Japan's Crippled Nuclear Plant In 'Serious Trouble'

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Japan's nuclear crisis has triggered international alarm and partly overshadowed the human tragedy caused by Friday's earthquake and tsunami. NPR's Christopher Joyce says four of the nuclear power plant's six reactors are in "serious, serious trouble."

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve will be coming to us from Cairo again today later in the show. In Washington, I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Conditions at the crippled nuclear complex in Japan remain dangerously uncertain today. Radiation levels have been shooting up and down. Helicopters were called in to drop seawater on one of the reactors, but Japanese television reports that plan was aborted.

NPR's science correspondent Christopher Joyce is in Tokyo following events.

Chris, good morning.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: It seems as though every time the plant operators make some progress, some other problem happens.

JOYCE: It does seem like plugging holes in a dike, but the consequences, of course, are a lot - potentially a lot worse. So Linda, the situation is that four of the six reactors at the Daiichi complex are still in serious, serious trouble. First, it was the loss of cooling water and then explosions at units one and three. These were hydrogen explosions, I should point out. They didn't apparently damage the reactor core where the fuel is, but nonetheless they damaged the buildings that the reactors are housed in, and then there was serious overheating at unit number two.

For a while things seemed to get better because workers were able to pump seawater into those reactors and cool them down. But the this morning, early on, there was white smoke or steam coming from reactor number three, radiation levels went up at the site to many times the normal allowable levels, so workers were evacuated. We don't know if they're back or some are back yet. A helicopter was preparing to pick up seawater in sort of a canvas bucket and drop it on reactor three, but that's been cancelled, so it's in a terrible state of flux.

WERTHEIMER: What about radiation levels outside of the complex?

JOYCE: Well, they apparently are not that serious. There have been reports of increased radiation readings outside of the complex as well as to the west of it, even as far as Tokyo. But the authorities say that these are not at levels that apparently people should worry about. It's inside that are particularly dangerous. I mean there've been spikes of radiation to the point where obviously they evacuated workers. They've only got 50 workers in there anyway, so clearly they're trying to minimize exposures, but at the levels they've reported, the levels have come down, but at the levels they reported, clearly workers cannot be in there for very long at one time.

WERTHEIMER: They've also - are trying to be careful about the people who live around that complex. I understand they've evacuated everybody they can get out of that area. How are the people in Tokyo handling the idea that some radiation is reaching them, even if it is constantly, Asians are constantly told it's not a dangerous level?

JOYCE: It's a bit hard to assess what's going on in the rest of the city. What you see is business as usual - people going on their business much as they would otherwise. You see a lot of people here wearing masks but then that's not unusual. People do that and it's hay fever season. I did notice that some gas stations were closed and I was told that it's because there was some sort of panic buying and that people were gassing up in anticipation of possibly more bad news.

We went to a supermarket and the shelves were pretty empty and people here have been told that they should expect rolling power blackouts because of the disruptions of the power grid. So you know, obviously the TVs are constantly riveted on this subject so people are aware, but so far, you know, I'm not seeing anything that looks like panic in the streets.

WERTHEIMER: So a lot of things to be concerned about, including radiation levels. I wonder, if these reactors are stabilized, are they just gone? Can they ever be used again?

JOYCE: Very doubtful. Once they put seawater in them, you know, seawater will cool them but it also will ruin them. They'll corrode. And the authorities are also saying they think that at least in two of the reactors and maybe three, that some of the fuel elements have been seriously damaged and that would render the vessels, the steel vessels that they sit in, completely useless in the future.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Chris.

JOYCE: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Christopher Joyce reporting from Tokyo.

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