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Need to Know, July 15, 2011: California nuclear safety, population control, Gloria Steinem

Could a disaster like the one at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant happen in California? This week on Need to Know, we team up with the Center for Investigative Reporting and Capital Public Radio to investigate if one California nuclear power plant, which lies near two fault lines, would be able to withstand a severe earthquake that seismologists believe may be possible.

Also: Whatever happened to the “zero population growth” movement? On the heels of World Population Day this week, we look back at the fear of overpopulation during the 1960s and 1970s, and speak with two reporters to find out what challenges lie ahead for population control.

And: Feminist icon Gloria Steinem speaks to us about how far the women’s movement has come.

Check your local listings for details.

Watch the individual segments:

Double fault: Nuclear safety at Diablo Canyon

Could a Fukushima-style disaster happen at one of California’s nuclear power plants? The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is near two California fault lines, and at least one critic, a Republican state senator, is questioning whether the utility that owns the plant, PG&E, is doing all it needs to to ensure that it can safely withstand the kind of earthquake some seismologists believe is possible.

Pollution by population?

As the world steadily marches toward record-breaking population figures, Need to Know time travels to the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, a small window of time when “overpopulation” was a frightening issue that occupied a substantial slice of the American psyche.

Interview: Phillip Longman and Julia Whitty

Alison Stewart interviews reporters Phillip Longman and Julia Whitty to discuss the challenges of population change today, and just how serious they are.

Gloria Steinem on men, women and power

Need to Know correspondent Stacey Tisdale talks with feminist icon Gloria Steinem about the gains made by the women’s movement and what’s left to be tackled.

Watch more full episodes of Need to Know.


  • Mattgate

    Your California Nuclear program was excellent but you omitted something.  The failure of the Fukushima power plant was due to the tsunami.  You didn’t mention potential impact or damage to the Diablo Canyon plant from tsunami.

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  • EllenFarmer2

    I want everyone in California to consider the 1,000 employees at Diablo Canyon and how they could be retrained in safe and clean energy jobs. When I saw the nuclear power plant on this excellent show, my first thought was — “that should be covered with solar panels!” Check out the possibility of wave energy at Aquamarine Power — operating off the coast of Scotland with viability studies already taking place in Oregon and California. Diablo Canyon supplies less than 7.5% of the state’s energy needs. If we had a Fukushima disaster here, a 25-mile radius of towns, cities, ranchlands, fertile farmlands and vineyards would be contaminated forever, and no one could return to their homes or retrieve their belongings. And who would compensate these people for their astronomical losses? The government? PG&E? I think the cost would be too big for anyone to manage. Let’s use the precautionary principle and stop messing with fate. Our biggest effort should be figuring out how to clean up nuclear waste as efficiently as possible. Scientific American has a great article in their May issue about potential ways to use up nucelar waste before it’s exposed to some unstoppable force of nature like an earthquake or fire. This program demonstrates exceptionally good investigative journalism — THANK YOU!!

  • Asteroid Miner

    The Japanese on your show are trying to reduce their exposure to radiation to LESS THAN THE NATURAL BACKGROUND!!!!!!!   You did know that there is natural background radiation didn’t you?   How else would we date Egyptian mummies with the radioactive carbon they ate thousands of years ago?   See: DENVER!!!!
    If you live in Chernobyl the total radiation dose you get each year is 390 millirem.   That’s natural plus residual from the accident and fire.   In Denver, Colorado, the natural dose is over 1000 millirem/year.   Denver gets more than 2.56 times as much  radiation as Chernobyl!   But Denver has a low cancer rate.

    Calculate your annual radiation dose:

    The Average American gets 361 millirems/year.   Smokers add 280 millirems/year from lead210.   Radon accounts for 200 mrem/year.

    Although radiation may cause cancers at high doses and high dose rates, currently there are no data to unequivocally establish the occurrence of cancer following exposure to low doses and dose rates — below about 10,000 mrem (100 mSv). Those people living in areas having high levels of background radiation — above 1,000 mrem (10 mSv) per year– such as Denver, Colorado have shown no adverse biological effects.

    Calculations based on data from NCRP reports show that the average level of natural background radiation (NBR) in Rocky Mountain states is 3.2 times that in Gulf Coast states. However, data from the American Cancer Society show that age-adjusted overall cancer death in Gulf Coast states is actually 1.26 times higher than in Rocky Mountain states. The difference from proportionality is a factor of 4.0. This is a clear negative correlation of NBR with overall cancer death. It is also shown that, comparing 3 Rocky Mountain states and 3 Gulf Coast states, there is a strong negative correlation of estimated lung cancer mortality with natural radon levels (factors of 5.7 to 7.5).

    All natural rocks contain most natural elements.   Coal is a rock.   The average concentration of uranium in coal is 1 or 2 parts per million.  Illinois coal contains up to 103 parts per million uranium.   Coal also contains the radioactive decay products of uranium.   A 1000 million watt coal fired power plant burns 4 million tons of coal each year.   If you multiply 4 million tons by 1 part per million, you get 4 tons of uranium.   Most of that is U238.   About .7% is U235.   4 tons = 8000 pounds.   8000 pounds times .7% = 56 pounds of U235.   An average 1 billion watt coal fired power plant puts out 56 to 112 pounds of U235 every year.   There are only 2 places the uranium can go: Up the stack or into the cinders.
    Since a reactor full fuel load is around 11 tons of 2% U235 and 98% U238, and one load lasts about 10 years,  what one coal fired power plant puts into the air and cinders could fully fuel a nuclear power plant.
    Compare 4 Million tons per year with 1.1 tons per year.   1.1 divided by 4 Million = 2.75 E -7 = .000000275 =.0000275%.   Remember that only 2% of that is U235.   The nuclear power plant needs ~44 pounds of U235 per year.   The coal fired power plant burns coal by the trainload.   The nuclear power plant consumes U235 in such small quantities yearly that you could carry that much weight in a briefcase.
    3.   See the rest of Alex Gabbard’s article.   U238 can be bred into Plutonium and Thorium can be bred into Uranium.   We can fuel our nuclear power plants for CENTURIES just by extracting uranium and thorium from coal cinders and smoke.

  • James Vincent Hodgson

    Wow Asteriod Miner, I am so impressed with your data links and statistics the mind boggles, but I now learnes a new measure and Mrem in addition to milli sieverts, micro sieverts, Bequerels and even tera bequerels.
    You correctly point out how Egyptian mummies are dated because of residual radiation in thier bodies after thousands of years. Mmmm I guess that means you would have to vary your age calculations if the Mummy had lived say next to a Chernobyl or Fukushima to get the right answer. Meaning you studiously avoid a lot of the different kinds of radiation like Iodine ( thyroid issue ) Cesium  2 or 30 year plus half life, Gamma radiation and the effects of MOX fuels where plutonium may be emitted.
    My overall response and I’ m not the scientist you are ( just common sense) is yes it is true different places have variable levels of so called background radiation, got it; and it is not necessarily as such a risk.
    First off Background radiation is just that, and we all live with it  as long as we are where we are on this planet. However when you have a Nuclear disaster ala Chernobyl, Three mile island and Fukushima dai Ichi that background remains, but is added to by an element That is “abnormal” not just background. That abnormality transfers itself to drinking water, soil, food crops vegetables and fruits of all kinds to varying degrees even to animals fed from stores of hay = cows, (meat and milk and yoghurts) pigs, chckens and other edible wildlife like deer as one example, also to fish stocks seaweed ( iodine main issue here)  especially those fish and shell firms farms close to shore. ( A PS here, some mushrooms growing in Germany today although normally edible are inedible still as the radiation pollution remains above safe levels.
    So for me its several parts:-
    A) The Normal atmospheric or background radiation and how a NUKE disaster adds to that level.
    B) The environmental factor where crops fish etc etc become Contaminated beyond background levels or Norms, and we all know that the effects of consumed products, water of any kind internally injested are more damaging than the atmospheric exposures.
    C) Then you have the self inflicted exposures Of Xrays, MRI’s, CTscans.
    Again the point is you have to look at the whole exposures as they add up not just the Background levels being lower in Japan than many other places.
    D) the problemWill continue for years not just a day or week QEd yor conclusions don not satisfy me.

  • Asteroid Miner

    573 certified deaths were due to evacuation-related stress at Fukushima.  Zero due to radiation.  February 4, 2012

    “Japanese authorities recognize 573 deaths related to Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Catastrophe

    As reported by the Yomiuri Shimbun:

    “A total of 573 deaths have been certified as “disaster-related” by 13 municipalities affected by the crisis at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant….

    A disaster-related death certificate is issued when a death is not directly caused by a tragedy, but by fatigue or the aggravation of a chronic disease due to the disaster. ….”"

    ZERO deaths were caused by radiation.  573 deaths were caused by the evacuation that was forced by officials.  The people who died were evacuated from such things as intensive care.  They might have survived if the evacuation had not taken place.  Fukushima’s natural background radiation is still higher than the radiation from the reactor leak.  Fukushima’s natural background radiation plus the radiation from the reactor leak is still less than the natural background radiation here in Illinois.  Natural background radiation varies greatly from place to place.  Our background radiation is around 350 milli rem/year.

    “milli” means “.001″

    350 milli rem/year means 0.350 rem/year

    People living in Ramsar, Iran have a background radiation of 10 to 20 rems/year and report no ill effects.