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Japan’s Prime Minister says his country is facing its most difficult challenge since World War II. Concerns are growing over a potential nuclear power crisis and the impact on an already struggling economy. Diane and her guests discuss the response to Japan’s devastating earthquake.
- Sheila Smith senior fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations.
- Edwin Lyman senior scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists
- Matthew Wald a reporter who covers nuclear power issues for the New York Times.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A second reactor at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power station exploded today. A Japanese official says fuel rods at the reactor were temporarily exposed. Officials are struggling to prevent a potential nuclear meltdown and to stabilize the stock market while attempting to reach survivors at the record earthquake and tsunami that hit northeast Japan on Friday. Joining me in the studio to talk about what's happening, Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Sheila Smith with the Council on Foreign Relations, and Matthew Wald from the New York Times.
REHMWe will be taking your calls, comments, 800-433-8850. Join us by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a tweet or join us on Facebook. Good morning to all of you.
MS. SHEILA SMITHGood morning.
MR. EDWIN LYMANGood morning.
MR. MATTHEW WALDGood morning, Diane.
REHMMatthew Wald, I'll start with you. What is the latest that we know?
WALDWell, the latest is they had an explosion at unit one. They had an explosion at unit two. And they've uncovered the core temporarily - excuse me - explosion at unit three uncovered the core temporarily at unit two. But the situation is, when you shutdown a reactor, you have to keep the fuel rods cool. They generate terrific amounts of heat in the first few hours that gradually falls off. And these folks are racing to keep the core covered any way they can -- sea water that they're using now is a desperation measure -- until heat production slows down and things stabilize.
REHMTell me what the problem with using sea water is, Edwin Lyman.
LYMANWell, sea water, which contains salt, is typically corrosive in certain environment, certainly in the hot environment of the reactor core. It could cause some permanent damage to the steel internals and it could affect instrumentation and seal. So...
LYMANI would expect.
LYMANYou know, they're going to have to consider whether the massive cost of returning those reactors to service is worth it and I would expect not.
REHMAnd what about the people who live around that area, Matt Wald?
WALDWell, some of them are just washed away. And I wonder about the workers at the plant who typically live nearby. Their houses are gone. Their families may or may not be gone. They may or may not know. Everything there is just scrambled.
LYMANWell, with regard to health effects, at this point, luckily, the largest release of radiation has not occurred. There still a risk of that. But for the time being, I think the evacuation of the area in the period of time they've had will be effective in preventing the worst kind of health consequences. But there may be consequences a long way downwind should one of these reactors proceeds to a full-scale core melt.
REHMSheila Smith, well, you heard this morning that 3,000 individuals are jammed into an elementary school with nothing but water and noodles. How is the government doing?
SMITHWell, Diane, I think that the Japanese government has reacted in a rapid and calm manner. But this is a crisis management talent of epic proportions. There are 108 -- well, 1,800 and plus climbing dead. The missing and unaccounted for are 15,000 plus. There are 450,000 people in shelters. And as you said, some people aren't -- haven't actually reached shelters yet. So there's no food. There's no water. There's no electricity. And the roads, the infrastructures are so severely damaged in northeastern Japan that rescue teams are having a hard time getting in.
REHMCan you take us through what happened here, Matt Wald? I know that Japan sits on one of the most severe faults on the planet.
REHMFour plates coming together.
WALDYes. In nuclear power, the rule of thumb is you know you're in bad news when you got to listen to the geologists. They appear -- the reactors appear to have survived the earthquake. The initial reports were that they shut down safely. The control rods inserted that turned off the nuclear chain reaction. The grid went down, as it typically does in a big event. But the emergency diesel generator started up. An hour later, the emergency diesel generator stopped. Presumably, that was the tsunami which came in and may also have done terrific damage in the associated buildings, destroyed some of the motors that run the pumps.
WALDAt that point, we still don't know exactly what systems are available and working and what are not. I believe they have brought in diesel-powered generators and just diesel-powered pumps. They had limited battery power. You have to open valves, close valves, align things to get cooling going, and that's only worked intermittently. Now, these explosions are quite interesting. The core, as it overheats, generates hydrogen. Hydrogen is explosive. How they managed to dump all this hydrogen into an enclosed space in the building where it then exploded isn't clear. If they had their rudders, they'd pushed it up at tall stack they've got where it would have dissipated harmlessly. So this is a clue that they're not dealing with a full suite of equipment of anymore.
LYMANSorry. With the aspect...
REHMDo you agree that had it been handled otherwise...
LYMANWell, no. I'm not sure there's a good way to deal with the hydrogen accumulation once it's occurred. Some reactors are equipped with a type of spark plug which is designed to burn off hydrogen before it reaches an explosive accumulation. I don't believe these reactors had that. And I think, actually, some hydrogen explosions in that building were probably expected at that point. And what actually happened was the least robust part of the building, which isn't actually designed to contain an explosion like that, did rupture. So I think an analyst would say things, procedures they would've expected.
REHMIs that -- the question then, is there a design flaw here that the industry must take into account?
LYMANI think there definitely are design flaws with this type of reactor, which is called a Mark I boiling water reactor. The containments are not as robust and don't have as much capacity to contain an event like this as certain other reactors which are called pressurized water reactors, which have larger, stronger containments. And the goal in this type of reactor was to condense steam using various means so that you don't have to worry about increased steam pressure. But the problem is that, at the time they designed them, they didn't know about the hydrogen risk. And so some reactors had to be retrofitted in the United States to deal with this new knowledge, but it still isn't adequate.
REHMNow, when you say some reactors here in the United States are going to have to be redesigned, are they all designed on the same principles those in Japan are, Matt?
WALDI've walked through Oyster Creek in New Jersey, which is a little larger in capacity, but the same vintage, the same manufacturer, General Electric. I think it's true that there are other reactor designs that might have done better. There are, in fact, younger boiling water reactor designs that also might have done better. These are an artifact of their time. It's like talking about a generic flaw in a 1965 Ford Galaxy. They're still operating around the world. I don't know if we're gonna go back and make changes to them. Probably, we'll make changes in places that are subject to tsunami.
LYMANHowever, it is the case that they continue to build reactors that have the so-called pressure suppression containments. There's actually a reactor -- it was originally planned to built decades ago in Tennessee and was never completed. But now, the Tennessee Valley Authority is planning to go ahead and complete it, and that's actually based on an older pressurized water reactor design, but based on the same kind of principle that you would use ice blocks to condense steam to reduce pressure so you didn't need to have a large, robust containment building.
LYMANAnd that -- there are nine of those already in the United States. They're building a 10th. I think maybe the NRC should reconsider -- that's the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should reconsider whether we need another flawed reactor like that.
REHMInteresting that a great many people are wondering about similarities to these explosions in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
LYMANWell, right now, the situation on the ground is probably similar to multiple Three Mile Islands and that there's been...
LYMANWell, there's been core damage in probably three other reactors. The melt -- the core has not completely molten, so it's still contained and still a reactive vessel. That's the same thing that happened in Three Mile Island. But there was some radioactive gas that was released and vented again like Three Mile Island. So the key is, if they can keep the core from completely melting so it remains in the reactive vessel, then the outcome may be, you know, three reactors that are massive cleanup problems that will have huge economic reverberations for Japan, but won't be as large a public health threat as Chernobyl.
REHMBut if there is a meltdown, then what?
LYMANWell, in the worst case, especially for this type of reactor which has a flaw in the containment building as well, there is a chance, maybe 30 percent or so, that the containment could fail and it would release a large -- a much larger radioactive cloud into the environment.
WALDI wanna add we're kind of an unknown territory. You can't say that in three of the last seven meltdowns this is what happened. There's some doubt among physicists that even if it does become a molten mass in the bottom, that it's gonna escape the containment. But clearly, you wanna keep the radioactivity in the fuel. You wanna minimize damage to the fuel, make the cleanup easier. They are committed now to releasing more radioactive gas, because if you're pumping in seawater and cooling by letting it boil off, you got to let that steam out before you can get more water in. They're gonna be doing this for weeks to come, but the hope is that, still, most of the radiation is gonna stay in the fuel. And when it's cold, they'll go back and clean it up.
REHMMatthew Wald, he is a reporter for the New York Times who covers nuclear power issues. We'll take a short break. When we come back, we have many calls. We'll try to get to them as quickly as possible.
REHMWe're talking about the devastating earthquake and tsunami that has hit parts of Japan. We have a great deal to talk about in terms of nuclear reactors, nuclear power, the implications for the rest of the world, certainly in terms of the loss of human life, and, for Japan, the effect, the impact on its own economy and that of the world. Sheila Smith is here. She's senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Matthew Wald is a reporter who covers nuclear power issues for The New York Times. Edwin Lyman is a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
REHMSheila Smith, I'm wondering. I know the ambassador, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, spoke this morning and said what a great job the Japanese government is doing. It was in some difficulty before this earthquake hit. Just how well is it doing now?
SMITHWell, I think you're right. The context of this, of course, is this is a new government. It was elected to power in 2009. For the first time in half a century, an opposition party took power, and it has been a bit of a bumpy ride. Having said that, though, at the moment that the earthquake and the tsunami happened on Friday afternoon, opposition party politics stopped. The politicians and the political leadership across the board galvanized behind the prime minister and his cabinet.
SMITHI think, again, the expanse of this crisis, the worst since World War II, is not to be underestimated. And in that context, the Japanese government has been extraordinarily calm and comprehensive in trying to deal with the multifaceted crises that they're confronting today.
REHMAnd, certainly, one facet of that is the economy. We're told that Japan central bank has pumped a record $184 billion into money markets and has taken other measures to protect its teetering economy. The Japanese Tokyo stock market has fallen, what, 6 percent this morning?
SMITHThat's right. As we know already, about 10 o'clock morning, Nikkei had fallen by 6 percent. The futures market, of course, had gone down by about 10 percent. So this is a stock market -- this is an economy that is in turmoil. This was anticipated, of course. Over the weekend on Friday, when the earthquake happened at the close of the day, the Nikkei had lost 1.7 percent of GDP. So, already, everybody understood that this morning was gonna be very rocky.
REHMAnd how does that fall affect the rest of the world's economy, Susan? Sheila. Sorry.
SMITHWell -- it's okay. I think, again, this is a -- this is -- these are ripple effects that are too early to really comprehend. You can see it in the yen market, however. The yen is now in the low 81 to the dollar range. Yen is probably going to end up coming back from investments overseas and back into the country. You may know that Japan is the largest purchaser of U.S. treasuries. And so I think we should anticipate that the Japanese will have to bring some of their cash home to help national reconstruction.
SMITHIt might be useful, though, to understand that the infrastructure damage is considerable. The Japanese government this morning instituted scheduled and rolling power cuts in the Kanto Plain, which is the largest industrial region of Japan. This is in addition to the households that -- in the north that don't have access to power. This will have a significant industrial impact, of course. Closer to Tokyo, there's refineries still in flames. Airports are just beginning to be reopened. So ports have been affected, including the Bay of Tokyo. So, again, the infrastructure damage is significant, and the industrial output is going to be deeply compromised.
REHMAnd we have John Brinsley from Bloomberg News on the line. He is Asia government editor, and he joins us from Tokyo. Good morning to you, John.
MR. JOHN BRINSLEYGood evening to you. How are you?
REHMIndeed. Please tell me how you are, what you're seeing, how people are managing.
BRINSLEYWell, people in Tokyo seem to be managing, although there's been a little bit of running for supplies from the stores. Water, dry goods seem to be down at market time, bicycled both to and from work today. And the train stations are operating in about, oh, two-thirds capacity. And there is a certain amount of anxiety, but it is certainly not -- it pales in comparison to what is happening 150 miles northeast of us in Fukushima.
REHMExactly. The question becomes how much of an impact is there in Tokyo considering what's happening elsewhere?
BRINSLEYWell, one impact are the ongoing quakes we had -- or I felt, at least -- five, I think, today. There have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 or 70 aftershocks since the 8.91 hit on Friday. The stock market today opened and plunged, falling more than 6 percent. It was its worst day in more than two years. The Japanese government is pledging whatever it can do. The Bank of Japan today injected another -- about $185 billion into the system to provide some liquidity, but with interest rates in Japan already near zero.
BRINSLEYThere's a certain limitations to what it is that the Bank of Japan can do. I think that, right now, while inevitably concern will turn to rebuilding the country, there is so much time and effort being used to get people who are alive sheltered and fed. Something like 1.4 million people have no power, no water. More than 350,000 people are in evacuation centers in the areas that were hardest hit. And, of course, the government and officials at the Tokyo Electric Power Company are doing everything they can to try to get these nuclear reactors from melting down.
REHMJohn, we have learned that, of course, the Japanese government was in some -- under some criticism even before this terrible event occurred. How do you think the government has reacted thus far? What are people saying there?
BRINSLEYWell, Prime Minister Kan -- you're absolutely right. Prime Minister Kan was under fire several hours before the quake hit. He was fending off questions in parliament about questions over a donation that he had accepted from a non-Japanese resident. Maybe that question never really got answered because the quake hit, and sort of the idea of possible political donation violations have sort of been completely swept off the table. Mr. Kan yesterday went on television and visibly -- clearly emotional, which he is not an emotional man, said that Japan was -- this was the worst thing to happen to Japan since the end of World War II.
BRINSLEYAnd he said that, essentially, we are all in this together and that we can overcome this terrible disaster if we work together. I was talking to several people yesterday who said that while there wasn't a lot of content in what Mr. Kan said, the emotion that he had -- from a man who's not known for displaying emotion -- clearly showed the depths of feeling that he had and that they were supportive of him. Now, of course, as long as it seems progress is being made on rescuing people, on dealing with this terrible ongoing nuclear crisis, then I think people are prepared, for the meantime, to look aside from the kind of troubles that Mr. Kan, who's only been in office for nine months, has undergone, as long as the government seems to be doing everything they can to deal with the crisis.
REHMJohn, can you stay on the line with us?
REHMGood. Sheila Smith, I want to ask you about food production in Japan after the quake. What's happening there? I know they have tariff-protected domestic agriculture to contain their own self-sufficiency. Is this going to mean more imports?
SMITHAbsolutely. I think, on the ground -- and the caller from Bloomberg, I think, made it very clear -- that clearly, people are already stocking up. So there's the short-term question of access to goods and that will be something that the Japanese will attempt to manage. What you don't see in Japan right now is looting. You don't see any of that kind of chaotic behavior. It's all very orderly. Convenient stores are filling up every four or five hours, as soon as they can get hold of material. So the short-term access to food, I think, is going to be a supply problem.
SMITHJapan is now increasingly dependent on its food supply from China. Much of its vegetables, a lot of its food is processed in factories in China. And for the last decade or so, there's been a bit of interdependence with the Chinese on the food side that has many in Japan a little bit worried about their food security. But I think imports are gonna be absolutely necessary to feed the country and to reassure the Japanese people that they have access to adequate supply.
REHMAnd to you, Ed Lyman, to what extent do you think that this nuclear accident could affect nuclear power around the world?
LYMANWell, I think it's too early to tell. There are two lessons -- well, we don't know what the lessons are going to be from this event. If it turns out that the reactors were not designed or anticipated this type of event and they experienced severe failure, well then it's not much of a surprise. But if they thought that they could manage the situation better than they did, then there's going to be -- we're going to have to think about whether regulations have to be strengthened around the world.
WALDWe've been at this 50 years. We continue to have events we didn't anticipate. It's a little bit like airplanes. As time goes on, they do get safer. We do have new surprises. Interestingly, the new designs being offered are meant to have more robust safety systems. Safety systems, for instance, that don't require pumps, that require fewer valves, don't require electricity in an emergency. The one Ed mentioned, the Westinghouse AP1000, puts the cooling water for emergencies on the roof, so you don't need a pump to get it where it's needed.
WALDOne of the big questions is, what will the Chinese think of this? The Chinese are prone to earthquakes. The Chinese are already building the Westinghouse model. And the United States was never gonna be the big market for the next round of nuclear reactors. Egypt wants to build some. The UAE wants to build some. I don't know what effect this accident will have there.
REHMJohn Brinsley, to what extent is Japan dependent on nuclear power?
BRINSLEYJapan gets about one-third of its energy requirements from nuclear power, so Tokyo right now is in the midst of some sort of rolling, I wouldn't call them blackouts. They were planned blackouts. But the people have been conserving enough so that it seems that it wasn't required to shut everything off for three hours -- a three-hour block of time. But with this -- Tokyo -- with the TEPCO plant in Fukushima down, and those plants, of course, will never comeback online now that the sea water has flooded into them, there's gonna be, I think, a real question as to long term where Tokyo -- where Japan goes now in its power supplies.
REHMJohn Brinsley from Bloomberg News. He joins us from Tokyo. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers waiting. Let's open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to John in Marietta, Pa. Good morning. You're on the air.
JOHNGood morning. My name is John. I'm a senior reactor operator at a BWR/4 reactor Mark 1 containment, a very similar reactor that they have over in Japan. These -- the event that happened there was beyond our design basis. It was a one in 100,000-year event. You know, the results from the earthquake, we could handle that type of event. The tsunami was the issue that caused the equipment damage over there. Now, I wanted to be clear that we should not panic in this country.
JOHNThe health and the safety of the public over there was paramount to those workers over there, and I'm praying for them now today. They sacrificed the plant for the health and safety of the public. When they decided to pump sea water in and to do a puff release into the secondary containment, they sacrificed the plant and gave -- decided billions of dollars, we're going to forego that and we're gonna save the people, and that's what they did. And we should take great confidence in the design of that plant and what they did to protect the people.
REHMThanks for calling, John. Matthew Wald.
WALDI think John is essentially right. I think he's also right that our chance of tsunami in Pennsylvania is acceptably small. I'm eager to see the actions by the crews at those reactors analyzed, because I'm sure we'll learn what they did right, what they did wrong. And I think there's a point here that when you got tens of thousands dead, the infrastructures wiped out, et cetera, it would be surprising if you got through these without any damage to the nuclear plants. And we don't really know how this is gonna end for the plants. So far, they just have not released a lot of radioactivity. And it's possible to get through this without doing that.
LYMANI guess to take issue a little bit with what we've heard, our long-standing concern has to do with the level of regulatory scrutiny provided by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In fact, how they -- their attitude toward accidents, which are what John called beyond the design basis, it's really an expert judgment to determine how likely a particular event like this is, and the NRC has a policy of deciding that certain accidents are so unlikely. We don't have to worry about them as much, so we don't have to inspect the systems to protect against them that much. In some cases, we don't have to do anything. The utility just has to do something voluntarily, and we just check once in a while and make sure they've done something.
LYMANWe don't think that's gonna be adequate anymore. We think there's gonna have to be a wholesale reevaluation of the risks of these plants with full acknowledgement of all the uncertainties that goes into the kind of estimate that John just provided.
REHMDo you agree, Matt?
WALDIf it's beyond design basis, it's not that you don't have to expect -- inspect the systems for it. There are no systems for it. Beyond design basis means it's not something you have to be prepared for. It would be an interesting exercise. What do you think of meteorites hitting the plant, et cetera? We have -- and this country already had earthquakes with ground acceleration more severe than the plants were designed for. We're talking essentially about where to draw the boundaries, and that's a tough question.
REHMMatthew Wald, he is a reporter for the New York Times. He covers nuclear power issues. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd we're back as we discuss the devastation in Japan after a huge, massive earthquake and the tsunami that followed. This is from the BBC live news site. It says, "More from Japanese nuclear engineer, Masashi Goto. He says that as the reactor uses mixed oxide fuel, the melting point is lower than that of conventional fuel. Should a meltdown and an explosion occur, plutonium could be spread over an area up to twice as far as estimated for a conventional nuclear fuel explosion. He says, the next 24 hours are critical." Would you agree, Ed?
LYMANWell, I've actually looked into the question of the use of the so-called MOX fuel, which has plutonium in it, for a long time. And I do have concerns about the use of plutonium in the light water reactors that it can increase the likelihood of certain accidents and make the consequences worse because of the additional plutonium and other so-called actinides, which are unusually radiotoxic if you inhale or ingest them. But in this case, the Fukushima three reactor had -- about five percent of the core was MOX fuel. That's much lower than reactors, for instance, in France that are using up to 30 percent of their core. So at five percent, I think there's some concern, but it would not be as severe as if this affected reactor with a much larger portion of their core is MOX.
REHMMatt, do you agree that the next 24 hours will tell a very important part of the story?
WALDYes, but for a slightly different reason, which is when you shut down a reactor, the core is still producing roughly 6 percent as much heat as when it was running. But that falls off over time because what's creating the heat is radiation, radioactive decay and some of those isotopes have really short half lives. And by a week out, you're heat production is way down. So every hour that goes by, they're producing a little less heat. Every hour they go by without completely melting the core, they have a better chance of getting through this with core damage but no real catastrophe.
REHMSheila Smith, here is an e-mail from Diane who says, "France, Switzerland, Germany have asked their nationals in Tokyo to come home or at least leave the metro. My son and his family are in Japan, have left Tokyo for Osaka. I want them to come home now. If they wait until Obama encourages them to do so, there might be no seats available." If your grandchildren were there, would you get them home now, Sheila?
SMITHWell, I don't have grandchildren. But yes, if I had family members in Japan to the extent possible that they could leave the country, I think it would be wise.
REHMWhat about the personal damage to individuals affected by the release of whatever is happening?
SMITHThe government has, of course, tested residents in the area around Fukushima, the skin and clothing...
REHMBut they're testing clothing and skin.
SMITHRight. So that's the initial response. I think when they were evacuating -- remember at the beginning, the evacuation was a three-kilometer radius, immediate radius of the plant, and that was very early on on Friday and Saturday morning. Some people were hospitalized. It took time for them to get them out. Those people were tested and some of those patients, their skin and clothing, had tested positive.
REHMBut isn't it a long term that we have to worry about?
SMITHOf course. But, again, we are still in this crisis management mode of trying to deal with the immediacy...
SMITH...of the evacuation, and 160,000 people that have been evacuated at the moment. But the longer term and broader consequences, of course, would be severe.
WALDIt's long term in the sense, Diane, that I don't think they've released enough radiation to give any member of the public immediate radiation sickness. I don't think they've come close to that yet. Hopefully, they won't get there. So it's long term in the sense that if you expose enough people in small amounts, the theory is you will get an increased cancer rate. This may or may not be significant in the context of 2,000 bodies in the water and 10,000 people dead in the picture.
REHMBut it thought it was fascinating that the prime minister referred to World War II and the devastation that took place then. I assume he was talking about the bombs being dropped.
WALDHe may have been. All of our statistics on the effects of low-level radiation are based primarily on people who did not die at Hiroshima but did get exposures and what they died of in the following years.
REHMDo you wanna comment, Ed?
LYMANYes. I think it's not that helpful to try to compare the effects of the atomic bombs to what's going on here. That was a special circumstance. In the worse case, if there was a large scale radiological release, there could be actually much more radiation released in the term -- in terms of fission products then was released after the atomic bombs. Because when a bomb explodes, actually a relatively small amount of fissile material actually gets fission. But most of the effects from the atomic bombs were due to neutrons and blast effects from the explosion. So it's a little misleading to compare, but the reactor consequences need to be evaluated in their own terms.
REHMAll right. To Arlington, Mass. Good morning, David.
DAVIDGood morning. So my call is about reactors near the coastline, which we have in here in the Boston area. And in Japan, they had generators in the basement, which, of course, flooded when the tsunami overcame the seawall protection. And they put them in the basement because the seawall was gonna prevent this. So you'll never know.
REHMYou'll never know, indeed. Matt.
WALDI'm not fully familiar with that design. Probably, the generators were outdoors, but the electric motors that would run the pumps that would do the cooling were, in fact, in the basement. There is a boiling water reactor in Plymouth, Mass. I don't think it's subject to tsunami, although all reactors are subject to some external hazards.
REHMHere is an e-mail from Jack in Columbia, Mo. He says, "In 2002, the chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Company and four other executives resigned, suspected of having falsified safety records at TEPCO power stations. Further examples of falsification identified in 2006 and 2007. Can we trust what TEPCO official say now considering this history?" Edwin.
LYMANWell, I think there is clearly a pattern in Japan. The government and the bureaucrats act as if they're totally committed to nuclear safety. In fact, the Japanese nuclear program is a very important part of their energy economy, and they have plans for expansion. But I think events over the last 10 or 12 years have shown that there are real cracks on that façade. There is a very serious accident in 1999 at Tokaimura, which exposed very crude and poor practices in nuclear safety and really, I think, shattered the myth that Japan had the handle on its nuclear program. So I do think we have to be very concerned about that.
REHMAll right. To Chapel Hill, N.C. Good morning, James.
JAMESHey. Thanks for talking to me. I just want to say quickly that a lot of these accidents that have happened in Japan were just what was forecast so long ago. And nuclear power is just too dangerous, too costly, too centralized, and it's just good for making money for rich people. That's...
REHMWhat do you think, Matt?
WALDI think the question varies depending on where you are. In North Carolina, they burn a lot of coal. It has its own downside. In Japan, if they burn coal, they'd have to import it. We've got a lot of natural gas in this country. We have other resources. Japan faced its own set of choices. I also think that the caller is right in the sense that in the long run, what we choose will depend on what it costs.
REHMThere are an awful lot of people wondering about how they can help. If you will go to our website, drshow.org, you'll find a link to the embassy of Japan here in Washington, D.C. which does offer suggestions as to how to help. Let's go now to Concord, N.H. Matthew, you're on the air.
MATTHEWGood morning. Thank you. I have -- I would also like to focus on some of the technical aspects of the nuclear crisis. I've heard, not by your guests, but I've heard these hydrogen explosions characterizes somewhat benign and not affecting the primary containment of the reactor. But my concern is, or my understanding is that there is containment for the spent fuel rods in that secondary containment building. And as much attention is being given to the reactors themselves that those containment pools may be compromised either in the explosions or by virtue of the event for the last couple of days.
MATTHEWAnd how -- I've heard that if those were to ignite, the spent fuel rods, that would be sort of a Chernobyl on steroids. And I was wondering if your guests could comment on that.
LYMANYes. Actually, the spent fuel pools are a concern. At this type of reactor, they're actually at the upper part of the building. And it's not quite clear, but a couple of them may have been exposed to the air when the roofs blew off. Now, my understanding is that the pools are not -- are far from being completely full, which is good, and there may be as much material in each on the averages in the reactor itself, which is far less than this typical for the United States. But there definitely is a risk of -- if they lose cooling that there would be a zirconium fire in the pool that could lead to a release of quite a bit of the cesium in those – in the spent fuel assemblies, therefore really also contributing to the health consequences of this event.
REHMSo give me a projection of possibilities in the next 24 hours both in human terms, Sheila, and in nuclear terms, Matt.
WALDThe spent fuel is a concern but probably not in the next 24 hours. If any of the cores does boil dry, they could get a lot more damage and be committed to a lot higher releases in the next 24 hours, in the next few days. And at that point, you could develop doses offsite that would be of serious concern. We're not there yet, and they got a lot of people working to make sure that doesn't happen.
SMITHBeyond the nuclear implications, there's half a million Japanese in evacuation shelters without access to food, water, medication. Many of these are elderly. There are children separated from their families. I anticipate that the 15,000 plus people who are missing are going to be declared dead if they are found at all. We have -- the United States has pledged assistance to self-defense forces. There are 100,000 self-defense force personnel now mobilized in Japan on this rescue operation.
REHMWhat about food? What about that kind?
SMITHThat and medical supplies are being brought in via the United States military. We have the USS Ronald Reagan offshore and eight other naval vessels are on their way with assistance. Helicopters lift capability is really what the U.S. military can offer. At the moment and already U.S. urban search and rescue teams from Fairfax County, Va., Los Angeles County, Calif. are stationed in Misawa Air Base, which is the one airfield in northern Japan that's actually open.
REHMSheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Louisville, Ky. Good morning, Andrew. You're on the air.
ANDREWGood morning, Diane. I just wanted to make the point. I was a former reporter for a newspaper. I went to Chernobyl 10 years on to look at the aftermath of that disaster, and I think it's important to draw a clear distinction between what happened at Chernobyl and what is happening in Japan. The reactor at Chernobyl was a completely different type of reactor. It's a Soviet design called an RBMK that has no containment around it whatsoever. The cause of the accident was essentially human error.
ANDREWAnd what eventually happened was the core of the reactor itself, which is made up of graphite blocks, ignited and that was the reason for the massive fire and the massive contamination. And at least to this point, thankfully, we don't have anything close to that in Japan. I mean, what happened to Chernobyl was orders of magnitude worse.
LYMANThat is true at this point, but it's a fallacy to claim that what the outcome of Chernobyl, which was a large radiological release that affected, you know, a wide area, can happen at a light water reactor. If this reactor would proceed to a core melt and containment failure, we could have consequences that are similar and that's why every effort has to be taken to prevent that.
REHMWe have a last e-mail from Anne, who says, "Why would anyone build a nuclear power plant on the Ring of Fire?" Explain that, Matt.
WALDThey've got an energy-intensive society, and all of their fossil fuel is imported. It's a form of...
REHMWhat is the Ring of Fire?
WALDThe Ring of Fire is the shores of the Pacific Ocean where the tectonic activity from California to Japan produces big earthquakes. They know they get big earthquakes. They think they're setup for them. Ironically here, they may have survived the earthquake and not the resulting tsunami. But again, you got to make your choices depending on your local conditions, and they like energy independence. They -- as Sheila was saying, they don't like importing everything, and this was an area in which they felt they could be self-sufficient.
REHMWould you think, Ed, if they had to rebuild that they would not rebuild in that same area?
LYMANWell, I think Japan is gonna have to think very hard about the future of nuclear power in the country. And they may have to take additional measures to ensure that we don't get to this point again that may raise the cost of nuclear power to make it even more uneconomic than it is today and could force them to rethink their strategy.
WALDTheir economics are different from ours. I'm sure they'll do things differently. It's hard in a country like Japan to put them some place far from the water 'cause they don't have inland water sources for cooling. So geography and physics dictate that they're gonna put these things on the cost where they may get hit by a tsunami. They may have to find another solution which is prevent tsunami damage.
SMITHI think it's -- I mean, I think we were watching these visuals on TV and everyone trying to comprehend Japan, there is not a lot of land in Japan, and there's an extraordinarily dense population located in very close proximity to where they have to generate power. And so the options are extraordinarily limited in the choices that they have to make.
REHMSheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations. Matthew Wald, he's a reporter for the New York Times who covers nuclear power issues. Edwin Lyman is senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Once again, you can go to our website, drshow.org, and there will be options for you to offer assistance. We wish the best to the people of Japan. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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