is a steel pressure vessel, which contains the hot nuclear core.
When the tsunami destroyed the backup generators, pumps and valves failed, meaning no more water was available to cool the core. The water that remained soon boiled away.
Prof. RON BALLINGER, MIT, Nuclear Science & Engineering: Then you don't have much time. The system heats up pretty quickly. It's not hours, it's hours or less.
MILES O'BRIEN: The radioactive core began to melt. The steam interacted with the fuel rods, creating hydrogen. As the pressure built up, the explosive hydrogen, along with a witches' brew of radioactive materials, forced its way through a relief valve into the main containment structure, and ultimately the outer building.
SATOSHI SATO, Nuclear Energy Industry Consultant: We know the hydrogen is a most leaky gas, and there's huge air space in the top of reactor building, about 17 meter from the refueling floor.
RON BALLINGER: The hydrogen that was produced got into the buildings, the upper floor of the building, and then just pooled. And then all it would have taken was a small amount of energy — a spark, a light, anything — and it would have— would have caused the explosion.
MILES O'BRIEN: It was an unprecedented multiple meltdown disaster. For the first time since the Chernobyl accident in 1986, large quantities of dangerous radioactive materials, about one tenth of the Chernobyl release, had spewed into the atmosphere from a stricken nuclear power plant.
But TEPCO's problems were only just beginning. To prevent further core damage, plant workers began feeding seawater into the crippled reactors. But much of this highly radioactive water began to leak through cracks.
JACOPO BUONGIORNO: Apparently, there are cracks in the containment, and a large fraction of the water that they're feeding into the vessels is coming out into the basement of the reactor building.
MILES O'BRIEN: And some of it made its way into the sea.
RON BALLINGER: They think there's a breach somewhere, but they don't know where it is. They'll have to get to a situation where they can go in and decontaminate above the reactor, and then they can get at what's inside. But that's going to take a long time.
MILES O'BRIEN: Four months after the disaster, I came to Japan. Along the Sendai coast, people were cleaning up. The earthquake and tsunami had stripped whole towns from their foundations, killing an estimated 18,000 people. Life is forever changed here.
But the big concern here remains the radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear explosions. People here are fearful about how much radiation there is, how far it has spread, and the possible health effects.
Prof. JOHN MOULDER, Radiation Biologist, Medical College of WI: Very high doses of radiation can kill you within minutes to hours. You get lower, it's not going to kill you outright, but it's going to increase your risk of getting cancer sometime. And then you get down to background levels of radiation, and as far as we know, there are no hazards at all.
MILES O'BRIEN: Scientists have been tracking the plume of radiation from Fukushima, carried by wind and rain to fields, schoolyards and towns. It turns out while there were hot spots close to the plant and within the plume, in many areas, including some evacuation zones, radiation levels were relatively low.
Prof. JOHN MOULDER: For the people who had been evacuated, the greatest consequences are going to be from the loss of their homes and their livelihood. Some of those contaminated zones are not going to be re-inhabitable anytime in their lifetime. Compared to the impact of that, their risks of actually getting cancer as the result are very, very small.
MILES O'BRIEN: When Japanese authorities set radiation levels for evacuation, they were conservative, 20 millisieverts per year. That's the equivalent of two or three abdominal CAT scans in the same period. I asked Dr. Gen Suzuki about this.
[on camera] So at 20 millisieverts over the course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk?
GEN SUZUKI, Radiation specialist, Nuclear Safety Comm.: Yeah, it's 0.2— 0.2 percent increase in lifetime.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] 0.2 percent over the course of a lifetime?
GEN SUZUKI: Yeah.
MILES O'BRIEN: So your normal risk of cancer in Japan is?
GEN SUZUKI: Is 30 percent.
MILES O'BRIEN: So what is the increased cancer rate?
GEN SUZUKI: 30.2 percent, so the increment is quite small.
MILES O'BRIEN: And yet the fear is quite high.
GEN SUZUKI: Yes, that's true.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] People are even concerned here, in Fukushima City, outside the evacuation zone, where radiation contamination is officially below any danger level.
MAN WITH GEIGER COUNTER: [subtitles] I bought this because I want to protect my family and myself. I will move if the radiation level goes up and the situation becomes more hazardous.
MILES O'BRIEN: Over and above any real health issues, the Fukushima accident has disrupted the very fabric of Japanese life.
OLD MAN: [subtitles] My grandchildren don't come and visit me anymore. They say, "We are afraid of radiation, so we don't come."
MILES O'BRIEN: The Fukushima Little League team now plays here in Taiwa Cho, 60 miles away from their home field, which is contaminated.
HIRONO KORIYAMA, Baseball Mother: [subtitles] The air is contaminated with radiation. So I tell my children to wear a mask when they go to school. Saying such things to children is not normal. I'm scared. I'm scared.
MILES O'BRIEN: Baseball mom Hirono Koriyama says she lost her faith in the authorities, and nuclear technology.
HIRONO KORIYAMA: [subtitles] We should not build things that human beings cannot control. In my opinion, all nuclear plants should be shut down..
MILES O'BRIEN: Before the Fukushima disaster, nuclear energy was popular here. Japan's 54 nuclear reactors supplied one third of the nation's electricity and the country had ambitious plans to build many more. After Fukushima, public opinion swung.
1st WOMAN: [subtitles] I was advocating nuclear power before the accident. But now I have switched sides.
CHARLES FERGUSON, Pres., Federation of American Scientists: It was a huge dramatic shift in Japan from— it was something like two thirds or more of the public, in a fairly recent poll before the accident, in favor of nuclear power. And then right after the accident, it was on the order of maybe 25 percent, 30 percent at most, in favor.
MILES O'BRIEN: And that profound shift in public opinion had an immediate and unexpected impact on Japan's nuclear policy.
CHARLES FERGUSON: The reactors are required roughly every year to undergo a refueling operation, a maintenance operation. Once a plant is shut down, it's not allowed to restart unless there is public support in the local area for a restart. So there are serious concerns that within a year after the Fukushima accident started, that Japan will have essentially no reactors operating.
MILES O'BRIEN: The disaster at Fukushima triggered a chain reaction far beyond Japan, and nowhere more so than in Germany.
NEWSCASTER: Ever since Fukushima, the German government's been under pressure from the Green movement. On the streets—
MILES O'BRIEN: Long before the meltdown in Japan, people here feared nuclear power. I came to Berlin to talk to Germans about Fukushima.
[on camera] Why are people here in Germany so afraid of nuclear power?
VENDOR: Because it's not safe! Nobody can tell me it's safe. Just look at Chernobyl. Look to Tokyo.
MILES O'BRIEN: What is it about Germans, they have a very strong negative reaction to nuclear power? Why?
1st MAN: I think Germans are a little bit more afraid about things which are out of control. We had an accident in Russia, and I remember the time here, when I was here in this market, and the people say, "Oh, can we go out of our rooms and go still for shopping?" We are a little more afraid of things which we can't control.
2nd MAN: We can't— we can't handle atomic energy.
MILES O'BRIEN: Why not?
2nd MAN: Well, all the people who are really in charge and competent know that they can't deal with this energy.
MILES O'BRIEN: Would he like to say something in German about nuclear power?
CHILD: [subtitles] I think that it's a little dangerous for the environment, so you can't really even live with it..
MILES O'BRIEN: People here are afraid of nuclear power.
Prof. CLAUDIA KEMFERT, Dir., German Inst. of Economic Research: People are very much afraid of nuclear power. They don't want it. They hate it.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] Claudia Kemfert is a Berlin-based economist who focuses on energy issues.
CLAUDIA KEMFERT: Because of the Fukushima accident, there was an immediate reaction because Germany was shocked and the government had the impression they need to react.
MILES O'BRIEN: And react they did. They set up a special committee to study what to do about nuclear energy and put this man in charge of it.
KLAUS TOEPFER, Ethics Comm. for a Safe Energy Supply: My name is Klaus Toepfer. I was honored to be the co-chair of the so-called Ethics Commission, discussing the phase-out of nuclear power. This report was accepted more or less unanimously in our parliament.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] Nearly unanimous? We don't do much of anything in the United States nearly unanimous.
KLAUS TOEPFER: I believe it was a clear conviction. We will have the chance to change now. Therefore, we have to make it a common endeavor to prove that this is a possibility for an economically important country.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] Astonishingly, for an industrial country of its scale, within a decade, Germany is set to shut down all 17 of its reactors.
[on camera] Do you think the decision is irrevocable?
Prof. CLAUDIA KEMFERT, Dir., German Inst. of Economic Research: I don't think it will change.
MILES O'BRIEN: You think it's set in stone.
CLAUDIA KEMFERT: It's set in stone.
MILES O'BRIEN: Do you sort of have the sense that almost everywhere you look, with a couple of important exceptions, we are in the midst of writing the final chapter on nuclear power?
CLAUDIA KEMFERT: I think it's the final chapter. It is a long chapter, but I think it's the final chapter, for sure.
MILES O'BRIEN: One of the big reasons people in Germany have embraced this seemingly rash decision to pull the plug on nuclear power so abruptly is they feel that the alternatives are close at hand. For the past 20 years, this nation has invested heavily in renewables, with tax subsidies for wind turbines and solar energy.
As a matter of fact, I'm in the largest solar farm in the world at the moment, about 90 miles south of Berlin. It's kind of surprising to see it in a place like this with such precious little sunshine.
[voice-over] There may not be a lot of sunshine, but there is plenty of wind here, and the hope is that wind will increasingly replace nuclear.
HERMANN ALBERS, Pres., German Wind Energy Assn.: We have today 23 percent of our electricity coming out of nuclear. We can, instead of nuclear, produce the energy in the future out of renewables. Our target in the future is to take a part of— 50 percent of the consumption out of wind energy.
MILES O'BRIEN: Germans are making a bold bet, that by 2050, 80 percent of their electricity will come from renewable sources. But it's a risk. While people here are already very energy-conscious, they will have to become even more so. And without a breakthrough in storage technology, renewables will not be able to provide so-called baseload power, a steady supply of electricity 24/7. This is something nuclear energy does very well.
CLAUDIA KEMFERT: Nuclear energy technology was a bridge, was seen as a bridge, in order to have time and to make renewable energy more competitive.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] But can you get to that renewable future without the bridge?
CLAUDIA KEMFERT: You need a bridge. If it's not nuclear, we have another bridge, and this bridge is now coal in Germany because we have already a large share of coal, increasing greenhouse gas emissions as a consequence. And now this share will even increase more, and this is not really sustainable as a strategy. But you need a bridge, and this is coal.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] And that is really bad news for the environment. In fact, Germany's hasty decision to abandon nuclear energy after Fukushima has alarmed many climate scientists. One of the most respected of them all, NASA's James Hansen, worries that Germany, a nation that has signed the Kyoto protocol vowing to limit carbon emissions, will end up exacerbating climate change.
[on camera] If everyone pulled the plug on nuclear power, what would be the consequences of that?
JAMES HANSEN, Dir., NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies: Well, then, if we don't find an alternative source of energy to fossil fuels, then we will just keep burning them. And that's what's happening. We're— countries are beginning to go after the dirtiest fossil fuels— tar sands, tar shale, mountaintop removal, all the fossil fuels they can find.
Unfortunately, what has become clear from the climate research is we can't do that without leaving for our children and grandchildren a situation that is out of their control, guaranteeing consequences which are disastrous for future generations.
MILES O'BRIEN: Nuclear power is essential, at least as a bridge, in order to reduce carbon emissions, you feel?
JAMES HANSEN: Well, we have not yet found a baseload electric power without carbon emissions, other than nuclear power. The hope is that renewable energies like the sun and the wind can be harnessed in ways that would allow them to be baseload electric power. But that requires that you be able to store the energy or move it around the planet very efficiently. And so far, that has not been an economically competitive way to get energy. So Fukushima— it's really extremely bad timing.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] But not all countries are abandoning nuclear energy. China is taking the lead on a new generation of reactors. France, India, Russia and others remain committed, as is the U.S.
PROFESSOR: Steam comes out, what's the first thing that happens?
MILES O'BRIEN: At MIT's nuclear engineering school, the faculty has done the math. These engineers see no environmentally sustainable way to meet the energy needs of 7 billion people that doesn't include nuclear power, and a lot of it.
[on camera] So it would be inaccurate to say Fukushima is the beginning of the end of nuclear power.
JACOPO BUONGIORNO, Assoc. Prof., MIT, Nuclear Science & Eng.: I would say it would be completely inaccurate. Nuclear has to be part of the solution. It's the only scalable energy source that we have that does not emit CO2 and does not rely heavily on foreign imports.
PROFESSOR: That crack was not seen, and it grew to failure during operations.
MILES O'BRIEN: A lot of people envision a future when it's all renewable. Are we a long way off from that?
Prof. RON BALLINGER, MIT, Nuclear Science & Engineering: I'll be dead, long time. So will you. So will your children. I don't think it will ever be that way unless we become a pastoral society where the energy use density is low enough. I think nuclear power's got a great future. I mean, I'm biased. I'm a nuclear engineer.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] Regardless of the environmental arguments, any nuclear future in the U.S. depends on avoiding accidents like Fukushima.
GREGORY JACZKO, Chmn., Nuclear Regulatory Commission: The commission meets today to discuss the tragic events in Japan and to begin to consider possible actions we may take—
MILES O'BRIEN: Nuclear safety in the U.S. is the responsibility of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an agency with a staff of 4,000 and five politically appointed commissioners led by the chairman, Gregory Jaczko.
[on camera] To what extent is what happened at Fukushima kind of a complete surprise to the whole nuclear industry worldwide?
GREGORY JACZKO: I think there wasn't a full appreciation for what the impacts could be from a tsunami and how that flooding could disable almost all the electrical distribution systems. So what was really new, in a way, was the fact that here was something we hadn't really envisioned that could take out all of these basic safety systems.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] America's 104 nuclear reactors may not face high risks from a tsunami, but they have to be prepared for earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, potential terrorist attacks, or as happened last summer in Nebraska, a historic flood. In June, the swollen Missouri River flooded the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant.
NRC Chairman Jaczko went to see for himself.
GREGORY JACZKO: The level at which there's an impact on the safe operation of the facility is still about six feet from the core.
MILES O'BRIEN: Jaczko could make that claim, in part, because of NRC actions at Fort Calhoun before the flood.
DAVID LOCHBAUM, Union of Concerned Scientists: Last year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors found that that plant wasn't protected against a flood the way it should be. The company argued that it's— What's the chance of it happening? It's been that way for 20 years. The NRC resisted all that and mandated those fixes be made. Flood barriers were put in. Watertight doors were installed. Fort Calhoun was a stellar example of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission taking proactive action to protect people living in Nebraska.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] So just to be clear, had the NRC not intervened, as they had in advance of that flood, what would have happened there?
DAVID LOCHBAUM: The flooding at Fort Calhoun may not have triggered a meltdown, but it would have severely eroded the defense in depth. Many of the barriers, many of the pumps, would have been underwater and unavailable.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] Nuclear engineer Dave Lochbaum, who monitors the U.S. nuclear fleet for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the NRC hasn't always been so proactive.
DAVID LOCHBAUM: The biggest concern I've had with the NRC over the years I've been monitoring it is lack of consistency. They're a little bit slow at solving known safety problems.
MILES O'BRIEN: Like earthquakes. Take the case of the North Anna plant in Virginia. These two reactors were among 27 around the country that were identified in the 1990s as seismically under-designed, but the NRC required no corrective action. Then last August—
NEWSCASTER: Just outside the North Anna nuclear power plant, which is just a few miles from the epicenter. We just got here—
MILES O'BRIEN: —a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook the Eastern Seaboard, centered just 11 miles from North Anna. While the quake was bigger than the plant's designers had planned for, North Anna did just fine. The plant automatically shut down, and four backup diesel generators kicked in, keeping the plant cool until power was restored.
A bullet dodged. But no thanks to the NRC, according to Dave Lochbaum.
DAVID LOCHBAUM: North Anna experienced an earthquake larger than it was designed for. But the reason it came out so well, its owner voluntarily upgraded its seismic protection when they knew about the hazard in the early ‘90s. The NRC didn't require owners like of North Anna and others to fix it. So fortunately, we got the challenge at a plant where the owner had already taken steps to defend against it.
MILES O'BRIEN: Critics say the NRC's worst record for inaction is fire protection. Thirty-five years ago, a fire here at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama led to new federal fire protection standards. But today, 47 reactors still don't meet those standards. And remarkably, one of those noncompliant plants is Browns Ferry itself.
DAVID LOCHBAUM: Browns Ferry today doesn't meet the regulations adopted because of the Browns Ferry fire, and that's just unacceptable.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] Why do things tend to languish at the NRC?
GREGORY JACZKO: Well, I wouldn't say that things move slowly. I think we— we—
MILES O'BRIEN: Thirty-plus years? Well, that's pretty slow, isn't it?
GREGORY JACZKO: Well, I think in that 30 years, we've made a lot of changes to the fire protection program. I think we still have some lingering issues that we want to get resolved.
MILES O'BRIEN: That must be a little bit frustrating, though, to still be discussing this so many years later.
GREGORY JACZKO: Well, I think it's something we need to get behind us, and for the very simple reason that new issues will come up. Of course, Fukushima is probably the most important one we're dealing with now.
We know that the likelihood of something like a Fukushima accident happening here is very, very low. But we know it's not impossible. So we want to make sure we act quickly enough because I think the biggest failure would be for us to have this kind of a situation happen, not employ the lessons here, and to have something like that happen in the United States.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] Which brings us back to Indian Point. A Fukushima-scale accident here, less than 50 miles from the lower tip of Manhattan, would likely mark the end of the U.S. nuclear industry.
Seventeen million people live within 50 miles of this plant. And that's one reason plant operator Entergy's application for a 20-year renewal is proving so controversial. The company says it spent a billion dollars on upgrades and that an accident of the scale of Fukushima couldn't happen here.
JOE POLLOCK, Site VP, Indian Point Energy Center: The problem in Japan was they weren't able to cool the reactors. We have six sources of off-site power. We have three emergency diesel generators on both units. I have two more redundant emergency diesel generators. Either one's capable of safely shutting down the unit. They're located at four different elevations, four different areas of the plant. Some are in bunkers you were in. One's elevated at least 40 feet above where the water is.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] This is a contentious license renewal, the most contentious, I think we can agree on, right? Why?
JOE POLLOCK: Well, we're in a metropolitan area. When the plant was built back in the ‘60s, because unit one was actually commercial in 1961, there was people that didn't want it here then. But we are a valuable asset to the community here in many ways— in the air quality, we're a low-cost provider of electricity. Therefore, we hold the price of electricity down in the area. And in fact, if you look at our life extension, if we operated 20 more years, just the union labor would earn over $1.3 billion in earnings at today's salaries.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] The plant has its passionate critics.
LYNN SYKES, Prof. Emeritus, Columbia University: We've had some earthquakes in the eastern and central U.S.
MILES O'BRIEN: Lynn Sykes, a Columbia University geologist, has spent years arguing that the Indian Point plant is not fully prepared for earthquakes. Two seismic fault zones intersect one mile north of the plant.
[on camera] So the Ramapo fault that you discovered— where's Indian Point?
LYNN SYKES: Indian Point is right here.
MILES O'BRIEN: Right on the fault. When they were designing Indian Point, this was unknown.
LYNN SYKES: This was unknown. The original design for Indian Point One barely mentions earthquakes, except to say that this region is quiet compared to Alaska and California and Japan, which is true.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] If they were designing the plant today, says Sykes, the NRC would certainly take into account the newly discovered seismic data.
[on camera] Let's start with the earthquake and paint the series of sequences that worry you that could lead to a loss of water and lead to that release of radioactive material.
LYNN SYKES: Right. So one would be if the reactors themselves are damaged by an earthquake that is large enough to crack critical components of that system.
MILES O'BRIEN: That would be a pretty big quake, wouldn't it?
LYNN SYKES: Well, it could be a magnitude 6. If you have an earthquake that is very close to Indian Point, it doesn't take as large an earthquake to cause damage, and particularly if it's shallow.
MILES O'BRIEN: And yet you still live here.
LYNN SYKES: I still live here. I live 17 miles from Indian Point.
MILES O'BRIEN: How much concern does that give you?
LYNN SYKES: It gives me a fair amount of concern, and one of the reasons is that Indian Point is closer to more people than any other reactor in the country.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] Not all experts agree with Lynn Sykes. Other geologists claim the Ramapo fault is not seismically active, and Entergy insists Indian Point could handle a magnitude 7 quake.
[on camera] The fuel that is in there is all the fuel that unit 3 has ever used in the course of its history?
PLANT WORKER: Yes, since 1976.
MILES O'BRIEN: So you're full?
PLANT WORKER: This pool is basically full. We have an application pending with the NRC to—
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] Nonetheless, with all this radioactive material on site, Sykes's work raises an important question. If a powerful earthquake triggered a series of unforeseen events leading to a release of radiation like Fukushima, how would so many people make their way to safety?
The plant is in Buchanan, New York, one mile from the center of town. There is an evacuation plan here.
SEAN MURRAY, Mayor, Buchanan, NY: There are several different routes throughout the village. All of our residents receive a copy of that guide on a yearly basis. As you go through the village, you'll see little blue signs that say "Evacuation route" such and such, which are all discussed in that guide.
MILES O'BRIEN: But many people who live here do not believe the plan will work.
RESIDENT: Rush hour in this area is impossible. I mean, if it rains at all, it's impossible, much less, you know, a nuclear crisis.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] This is the evacuation route. This kind of says it all. It's hard to imagine it standing the test of a real emergency. If you try to imagine everybody getting in their cars, getting on these few limited little roads and trying to get away from that plant, it just doesn't seem to add up. What it would be is total gridlock.
[voice-over] In the coming months, the NRC will decide on Indian Point's request for a 20-year extension. Unless the state succeeds in blocking the renewal, it is unlikely to be denied. After all, 71 reactors have already been relicensed. But this suggests a future problem.
CHARLES FERGUSON, Pres., Federation of American Scientists: Today, the United States has the largest number of nuclear reactors in the world, 104, but they're all old plants. Unless we make a decision to build new reactors, we're headed toward a retirement cliff of our reactors 20 years from now.
MILES O'BRIEN: [on camera] And that will have tremendous consequences, won't it?
CHARLES FERGUSON: That's right. I think by mid-century, we'll essentially have no nuclear plants operating in the United States, and by default, eventually phase out nuclear power, you know, 20 years from now.
MILES O'BRIEN: [voice-over] Back in Japan, nearly a year after the accident, the consequences of Fukushima can be seen everywhere. It took until December for workers to stabilize the reactors, finally achieving so-called "cold shutdown." Decommissioning the site itself is an immense job.
Prof. RON BALLINGER, MIT, Nuclear Science & Engineering: There's probably a 10-year plan before they can get into the reactor building, and then it goes on from there. So it'll be 25, 30 years, probably.
MILES O'BRIEN: Tens of thousands of evacuees are still unable to go home until the contamination is cleaned up.
Prof. JOHN MOULDER, Radiation biologist, Medical College of Wisconsin: You can scrape the earth off, but it's going to be in the vegetation. It's going to be in the ground. It's going to be everywhere. Some of the areas outside the plant in the Fukushima Prefecture still have dose equivalents of hundreds of millisieverts per year.
I think we're talking about a large zone which is permanently uninhabitable, and I don't think the risk-benefit calculations take into account the possibility that you're not just evacuating people temporarily, you are evacuating them for generations.
MILES O'BRIEN: And perhaps the most significant consequence for Japan is this: Because of public opposition, only six nuclear reactors remain operational. By May, experts estimate every one of Japan's 54 reactors will be shut down.