Little Progress In Fight To Prevent Meltdown

Guests

Joe Palca, NPR science correspondent
Kathryn Higley, head of the department of nuclear engineering and radiation health physics at Oregon State University

Officials in Japan have met with multiple setbacks in their efforts to prevent a meltdown at the Fukushima power plant. Guests provide an update on the crisis, and talk about the possible implications for Japan and the rest of the world.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

It's now almost a week since the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, and millions continue to be affected by death and destruction. There are shortages of food in the hardest-hit parts of the country. Water, gas and electricity are all in short supply. And all of that is exacerbated by the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

At least four of the six reactors there suffered some degree of damage from explosions and fires, and so far neither helicopters nor water cannons seem able to cool down the overheating fuel rods. At various times, emergency workers have been forced to retreat temporarily due to high radiation spikes.

So far the United States has not issued an evacuation order but will provide assistance to any Americans who want to leave Honshu, the main island of Japan.

Later in the hour, the U.N. is set to vote on military intervention in Libya. That goes well beyond a no-fly zone. In a few minutes, Kathryn Higley, a leading expert on radiation and nuclear engineering, joins us to answer your questions. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

But we begin here at Studio 3A with NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, and Joe, nice to have you with us again.

JOE PALCA: Good to be here.

CONAN: And we heard a statement earlier today from the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, and they said the situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi is serious but stable. Let me take you through both parts of that. Serious.

PALCA: Well, it's, it's - I'm pretty sure we can say with certainty it's serious, because we know that the plant was damaged. There were explosions, as you mentioned, due to, we think, hydrogen gas building up inside. But those were explosions that mostly destroyed external buildings.

And we - there's reasonable certainty to think that some of the material inside the core of the reactor may have been damaged, and now there's reason to think that some of the material in spent fuel pools - I love that expression, spent fuel pools - may also be damaged. And so all of these things make for a serious situation.

Now, stabilizing? Coming under control? That is very - I mean, it's reassuring, and I hope that's the case. It's very, very hard to tell. Information comes out from Japan in tiny little aliquots, and it sometimes is several hours old when we hear it.

Even - I'm not just talking about people here in Washington. I talked to my colleagues who are in Japan, and they're hearing things. I mean, no -it's not like you're a reporter and you can go look, right? You're dependent on hearing official word from official people, and it's just not coming out very fast.

So if IAEA says things are looking good, that's a good sign because they ought to know, but it's not absolutely certain for those of us watching from the outside.

CONAN: And some of the things we've seen from the outside are spikes in radiation, which drive the workers away and make it then difficult for them to even try to continue the effort to control these reactors.

PALCA: Well, exactly, but spikes in radiation - what does that mean? There's - radiation is coming from the reactor proper, and the source of the radiation is the nuclear fuel.

Now, I was just asking: Has anybody actually said that the radiation is occurring because the fuel rods, these metal tubes that hold the nuclear material, are compromised in some way?

Well, it has to be. Everybody says yes, that has to be how it happened. But I haven't heard anybody officially say that. But when you talk about a spike in radiation, it's not really clear to me how a - why would it go back down? A spike suggests it goes up and goes down.

I wouldn't - I'm not sure why it would go back down. It could be that some got out and blew away, and then when this little blip(ph) blew away, then it went back down.

Again, all these reasonable, perfectly - you know, the questions you would want to know if you were nearby are unfortunately very hard to answer.

CONAN: One of the things that created this crisis was the lack of power to generate the cooling circulation of water.

PALCA: Right. That is the key. And I just - I think it's important to remind people that these are nuclear power reactors, and when a nuclear power reactor is on, there's a nuclear fission reaction taking place, and you're getting a lot of heat.

The first thing that happened when this earthquake struck was the nuclear fission reaction was shut off. So that's not happening anymore, but things are still hot. And water serves two purposes. One is it cools things down, and the other it acts as a shield from radiation.

I mean, we think about lead as protecting us, but it's really just the density of material. You put enough ping-pong balls between you and a radioactive source and you'll be protected. Water is better than ping-pong balls but not as good as lead.

So you need a lot of water, but it also has this other property that it cools things off.

CONAN: And so without the power to circulate this water through, the water in the system that was just sitting there got hot, turned to steam, and, well, eventually that may have contributed to the explosion.

PALCA: Well, yeah, and again, this gets into - you learn a lot of chemistry in this job, but what happens is zirconium is the metal that is an alloy of zirconium that contains the fuel.

CONAN: That's the cladding.

PALCA: Yeah, the cladding. It's the tube, essentially, and inside is this...

CONAN: Pellets of uranium.

PALCA: Pellets, right. That reacts with water under circumstances to form zirconium oxide. You take oxygen out of H2O and you're left with H, and H in sufficient concentrations is explosive.

CONAN: And so that's what happened, and then you have the spent fuel pools. These are located, for some reason I don't understand, at the top of these reactors.

PALCA: Yeah, I - well, I just was looking at the design right now, and it's not absolutely clear why they're at the top. But one of the things that was suggested to us is that when the water in the reactor was compromised, with the spent fuel pools above the reactor core, all they had to do was open the spigot and the water flowed into the reactor core. It's like having a bathtub up on the roof. And if you need to get some water to the floor below, you just open the drain and down it goes.

Was that the logic? Again, it's a reasonable question. There's nobody available to me today to ask.

CONAN: And without enough water in those spent fuel pools, those rods -it's spent fuel, but they're still plenty hot too, and they start to heat up, and they could release radiation.

PALCA: Right, they can well, they can become compromised, release radiation, and then there's a couple of bad scenarios there too, where you can get this hydrogen mixing with steam or water vapor or - again, people say it's very bad, it sometimes happens - you can get the zirconium catching fire.

We don't think of metal as something that burns, but in the right circumstances it can.

CONAN: We had, of course, Chernobyl, where there was graphite, a completely different design of reactor. The graphite did burn, and that's what caused a lot of the spread of a lot of nuclear materials. But that's not the case in Japan.

PALCA: Carbon we're a little more familiar burning because we have, you know, charcoal and things like that. But we don't usually have zirconium fireplaces, you know.

CONAN: All right. So now they're trying to use seawater to cool these facilities down - the reactors in numbers one, two and three and the spent fuel pool in number four. And it seems - everybody says this is a desperation measure.

PALCA: Well, I think it's desperation in the sense that the reactors themselves will probably be - no longer be functional. So it's a desperate measure for stockholders because not that I don't I don't think these are publicly run power plants, but the point is they needed water, they needed it right away.

Look to your right. There's an ocean right there. So seawater seemed like an easy source when no other source of fresh water was easily attainable and convenient for pumping.

CONAN: Yet the radiation is high enough that it's difficult to stay above the reactors for any sustained period of time.

PALCA: There are lots and lots of problems coping with this situation. Actually, I've been talking with people about this, and I have a very interesting - there's a chap named Cal Abel(ph) at Georgia Tech who's a former Navy officer on a nuclear ship, and he's getting a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, and he's got this interesting scheme for using a cement truck both for its protection from radiation and so it can mix up water and boron, which also helps cool things down in a nuclear sense.

And he has this idea that you can put a crane on the end and put the water in. So people are trying to come up with clever schemes that will make things work and not threaten people.

CONAN: Why don't we turn to somebody who's already got a degree in nuclear engineering, and that is Kathryn Higley. She's director of Oregon State University's Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics and joins us from there. And nice to have you with us today.

Ms. KATHRYN HIGLEY (Oregon State University): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And does that - wanted to ask you a lot of questions, but the suggestion of using cement trucks, does that make any sense at all?

Ms. HIGLEY: Well, I mean, there's a lot of options that are going to be considered, and that is certainly one of them. One thing I wanted to clarify, I'm actually a radiation protection specialist who happens to have run a nuclear reactor and been a reactor supervisor. So I'm very familiar with reactor facilities, and I work with a number of nuclear engineers.

CONAN: And as you look at the situation in Japan from there in Oregon, are you worried?

Ms. HIGLEY: I am concerned for the workers in the plant, simply because of the radiation levels that you've mentioned that they have to deal with. But it sounds like they are using strategies to minimize the radiation doses to them.

They've moved the general public back a substantial distance, and so I'm not concerned about acute radiation effects for any of the general populace, and for people on the West Coast - you know, we're here in Oregon - absolutely no concern whatsoever.

CONAN: We had a briefing at the White House today by administration officials and somebody from the Nuclear Regulatory Agency as well. They said: Look at the physics of this thing. There is no way people on the West Coast could be affected.

Ms. HIGLEY: That's absolutely correct, yes. There's 5,000 miles of open ocean.

CONAN: So the people running out to buy supplies of iodine, they may want to get their money back.

Ms. HIGLEY: What I tell people is don't spend it on potassium iodide. Spend the money to the Red Cross or some other relief organization. It will be better spent.

CONAN: And are you concerned that the situation can be contained, that it won't get worse?

Ms. HIGLEY: Well, as you mentioned earlier, the IAEA has said the situation appears to be becoming stabilized. That is extraordinarily encouraging. What they're going to need to do is keep - get cooling water there, keep the cooling water continuing for an extended period of time and stand back a little bit and figure out what the best strategies are to really make this a longer-term, stable situation.

CONAN: And we heard from a Russian specialist today who's got some experience with their background in Chernobyl. He said this is nothing like Chernobyl and that if they can get water on top of these fuel rods and the spent fuel, it'll all cool off in about 10 days.

Ms. HIGLEY: I think that that's a pretty accurate assessment. I mean, it looks like the majority of the radioactive material has stayed within the containment or within the reactor vessels.

You know, you talked earlier about radiation spikes. It looks like there was some pressure release going on. And so there could've been puffs of some noble gases and certainly some iodines and cesiums out into the environment.

And if you have fuel uncovered in the spent fuel pools, you're going to have a beam of radiation going straight up into the air and bouncing off of clouds, to some extent. So there's a number of reasons why you'll see radiation levels going up and down.

CONAN: When you mention noble gases - argon, neon, krypton - those sorts of things.

Ms. HIGLEY: Xenon, yes.

CONAN: And xenon. Thanks very much. Stay with us. We're going to be taking questions and answers about the situation at the nuclear plant in Japan with Kathryn Higley. Joe Palca, thanks very much for your time today.

PALCA: Very welcome.

CONAN: Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

It's proved difficult to get accurate, up-to-date information from Japan on the nuclear crisis there. U.S. and Japanese officials have given sometimes conflicting versions of events at the Fukushima power plant.

One official at Tokyo Power said radiation levels had somewhat stabilized at their lows. The head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Greg Jaczko, said radiation levels at the plant are extremely high, though at a news conference at the White House today he added that basic physics and basic science tells us there really can't be any harm to anyone here in the United States or Hawaii or any U.S. territories.

If you have questions about radiation and nuclear engineering, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Kathryn Higley. She is the head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University and with us from a studio there. And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. Let's go to Bill(ph), and Bill's with us from Kansas City.

BILL (Caller): Good afternoon. Fascinating, fascinating story. My first question is a general one, and that is: Is water the only - I know it's probably the most versatile thing to use in maintaining this control of these cores, but is it the only thing that can be used? And - go ahead, I'm sorry.

CONAN: Go ahead. Kathryn?

Ms. HIGLEY: Oh, I'm sorry, okay. So water is very effective because it's doing two things. As was mentioned earlier, it's providing shielding, and it is also moving the heat away, and that's really what they need to do right now.

So it's really kind of the optimum material to be used under these particular circumstances, and it's easy, or it's one of the easiest things right now to get to. As you see, they're putting pumps into the sea and pulling in water from that source.

So it's the best choice under the circumstances. There certainly are other materials, and when it comes time to stabilize this system, they'll be looking at some other sources, particularly for shielding and containment.

BILL: All right, thank you, and that bridges another question that I will (unintelligible) after those two. If there is a catastrophic meltdown, is there something they can then cap, if there are other materials to contain this, will be my first one.

And secondly, pertaining to the United States, where you have this interesting issue of electrical power plants that need electricity to run, what are the redundant systems we have here in the United States that would not compromise the situation if any of these would have a problem? And I'll get off the air and get the other answers. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Bill, thank you.

Ms. HIGLEY: Okay, so there were two particular questions, and one was about, you know, redundant systems in the United States. And I can tell you that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is taking a very hard look at the important lessons that are being learned from Japan, and they're making recommendations to nuclear power plant owners and operators to go back and revisit their safety systems to make sure that everything is really up to snuff and is able to withstand very serious incidents such as you've just seen.

Also post-9/11, nuclear owners and operators have taken a look at their facilities from concern for external threats that are not natural and have done a considerable effort to harden their facilities as well.

So this continuous looking at our facilities to make sure that they're safe is really ingrained into the nuclear culture, if you will, in the United States.

CONAN: Let's go next to Laura, and Laura with us from New Berlin in Wisconsin.

LAURA (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

LAURA: Thank you very much for the discussion. My question is, how does water contrast in normal nuclear reactions versus this situation of an emergency? Is water simply recirculated in a normal process? And how does that contrast with what's happening to the water in this situation? Is it going back into the environment through steam or even as water? Thank you for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure, Laura.

Ms. HIGLEY: So normally the water in a nuclear plant is - the chemistry of it is very highly controlled. This is one of the things that they do to make sure that the plant operates in an optimum situation. So maintaining and monitoring water chemistry is extremely important.

When they made the decision to put saltwater into these plants, they made the decision that these plants were no longer going to be useful, and what they were really interested in was keeping the temperature down and keeping the shielding going on.

So that choice for saltwater was one born out of necessity. It's certainly not what you would normally be using in a nuclear facility.

CONAN: And normally it's a closed system, where the water circulates through pipes and generates steam that is used to power turbines, and that creates electricity.

When you're putting the seawater on it, you're just dumping it on the reactor. What she's asking, I think, is what happens to that water? Is that escaping into the environment?

Ms. HIGLEY: Well, it's not clear at this point exactly what they are doing, if they're simply flooding their building, which is one of the possibilities. The one bit of solace, I guess, that's in this is that the ocean is a huge body of water, and any of this radioactive material that would seep out is going to be diluted tremendously within, you know, meters of the shoreline.

So from the perspective of an environmental impact, I'm an environmentalist or radiocologist, and I would expect, you know, you'd be able to detect it, but there's not going to be any massive adverse environmental effect except perhaps right near the shorelines of these facilities.

CONAN: Let's go next to Stephen(ph), Stephen with us from Oakland.

STEPHEN (Caller): Hi, Neal, thanks for taking my call. I have a lot of questions about the situation in Japan, but the one that's foremost in my mind right now is about the plume of radiation that the United Nations and the New York Times report is currently heading across the Pacific towards the West Coast of the United States.

Experts, including Kathryn on your show today, have repeatedly said that we're not in any danger here in the U.S., the amount of radiation that will reach us here be much too small to cause any health effects.

But it hasn't been made completely clear to me if these assurances are based on the relatively low amounts of radiation that have been released so far or the amount of radiation that could be released if the situation in Japan continues to degrade.

So if all six reactors go into full meltdown and the spent fuel rods in the storage pools ignite or explode, there would be a lot more radiation than we've seen so far. And my question is: Would we still be safe on the West Coast of the United States if that were to happen?

Ms. HIGLEY: Okay, so what you've been seeing is projections by atmospheric scientists that are showing us where the wind patterns are moving the packets of air that are leaving the northeastern coast of Japan and how they're moving and mixing as they move across toward the United States.

And the most recent predictions show that those packets of air are moving up towards the Aleutians, and then they're dropping back down and moving towards the western coast of the United States.

And in those simulations and on the reports, they're very careful to state that they're not making estimates of radioactive concentration and contamination levels, and their expectation is that health effects are going to be negligible, and it may not even be possible to measure the radionuclide concentration at the levels when they reach the coast.

One of the things that's really important is that the releases that are occurring are actually relatively low in the atmosphere, and so that is really important because there's a lot of mixing going on. There's a lot of weather, a lot of storms. There's going to be settling. There's going to salt spray, snow, rain.

All of these things are going to contribute to washing that plume out of the air, and then there's also just mixing that's going to dilute and disperse it. And that's why the concentration levels are going to drop.

There's nearly 5,000 miles of travel, perhaps longer, for that material to move from Japan to the West Coast. So we're simply not going to have a serious effect at all.

CONAN: Even in the worst case?

Ms. HIGLEY: Even in the worst case.

CONAN: Okay.

STEPHEN: So even if the storage pools ignite and blast - my understanding is that the zirconium cladding in the spent fuel rods can actually, at high enough temperatures, can explode, and that could lift radioactive material high up into the atmosphere, that we would be still in no danger?

Ms. HIGLEY: Right now, because it's a low-level release, it's - the concentration is going to be diminished tremendously. Admittedly, if you have a lot of energy associated with it, then what'll happen is it will life it up for global distribution, but you're also going to see considerable mixing and perhaps some longer residence time as it transports globally.

So that'll also contribute to dilution. I mean, again, it'll be something that we can measure. But remember, you know, for a number of years, we were lighting off several massive nuclear devices into our atmosphere and into our upper atmosphere and distributing a considerable amount of radioactivity globally.

CONAN: Those were the nuclear tests of the 1950s, yes.

Ms. HIGLEY: Exactly.

STEPHEN: And if I could ask one more...

CONAN: Stephen, I really want to give somebody else a chance.

STEPHEN: Sure, absolutely.

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to - this is George, George with us from Dearborn.

GEORGE (Caller): Hey, good afternoon, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GEORGE: I'm a mechanical engineer by profession, and you know, as part of the analysis that we do of new designs and things, we have one that's called (unintelligible) whatever you want to call it. But it's a failure mode and effects analysis.

And it helps analyze critical systems and apparatus to make sure that you have everything covered. And certainly if you have a critical system that you're concerned about, it would certainly point to that and you would come up with some sort of backup system to it.

And I thought I was going to get an answer to this question with the caller who was, I think, two people previous to me. You know, obviously, places like hospitals, communication stations, everything has backup generators onsite, you know, with gasoline, diesel or whatever, to backup the critical systems that might normally be powered through, say, a nuclear generator.

It just - it baffles me that there wasn't some sort of redundant system in this respect, a backup generator, that could have kicked in in the event, as we have seen where the power, in fact, went offline because of the circumstances with these - the earthquake, and kept critical energy slowing through those pumps to make sure that we weren't going to have the kind of situation that we do right now.

CONAN: Well, Kathryn Higley, do they have backup systems?

Dr. HIGLEY: Yes, yes, they do. And, you know, all of the nuclear facilities have diesel generators that are used as emergency backup systems for power, particularly for providing pumping systems to cool these reactor facilities.

And what you had in this particular instance was that a combination of events, you know, the fourth highest recorded earthquake in history. So that was the first problem. A tsunami that exceeded expectations that overtopped their seawalls where they were going to be pulling fresh water. You had flooding of their intake housing so that they couldn't actually pump. And then, as I understand it, it's anecdotal, you had fouling of the fuel for the diesel generators. They also had some battery backups that worked for a while. But it was a combination of two just intense natural disasters that overwhelmed their safety systems.

CONAN: And do we have similar kinds of redundancies in our power plants with similar kinds of vulnerabilities?

Dr. HIGLEY: We have similar kinds of redundancies. But post-9/11, people have taken a much harder look at what happens if you lose power and how can you provide power for the necessary period of time for this reactor to be cooled and stabilized? And what this situation now - it's called a total station blackout, extraordinarily critical situation.

And, again, in the United States, they have been looking at this and taking measures. And they're not going to share necessarily all of the safety system measures that they've instituted and implemented for security reasons.

CONAN: George...

GEORGE: You know, I can understand that, but I guess, you know, it's taken a long time for them to bring in these fire hoses and everything else to - and helicopters to drop water on their - why didn't just fly in another generator and hook it up and get things going?

Dr. HIGLEY: These are massive generators. And you have to recognize that a lot of the infrastructure along this northeastern coast has been just completely devastated. And so you have rail lines down, roads down. You have thousands if not tens of thousands of people that have been killed and many that are missing. And so they're trying to respond to disasters on many fronts.

And Japan is probably the best country in the world when it comes to disaster preparedness, and they are doing amazing things. And so I'm not going to fault them for not airlifting or trying to drag over a diesel generator. They are improvising as they go under absolutely horrific conditions.

CONAN: We're talking with Kathryn Higley. Questions and answers about the situation in Japan. She is the head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: And Tom(ph) is on the line, Tom calling from Davenport, Iowa.

TOM (Caller): Good afternoon. I was curious if somebody who has been exposed to radiation, if they are moved away from the affected area, are they considered contagious to somebody else who has not been exposed, either them or their clothing that they're wearing?

Dr. HIGLEY: Well, there's a couple of different things going on. So if you're exposed to a direct beam of radiation, you know, it would be kind of like an X-ray. And once you walk away from that source, you have no lingering residual radiation on you. If you are contaminated, where you have radioactive particulate on you or if you take it into you, then that's a slightly different matter.

If it's on you, the most effective thing to do is remove your outer layer of clothing, take a shower and that's going to knock off, you know, 99.9 percent of the activity and the problem is solved. That's one of the reasons they're, you know, having people wear masks, is to prevent intake into body. If it's...

TOM: And then if you inhaled some of it?

Dr. HIGLEY: If you do inhale some of it, you can be slightly radioactive, more, depending on how much you take in. And there are procedures in place for people that receive a very large intake. There are a number of different things that people can do to help clear it out of their system very, very quickly. They're recommending potassium iodide for people that might be exposed to the plume, for example.

CONAN: Are some people at more risk than others?

Dr. HIGLEY: Well, we do know from radiation exposure studies - and the kind of the sad irony is that so much of what we know about radiation effects on humans come from ongoing studies of the Japanese atomic bomb survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We know that cells that (technical difficulties)...

CONAN: Hello? Kathryn Higley, can you hear me? Well, we've apparently lost touch with the studio there are Oregon State University. And we'll have to say thank you and goodbye as we're just about out of time anyway. But oh wait a minute. Are you there? Kathryn Higley? No. Apparently she's not there. But we thank her very much for her time and the efforts of the engineers here in Washington and at Oregon State University, where she is the head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics.

Coming up next - and we'd like to thank everybody who called, by the way. We're sorry we couldn't get to everybody's questions, and we'll try to get back to this soon.

Up next, the U.N. Security Council is set to vote later today on military intervention in Libya. We'll talk with the former U.S. ambassador to NATO about the likely last-minute behind-the-scenes wrangling, and the logistics of military operations in Libya, including a no-fly zone. Stay with us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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