Nuclear Contamination in Japan
MS. SUSAN PAGE
Thanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Leaking contaminated water, increased levels of plutonium in the soil, these are two of the latest challenges for Japanese workers seeking to contain the crisis at the nuclear power station in Northern Japan. Joining me to explain the latest developments and the health risks, John Boice, scientific director of the International Epidemiology Institute, Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Nathan Hultman of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
PROF. JOHN BOICE
Nice to be here.
We invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. Our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Or you can always send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. First, joining us from Tokyo, we have Ken Belson, a reporter for The New York Times. Ken, thank you for being with us.
MR. KEN BELSON
Sure. Thank you.
In today's New York Times, you write about the further setbacks the Japanese are encountering in their efforts to deal with the nuclear situation there. I guess it's, what, about 11 p.m. in Tokyo now?
Yes, it is, still bright and early here.
And so what is the -- what happened today? What's the latest?
Well, several things. Among other things, the government said that the tanks that they've been using to store some of the contaminated water -- basically runoff from efforts to keep the spent fuel pools cool -- are starting to fill up, and so they're having to scramble to find alternative or extra storage tanks. So one is outside of the reactor buildings, but still on the premises, but given how much water they've been pouring in -- tons and tons of water over the last couple of weeks -- it's inevitable that they're going to have to find yet more storage for this spent -- for the contaminated water.
And that's not an easy thing in this country where we don't have, say, a place like a desert in the Nevada to go bury -- start burying things. This is a very crowded place. And, obviously, by the shore where these plants are, there's not a lot of room around there to move, so that's a big hassle and a consequence of the effort that they're taking to try and cool the reactors.
Really at cross-purposes. In a way, you want to pour water on them to cool them down, but then that increases the risks that this contaminated water will leak into the ocean. Has it already started leaking into the ocean?
Well, they've already found traces of iodine-131 and cesium as well in the water a couple of hundred meters off of the shore where the nuclear power plants are and that some of the drainage ditches that are nearby are close to overflowing and only a few meters away from the shoreline. So the fear is that you could have a lot more of contaminated water heading into the ocean, and that has its own set of consequences, particularly cesium, which has a longer half life, could get into the fishing waters and so forth. Of course, there's not a lot of fishing going on there, but the fish are still swimming, so that has -- could have potential impacts on the food supply.
And what about the plutonium -- reports of plutonium in the soil? Do we know where that has come from?
Well, one of the four damaged reactors actually is -- use a mixture of plutonium. And that is where a lot of people think it's come from. It makes, probably, the most direct sense. The government is a little vague right now on where, but the short answer to it is it's actually in the soil within a few hundred feet of the reactors itself. So it's there. Whether it's spread beyond that is another question. They seemed to downplay it yesterday, saying it -- the amount around was really no much more than if somebody had tested a plutonium bomb. It would have been in the atmosphere circling the globe.
So they're playing it down. But as we found now, there seems to be a pattern of -- starting softly and then having the revised numbers later, both on trace elements they found in tap water, in vegetables, this -- the area that was contaminated has spread over time.
Do you think that the Japanese people who are listening to the words from their government, the assurances, the warnings and so on, do they trust the government? Does the government have credibility with its citizenry now?
It's a tough one to call because most people have not been through something like this before.
Ken, I'm sorry. We seemed to have lost Ken who is joining us from Tokyo. Ken Belson, a reporter for The New York Times. We'll see if we can get him back. I think we're also joined now from Tokyo by Philip White. He's with the Citizen's Nuclear Information Center. Philip, hi. Are you there?
MR. PHILIP WHITE
Yes, I'm here.
Thank you so much for joining us. First, just explain to us what the Citizen's Nuclear Information Center, your group. What is it?
We're an organization that's a science -- takes a science-based approach to questioning Japanese government's nuclear policy. We've been around for about 35 years. We were started up by scientists with expertise in the nuclear field. And we've been calling for a phase-out for nuclear -- of nuclear energy for all that time.
Now, I was just asking Ken Belson about the credibility that the Japanese government now has when it's giving reports to its citizens on what's happening at this nuclear plant. What is your perspective on that?
I think it's losing credibility. I personally haven't given a lot of credibility from the start. It's hard to know what the general public thinks. But this vein of -- the approach is vain to say that there's no danger from the levels of radiation that are being leaked out or getting beyond the site and pushing the positive side of the recovery a bit. But sort of every day, another bad piece of news comes out. And I think people are generally wondering what they should believe. They don't understand the figures that come out. But, generally, they're becoming increasingly skeptical, I think.
Now, how -- of course, Japan has developed nuclear power because it saw a need for a power source there. How do you balance the risks of nuclear power in Japan with the need to have, you know, a means to generate power there?
You need to provide energy services in the form of light and heat and cooling and so on. But the way you provide that doesn't necessarily have to be a highly energy-intensive approach. And I think the people have got their mind locked into the notion that large companies with centralized power plants whose incentive is to sell more and more electricity is the only option we have. But if you have more distributed electricity generation system in which more and more incentives are towards efficiency, then you can actually reduce your consumption of raw energy. So if that mind shift occurs, then, I think, also the possibilities open up. But as long as you think that you have to match the amount of power that we have now and continually increase it, then your options are restricted.
Philip White, thank you very much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
Philip White is with the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center. And we've got Ken Belson back on the line. Ken, thanks for coming back.
Sure, sure. I want to do -- just finish the point we were talking about earlier about the Japanese view of things. There was a new poll out in the last day or so suggesting that 58 percent of Japanese don't trust the way the government is handling the crisis right now. Maybe it's a no-win situation for the folks in the government, and that's perhaps understandable under the circumstances. And, of course, you know, just walking the streets in Tokyo, you wouldn't see that disaffection. There's very few, you know, rallies in the streets, anything like that. I think people are mostly worried about their well-being, particularly the food supply. But there isn't the mechanism, in many cases, to show that disagreement. So I think it's a quiet disagreement at the moment.
And is it -- you know, of course, in the United States, Americans often express distrust to the government during crisis. That's a very American attitude to take in some ways. Is this different, do you think, for the Japanese people? Is there the same tradition of skepticism toward the government?
No. I don't think it's nearly as, you know, pronounced as it is in the States. The election cycle is different here. It's a parliamentary system. There's been -- for -- except for a few brief periods, pretty much a one-party rule since the '50s. There's a faith in bureaucrats to handle things properly, or at least handle things on people's behalf. And, you know, it's a fairly wealthy society, right? So most people have health care, decent access to health care, a pension system, and, despite all the economic problems, the standard of living here is quite high. So you don't have that kind of -- the income gap that often exacerbates things in the States, too. That is sort of lacking here as well.
So you don't feel that, but, I think, if you speak to the average Japanese person, I think they're -- they don't have the wool pulled over their eyes. They can see that the government right now is reaching in all directions for help.
And you mentioned that what a lot of Japanese people that you see in Tokyo are concerned about is how this affects their own lives, the water they drink, the food they eat. How much difference have you seen, like in the grocery stores or in other ways that people live their lives that might reflect concern about what's happening at the nuclear plant?
Well, certainly, certain types of foods have disappeared. Certain vegetables, for example, nobody -- people don't want to buy them, even if they're not from areas that have been -- you know, have shown trace elements in the food supply. And bottled water is a hard thing to get now, oddly. But, you know, the numbers are all over the place. And, I think, going back to the question you asked Philip about the numbers themselves, this may be a sort of media management issue that is confusing matters. There are numerous press conferences every single day, from the regulators, from the company, TEPCO itself -- Tokyo Electric -- from the government. Sometimes the prime minister is on, the cabinet secretary, and there's several of them per day.
And so the accumulation of them is often confusing, especially when they start spitting out numbers about millisieverts and the like. It's hard for the average person to put any of that in context. And I think that's confusing, too. It may be unintentional, but it has a net effect of sort of you know, barreling over the average viewer.
All right. Ken Belson, he's a reporter for New York Times, joining us from Tokyo. Thanks so much for being with us.
We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll turn to our panel of experts here in the studio to talk about some of the lessons learned from the Japanese experience and what the implications might be for policy here in the United States. Stay with us.
Welcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And joining me in the studio to discuss the nuclear situation in Japan, John Boice, he's a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt, and he's the scientific director of the International Epidemiology Institute. And Edwin Lyman, he's a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. And Nathan Hultman, he's a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and he's also associated with The Brookings Institution. Well, John, let me ask you about the -- all these things we're hearing about -- contaminated water leaking into the ocean and into the air, even some slight upticks on the East Coast in some of these measurements. Should Americans be concerned about the risk to their own health?
No, I don't think so. The levels of radiation that have come across the oceans and traveled these many thousands of miles has been so diluted that the amount of radiation that would be received is very, very small. And I'd like to say that in context of the radiation that we receive every day -- we breathe radiation right now, radioactive radon. We have radiation in our water and the soil, so we experience, throughout our lives, this low-level radiation. The amount of radiation coming from Fukushima and the Dai-Ichi plants that comes to the United States is really tiny in comparison.
So Americans don't need, in your view, to take any precautions in terms of bottled water, avoiding eating seafood or whatever.
Absolutely not. Absolutely not. If we were concerned about levels of this magnitude, we would tell people from Colorado to move down here to sea level because they would have much lower radiation exposure. I mean, just the levels are very, very tiny. And so there's not reason to be concerned here in the United States.
What about risks to people in Japan? How serious are the risks to them? And should they be making alterations in their behavior?
Well, my concern has always been with the workers first. I just want -- I don't want to discount them. They have experienced levels where we have, in fact, found risk of increased cancer throughout life. So they're potentially exposed to meaningful amounts of radiation. With regard to the people, it seems that the Japanese government, learning from, actually, the Chernobyl experience, they immediately evacuated the people around the nuclear plants, and then they monitored the radioactivity in the food supply.
And when they noted that the food levels and the food supply in the prefectures around the nuclear plant were high, they banned the food and did not ship it. So the whole issue with the exposure to the public is what the levels might be. And at this time, the levels do not seem to be of a magnitude that they would result in significant health effects later in life. This is clearly not the same situation as what happened at Chernobyl.
I'd like to ask Edwin Lyman about -- to help us put this in some context. Chernobyl, obviously, the worst nuclear accident in our history. Three Mile Island, something Americans are also familiar with. How does this compare with the risks and damage from those two incidents?
MR. EDWIN LYMAN
Well, Susan, I think it's really too early to tell because the event is still very much unfolding. And as much radiation that has already been released from the site, there could be several times more that's still contained in the fuel and the reactor cores within the containment buildings, and also within the spent fuel. So if things turn for the worse, there could be a significantly increased release. But, already, there have been independent estimates from French and Austrian government authorities that there's already been perhaps 20 percent of the iodine-131 that was released at Chernobyl has already been released from Fukushima. So the magnitude of the release is already on the same order of magnitude, and that is something that we need to be concerned about.
And, of course, the repercussions of Chernobyl were quite devastating, especially for the region around there. Do you expect similar levels of concern over a period of years and years to result from this incident?
Well, as John can talk more about, the most apparent health consequence of Chernobyl is the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers that occurred in people who are children. They were fetuses at the time, and that -- because that's such a rare cancer, that's a very clear marker of exposure to radioactive iodine. The question is, have the Japanese authorities been more effective in shielding especially children who are at risk from radioactive iodine through either evacuation or the administration of potassium iodine? It's not clear. In our view, they did not act fast enough and did not protect a large enough population.
So, John, we could see a significant occurrence of, say, thyroid cancer in children as a result of this?
Well, only if the population had received the substantial levels and had ingested large amounts in the milk supply. You know, what happened at Chernobyl, it did not have a containment vessel, and the reactor blew. And for seven days, there was a fire of the graphite moderating material that was mixed with the fuel -- seven days open to the environment. Radiation spewed into the environment for 10 days. It was a massive, massive release. And the ground was contaminated with cesium -- and it still is.
Large, large -- thousands of square kilometers are contaminated even today with the cesium. And the radioactive iodine landed on the grass. Cows ate the grass. Cows gave milk. The milk was then given to the children, and the children drank the contaminated milk and received very large levels of radioactivity to the thyroid. This was an epidemic of untold proportion. Six thousand -- as Ed mentioned, 6,000 children developed thyroid cancer as the result of the Chernobyl accident.
One of the problems, though -- one of the difficulties was that the Soviet government did not act quickly. They actually could have prevented the epidemic of thyroid cancer by making one simple statement: Don't drink the milk. Mitigation circumstances did come on a little bit later, and so they did limit the milk consumption and the food consumption. They did evacuate, you know, a few days later, the population around Chernobyl. But they were a little bit late in acting.
And whatever complaints we have about the Japanese government, the Soviet government then released very little information. I remember what a frustrating story that was to try to follow. Well, Nathan Hultman, we've been on the verge of what some people thought was going to be a nuclear renaissance here in this country. President Obama had endorsed new nuclear plants as part of the solution to our energy crisis here in the United States. What kind of impact do you think the Japanese accident is going to have on the future of nuclear energy here in this country?
PROF. NATHAN HULTMAN
Well, that's a great question. And it is inevitable, at this point, that we'll have to have some kind of conversation in this country about whether our procedures for regulation and whether for permitting for new construction are, in fact, adequate for the level of safety that we, as a country and as a public, would demand. What Japan showed is that, certainly, you know, well-built and well-planned systems -- people had identified some potential weaknesses with the Japanese reactors at Fukushima.
PROF. NATHAN HULTMAN
They had not been acted on very effectively or at all in particular, in terms of defending against possible new information about maximum tsunami levels in this kind of thing. So, in this country, we will have to take a look at, number one, the plants that we currently are operating and whether the safety precautions and the regulations that we have in place, number one, are being enforced. Number two, are they even sufficient for the task? Maybe we would need more, for example, back-up generation, which is one of the issues that came up at Fukushima.
PROF. NATHAN HULTMAN
And then, similarly, when we're looking at not only our current -- our existing fleet, but also looking at building out new reactors in this country -- which is what President Obama and a number of people in Congress have been advocating -- whether that expansion is sufficiently -- whether the oversight for that expansion is sufficiently in place, whether we want to create new regulations, new kinds of safety procedures or, in fact, in the longer run, want to steer research and development toward -- in more inherently safe kinds of reactors, and even having a discussion about whether, in fact, nuclear power is a technology we want to rely on as much in this country.
I wonder if it's feasible or realistic, politically, to think about an expansion of nuclear plants when the headlines are all about this catastrophe in Japan. What does the panel think?
Well, Susan, we think that there definitely needs to be a pause. My organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has tracked nuclear safety and regulation in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for many years. And it's in our judgment that complacency has set in on the part of the regulators in the industry, and that attitude is going to have to change. There's going to have to be renewed focus on prevention of severe events and less emphasis on cleaning up afterward. And my feeling is what we're seeing in Fukushima is a clear indication that it's not going to be as easy as, I think, the industry thought here, that even if an event like this occurs, that you can mitigate it simply and cleanly, looking at the disaster that's unfolding.
The White House this morning announced that President Obama would give a -- what they are describing as a major address on energy tomorrow at Georgetown University, so we'll look forward to seeing whether he talks again about the future of nuclear power. Well, let's take some callers who are very patiently waiting. Let's go to Simon. He's calling us from West Palm Beach, Fla. Simon, hi. You're on the air.
Sorry? Yes, yes. Well, what I want to ask is this. We've been told that there's no significant risk. Now, I have here a report from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's ex-director John Gofman and Prof. Arthur Tamplin from Stanford University. And it says here, even the smallest quantity of ionizing radiation produces harm, both to this generation of humans and future generations. And Sir Kenneth (word?) confirms "that each exposure, even the least, does some damage." As the radiation goes up, the risk of future cancer development and other cancers induced -- radiation-induced diseases and mutations goes up in direct proportion.
In fact, the general overall finding is the effect of radiation is directly proportionate down to the lowest dose and dose rates. In other words, there's no threshold below which radiation is completely safe. Now, the point is then is that if, for example, a population of a million is running a risk of one in a million, then one of them will get it. If a population is 300 million, it's risking one in a million and 300 will get it. That's the first point. The second point is that it's really disingenuous to compare the amount of radiation that's released from a nuclear power plant or, indeed, from a reprocessing plant, which also releases about 200 radioactive elements as a routine part of normal reprocessing to the background radiation.
Because much of the background radiation is geologically stable and therefore doesn't enter into the food chain. It doesn't get re-concentrated up the food chain, so even there may be very low levels, for example, in the water, radioactive cesium, maybe one part in a million...
Mm hmm. Right.
...but gets re-concentrated by fish to what we -- one part in a thousand.
And it gets to the human, and you -- nor can you even compare it with the amount of radiation that you get as a body dose.
All right, Simon. Thank you so much for your call. John, let me turn this question over to you.
Sure. Well, the caller makes some excellent points. And in terms of radiation protection, we do assume that any exposure carries a risk, and the lower the dose, the lower the risk, the lower the probability that you'll develop an adverse effect later on in life. And this is what we do for radiation protection. And we set the standards and guidelines based on this straight line assumption. But then, to remember that, if the dose is very, very low, the probability of developing a bad effect is also very, very low.
Also, to -- I've spent my life studying populations exposed to ionizing radiation. And we find it very, very difficult to detect risks below 150 or 200 millisieverts. That means that, at these levels below, we don't really know what the risk is, and we have to make our best assumptions. And one of the assumptions that's used is that it's a straight line.
I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Did you want to finish that thought?
Oh, yes. I'd like to comment about the natural radioactivity in our foods. It's actually not quite correct what the caller said, that it's not getting into our food supply. We eat and drink radium, thorium, radium all the time. And radioactive potassium is actually a very high source of radioactivity in our diet. In fact, bananas is one of the highest sources, and some of the radioactivity that comes from bananas is much higher than some of the cesium levels that have been indicated in the food stuffs in some of the prefectures around Fukushimo -- Fukushima. So it's not strictly correct to say that we are not, in fact, ingesting radioactive elements, which we are, and they're incorporating into our muscles and into our bones every day.
But I think as a public policy matter, there is a distinction to be drawn between natural radioactivity and, let's say, medical radiation and what you're getting as a result of a disastrous accident in another country, you know. So it's a little misleading. And I think it's important to emphasize, you know, to Americans that there's no need to panic. But that doesn't mean that it's okay, and they should just go about their business and, you know, we can allow periodic disasters of this magnitude all over the world and simply accept it. You know, we have to say, yeah, it's not a cause for panic here, but we need to rethink whether or not, as a matter of practice, we can allow this level of risk, even low, to occur.
Let me build on these two comments and broaden out the perspective a little bit. In the end, this kind of question that the caller brings up is a classic case of regulatory, sort of, balancing between what we know about risks and what we know about the costs and the consequences. One of the difficulties that we face with radiation in particular and nuclear power as a more general energy technology is that the way people perceive the risks of nuclear power does, in fact, vary a lot compared to other kinds of regulatory risk settings. So often, people in the public just would rather not have to deal with even low levels of radiation that are generated by human technologies, whether it's medical or nuclear power.
And that's something that, I think, we need to -- the lesson of the first 30 years of -- in fact, difficult discussions about nuclear power in this country really underscored the need to talk about these issues in a very kind of transparent and open way and to make sure that both the experts and the people who were essentially needing to live with the risks were understanding what the risks were and actually were trying to come to some agreement whether that was tolerable. So it's not just a question of the numbers but also a question of how the discourse is handled in the public policy domain.
Well, do, for instance, Americans look at the risk of coal-fired plants and the risks associated with global warming and some of the other things that nuclear powers looks pretty good compared to? Do they assess those in the same way? Do they hold all these different kinds of energy sources to the same standard?
Well, my perspective on this is that nuclear power is unique in this sense, that the risks that come from radiation and nuclear energy are, in fact, just perceived differently by a lot of people in the public. And so it's -- it is important to deal with it in an open and transparent way and try to assess the risks in that spirit.
We're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones and read some of your emails. Stay with us.
Welcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With us in the studio, John Boice, scientific director of the International Epidemiology Institute, Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Nathan Hultman from the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. We're talking about some of the repercussions from that nuclear accident in Japan. Let's go first to Jeanette, who's calling us from Oklahoma. Jeanette, hi. You're on the air.
Thank you for taking my call. I have a question. Since nuclear power has inherent dangers and since we have a history of generating power in the form of hydroelectricity and hydropower, has there been any attempt on a large scale to commercially harness tides so that the power from both could generate the power needed for particularly an island country like Japan?
Well, interesting question, Jeanette. Anybody on the panel? Yes, Nate.
I think this is -- this question gets at a little bit the points that were brought up earlier, first by Susan and also by the caller from Citizens' Nuclear, about the question of trading off risks of nuclear power and whether that's something that we want to embrace as a country or, in fact, as an international community. The caller brought up a specific technology. She talked about tidal-based energy and, yes, there are research projects and demonstration projects on tidal energy. But I think it's more important even to view this as a view at a portfolio of energy choices that we have and that tidal power does sort of fit into the sort of low carbon, renewable energy category, which I would also put, sort of, wind power, solar and others like that.
And it is reasonable, and in fact it's appropriate at this point, to actually ask that question. You know, given that nuclear is -- does have to deal with and manage inherently dangerous material, is it something that we absolutely need to rely on in order to generate electricity, essentially to boil water to dry steam turbines to make our electricity, given that we might have other ways to generate that electricity with lower environmental risks?
And where would you come down on that question?
I actually think that right now, you know, we have a lot of nuclear power in the -- let's talk about the U.S. in particular. I think it's important to make sure that that nuclear power is safe and runs its course safely throughout the designed lifetime of those plants. But I actually do think this is something that is important for us as a country to look into seriously as to whether we want to prioritize additional extensive investment in nuclear power or to look to other options.
Now, here's an email from Kevin. He writes us from Albuquerque. He says, "Coal is worse. Some prospective air pollution from American coal-fired power plants kill 10,000 Americans every year and also warm the globe. The Japanese accident so far has directly killed nobody, while the tsunami killed 30,000." I think the latest reports are that -- confirmed death toll of just over 11,000 in Japan, 17,000 people still missing, so clearly, a terrible death toll from the tsunami. But what about Kevin's point about coal-fired power plants, Edwin?
Sure. I mean, here's another example. If you're trying to compare energy technologies, it's very hard to come up with a consistent metric to be able to compare them. So those types of comparisons don't go very far without being able to establish common terms. I think each technology has to be looked at on its own merits. The fact is that a nuclear plant accident of this magnitude is likely, whether the caller likes it or not, to have a major impact on decision-making around the world with regards to the future of nuclear power. We've already seen in Germany, it's upset a very delicate balance that was leading toward the continued operation of many old plants.
Other countries are reconsidering. So if you can have one event that may take an entire energy technology off the table, that's not a very stable addition to your energy system.
Tell us what has happened in Germany.
I believe that there was a -- there's been a back and forth in Germany for many years about the fate of a set of older nuclear power plants and whether they should have their licenses extended. The present government was on the verge of undoing a previous compromise that would have led to the shutdown of these reactors, but that fell apart right after Fukushima, and I think they made a decision just to shut them all down.
What about China? China has been a nation that's invested a lot in nuclear powers, a way to provide energy for its big economic expansion. Are we likely to see the same kind of reaction there against nuclear power that we've seen in Germany, perhaps in the United States, Nate?
I think we will see a reaction. We have seen a reaction already in China, but it won't be nearly of the magnitude we saw in Germany. If you just look at the politics of China, the stakeholder power in China and also the fact that China is, in fact, growing very quickly and has massive new supply needs, large demands for new power, part of the way that China was intending to fulfill the needs for some of that electricity demand is to build out their nuclear fleet. And what we have seen in recent weeks is that they will reevaluate the regulations they have in place and reevaluate the safety procedures. That's what they have said, and it is likely they will do some kind of evaluation.
But whether that shifts the trajectory, I think, is highly doubtful. I think they will probably continue to build out. But your question actually underscores, I think, another important point. As we look at nuclear power, it really does matter what the country is -- what the country context is. How fast is their demand growing? What are the politics like domestically? And here we have, in some ways, two opposite ends of the spectrum with Germany, with a highly kind of anti-nuclear and very vocal sort of section of the population as opposed to China, which has a very centralized decision-making authority for their energy policy.
You know, Japan has a sad history with the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, and I know, John, that just before the incident at the nuclear power plant, you were actually in Hiroshima. What were you doing there?
That's right. Just a few days before the earthquake and tsunami, I was in Hiroshima as part of the science council reviewing the program of the studies of atomic bomb survivors. The U.S. government and the Japanese government, for over 60 years, have been studying the late effects associated with the 1945 bombings, and this is continuing on. And, in fact, we've learned most about the health effects of radiation on human populations from that continuing study.
And how does that experience from World War II shape the attitudes of the Japanese people toward that nuclear power industry and perhaps this incident in particular?
Well, I'm not entirely sure how to respond to that except the Japanese population does have an understanding of the effects of ionizing radiation. They've lived through it. They've known people who were survivors. Perhaps 30 percent of the survivors in 1945 are still alive, and they are still being evaluated. One of the things, too, that's -- with regard to the Japanese population, they are willing to help. They come in for physical examination. Still, even now, the youngest is 65 years of age, but they come into Hiroshima, Nagasaki for clinical examinations. They try to be helpful with regard to what can be learned from that disaster in 1945.
Here is an email from Kevin writing us, "I'm an advocate of nuclear energy. I still believe that it provides a lower cost and less risky energy source compared to coal or oil. One of the technologies that's gotten a fair amount of attention on the Web in the wake of the Japan crisis is the idea of a thorium-based reactor." Now, I see we've gotten several emails about this. I myself have no idea what a thorium-based reactor is. Edwin, can you enlighten us?
Yes. I mean, conventional nuclear reactors today are based on the use of uranium fuel. However, the Earth does have resources of another element called thorium, which could potentially also be used to fuel nuclear power plants. If it is in connection with -- you also need additional fissile material to start that, which would have to come from uranium originally. But in our view, I mean, there are a million different ideas under the sun with regard to nuclear power development. Almost all these have never -- are still in the stage of paper studies.
And I think one lesson of Fukushima is that even when you have a design that's been operated and understood for decades, that there are still a lot of things we need to learn about how these systems are going to work, especially under abnormal conditions. So I'm pretty skeptical about most nuclear power designs that don't have any operating experience.
I'd like to pick up one of the points that the email made, and that is the question of relative cost of different energy technologies and how nuclear stacks up. Even if you rewind three weeks to before the Japanese situation, in this country, it was already the case that, at least for the moment, nuclear power was very much not the most interesting technology for a lot of the private sector actors, the investment and the private capital in this country largely because the cost of building new nuclear was, in fact, even at that time, already very high. And moreover, that comes with some risks that sometimes the independent and private utilities did not particularly want to take on.
So, you know, several of -- I heard an interview with the CEO of our country's biggest nuclear operator, and he was saying that just before the Japanese event, nuclear is just not interesting to them because the cost of generation from, you know, gas turbines was just so much lower. So in the near term, we're looking at nuclear still being very high-cost. And then there's a question about how we allocate our research dollars as a country toward different kinds of technologies and how big a role possibly expensive nuclear power would have in that mix.
All right. Let's go to Mark calling us from Bedford, Texas. Mark, thanks for holding on.
Yes. Thank you very much for taking my call. I appreciate your show today. My big question has to do with why we're kind of leaving the biggest issue completely off the table or off the discussion, not so much with you but in terms of all the media, which is what right do we have to leave some of the most toxic substances on the planet with half-lives that last thousands of years -- literally thousands of years -- for future generations to deal with? I just find that amazing, that we have this, I guess you could call it hubris that says, well, we want the least expensive power, and we really don't care about the long-term implications. And when I say long-term, I'm talking more than man's known history on this planet. And yet no one's really discussing that.
I'm hoping this event will finally be the thing that kind of drives the nail on the -- the final nail on the coffin of nuclear power. We have got to do other options. And then here in Texas, for example, we have 100 percent renewable power from many sources. And I signed up for that and pay a full -- I think it's about 10 percent more. And I'm willing to do that because, well, otherwise it's nuclear or coal or a little bit of natural gas. But...
And what are the -- what generates the energy that you use?
For our case, most of our 100 percent pollution-free power comes from wind, which is prevalent here in Texas, and also we have some hydro as well. And we just signed up for that on our website from the state, and it's phenomenally effective. And the best part of all is that we have a choice.
And if more and more consumers realize the consequences of our choices, I think we're going to make better choices.
Well, Mark, that's interesting. Well, look, back to your point about nuclear waste. Ed, is this something that's getting enough consideration?
Yes, I believe so. And the caller obviously identifies a very important issue, and that is the fact that nuclear power does generate waste that have potentially hazardous characteristics for hundreds of thousands of years. There has been insufficient attention linking, let's say, licensing of new nuclear power plants to this issue. The presumption in this country has been that they would be able to locate a repository, which would be able to actually contain the waste for as long as it's hazardous, but technical and political obstacles have come in the way. So, right now, the U.S. doesn't have any credible long-term disposition path for the 60,000 metric tons of spent fuel that's already generated. And that's an issue, I think, that'll have to be attended to more.
So there's no long-term place to put this existing nuclear waste. So where is it in the meantime?
Right now, it is being stored at reactor sites either in the wet swimming pools or in dry cask on-site.
I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." John.
Did you want to add something there?
Oh, no. Although, just to agree that that is a major issue of what to do with the radioactive waste, and we don't seem to have a policy or a plan on how to handle it. The spent fuel around the many reactors is there and really has to be dealt with.
I'd like to highlight just one sort of complementary point to this that the caller brought up, and that's the assertion that this was somehow asserting that nuclear power is in some ways, again, a different kind of technology. And what I just want to highlight here is that in this conversation about energy portfolios, energy technologies, that it's getting back to our risk conversation before. A lot of these perceptions of risks are, in fact, values-based. And we have to recognize the different people in our country will have different values they bring in to bearing this.
All right. Let's go to Carol, calling us from Bartlesville, Okla. Carol, thanks for joining us.
Yes. Last evening, I heard a report on the top-of-the-hour newscast on NPR that there was radioactive iodine falling in the rain in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. And we were told that's no threat to human health, but that's the last I heard of that.
All right. Carol, let's ask John Boice. Has he heard of that, and what do you make of it?
Yes. And I've read the reports out of Massachusetts in particular. And, in fact, our radiation detectors are so sensitive, they can detect even very small amounts of radioactivity that has come from the Fukushima reactor. And this has been true in California and Oregon and also in Massachusetts. And again -- and I agree that unnecessary radiation exposure should be avoided. We need to have our radiation exposure as low as possible. The levels that are detected, though, in Massachusetts are incredibly low. And the state government and the protection agency there did not put any limits on people to say, don't consume the water.
Ed Lyman, let me ask you. We're in the early stages perhaps of dealing with the accident in Japan. How long do you think it'll be before the situation is fully contained?
Well, even the authorities are saying it could be weeks or months. The problem is that the fuel in the reactors and the spent fuel pools will remain hot for some time, and so there's going to have to be a constant supply of cooling water. Getting that cooling water in a consistent way on to those facilities is proving to be a huge challenge. The most recent challenge is that they are filling up storage tanks with contaminated water that's the outflow, and that's forcing them to actually reduce the flow to some of the reactors, causing the cores to heat up. It's, you know -- it could be several months before it's resolved.
Edward Lyman with the Union of Concerned Scientists. And we've also been joined this hour by Nathan Hultman from the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and by John Boice, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt. Thank you all for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email is drshow.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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