After Disaster, Japan Faces Several Crises

Correction: March 15, 2011

This incorrectly reported that Sharon Squassoni, a nuclear expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the nuclear accident in Japan is less severe than those in Chernobyl in the former U.S.S.R. or Three Mile Island in the U.S. Squassoni was in fact comparing the Japanese accident to Chernobyl, not to Three Mile Island.

In what the prime minister calls Japan's worst crisis since World War II, the government struggles to cope with melting nuclear fuel in reactors, finding shelter for hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Friday's tsunami, and searching for thousands more who are missing.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour with the latest from Japan. Last week's earthquake, and the resulting tsunami, are now believed to have killed at least 10,000 people, though we're many weeks away from an official toll. Crews on the northeastern coast of Japan are culling through the wreckage, searching for signs of life and gathering the dead. Meanwhile, the threat of yet another disaster looms.

SIEGEL: A Japanese nuclear power plant damaged by Friday's quake suffered a second explosion today. Technicians are struggling to prevent the complete meltdown of nuclear fuel in one of its reactors.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo that the country's ongoing nuclear crisis is raising questions about the future of the nuclear power industry there.

ANTHONY KUHN: The explosion this morning sent plumes of smoke billowing from the building housing reactor No. 3 at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. The building around reactor No. 1 exploded on Saturday. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters that the company was trying to prevent another blast at reactor No. 2.

Mr. YUKIO EDANO (Chief Cabinet Secretary, Japan): (Japanese spoken)

KUHN: After the explosion at reactor No. 3, Edano explained, the core cooling system in No. 2 stopped working, and the water level in the reactor went down. So we are preparing to pour seawater into the reactor.

Four soldiers were injured and returned to their units. Seven plant workers were injured, one seriously, but he remains conscious. Despite two explosions, the partial meltdown of three reactors, and more than a dozen injuries, Edano said that there have not been any major radiation leaks.

Sharon Squassoni, a nuclear expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that while very serious, Japan's nuclear accident does not compare with the Chernobyl incident in the former Soviet Union, or Three Mile Island in the U.S.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Sharon Squassoni was comparing the Japanese accident only to the Chernobyl incident in the former Soviet Union, not to both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the United States.]

Ms. SHARON SQUASSONI (Nuclear Expert, Center for Strategic and International Studies): It is not anywhere near as serious as Chernobyl. That was a very different incident, where you had a reactor whose design was flawed, where you had massive release of radiation.

KUHN: The emergency at the Fukushima plant meant that Tokyo had to shut down much of its public transportation system. The Tokyo stock market, meanwhile, lost $287 billion in value today. Any companies with exposure to the nuclear power or the insurance industries saw their share values plummet.

Sharon Squassoni says that there will likely be a national debate about the future of nuclear power in Japan. She notes that the U.S. stopped building nuclear power plants after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979.

Ms. SQUASSONI: Japan, if it faces significant economic hardship from this, may also find it difficult to build the 14 or so reactors that they are planning to or now have under construction.

KUHN: For Japan, the key question would appear to be, can it build earthquake-proof nuclear reactors?

National University of Singapore historian Gregory Clancey asks, if the Japanese can't make them, then who can?

Professor GREGORY CLANCEY (Historian, National University of Singapore): It almost doesn't matter what you do in terms of civil engineering. There are certain limits - and this is a good example, one of many in the history of technology - certain limits to our ability to control nature.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

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