Japan's Struggles Continue On Multiple Fronts

Guests

Rob Gifford, foreign correspondent, NPR
Nell Greenfieldboyce, science desk reporter, NPR
Dr. Harold Swartz, professor of radiology and medicine, Dartmouth College

Workers were forced to evacuate from Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant Monday, putting efforts to restore the plant's cooling systems on hold. Residents and officials also face concerns about radiation-tainted food and water, while essential supplies remain scarce across northeastern Japan.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is an NPR News special. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Ten days after an enormous earthquake and tsunami devastated the coast of northeastern Japan, officials fear that the number killed may surpass 18,000. Families search for the remains of their homes and their loved ones. Thousands in northeastern Japan remain stranded in near-freezing temperatures. Millions continue to suffer from shortages of food, water, fuel, power and other vital supplies.

In a few minutes, we'll bring you up to date on the struggle to control the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Dai-ichi and explain what we've learned about the health effects of the radiation that's been released thus far. Later in the program, we'll focus on the U.S. role in Libya.

But first, NPR foreign correspondent Rob Gifford joins us from Mizusawa, in northern Japan.

And Rob, thanks for waking up in the middle of the night to be with us.

ROB GIFFORD: No problem, Neal.

CONAN: You've been reporting from several areas in Northeastern Japan, from Sendai, then further and closer to the coast. Take us on your journey. Where did you start, and what have you seen?

GIFFORD: Well, I flew into Osaka from Shanghai, where I'm based, and then came up here within 48 hours of the quake itself, up to Fukushima itself, not far from the plant.

It was still pretty unclear at that point how bad the nuclear plant leak was, and - but what was clear was that the tsunami and the earthquake had caused real serious damage.

I spent a few days around Sendai, which is the biggest city there in the region and had borne the brunt of some of the tsunami. There's a stretch of about perhaps 150, 200 miles along the coast that has really been hit.

And then in the last couple of days, I've been going further up the coast to some of the smaller towns up there, some of which have been almost completely wiped out. It really is extraordinary to see.

CONAN: Are there still people in those small villages along the coast?

GIFFORD: Well, not in the areas down by the sea, because they have been completely flattened. There are no buildings left there. But the geography of it is such that the sort of hills sloping down to the sea and then down to these sort of flatter areas on the ocean there.

So you've got - a lot of these towns had houses and buildings up on the higher ground, especially the schools, the hospitals and the number of these other important civic institutions, are up higher. And a lot of the housing was down below.

So you've got many of these towns that are completely divided: The bottom half has been wiped out completely, and a lot of the buildings higher up are still there and are okay and are sheltering some of the people who ran for their lives - literally ran for their lives with 13 minutes warning, most of them, when the earthquake struck.

CONAN: Of course, it's no coincidence that those facilities are on the higher ground. This is not the first earthquake. This is not the first tsunami. But this is beyond anyone's experience in living memory.

GIFFORD: That's right, and everybody says that. There have been tsunamis before. The word tsunami is a Japanese word that has entered the English language.

So they have had them before. Every 25, 30 years, there is one. And -but nothing ever this big before. And I think we are all just completely amazed. We're staggered. I mean, I've just been out there today, and we're just completely staggered by the scale of it.

And it really is a moonscape of devastation. There's just nothing there. I mean, we were talking actually just today about whether you can actually use the word Hiroshima to describe it because someone said: This is what I imagine Hiroshima looked like.

And we were kind of debating: Is that - are you allowed to do that? Because that was on, obviously, a much larger scale. But, you know, walking around, there were houses there, and it's not like the houses have fallen down. They've just gone. It's like they've evaporated. So in that sense, you know, it really is a complete destruction.

CONAN: As you look at this devastation, you must have talked to some people who - those people who escaped literally with their lives as they ran away. What do they tell you?

GIFFORD: Well, as you can imagine, some extraordinary stories, and it really does divide up. I mean, I think a lot of people said, well, we knew. As soon as that earthquake, we felt that earthquake, many of them said they couldn't even stand up in the earthquake because it was so strong. We felt it, and we knew we just had to run.

And those that ran fast enough or got in their cars fast enough survived, and those who didn't and those who sort of stayed behind to try and get whatever it was, go back into the house to get possessions, many of them were caught by the wave.

And those people are now sheltering up the hill in the evacuation centers, often the local high school is serving as an evacuation center. And, of course, they are very grateful to be alive, many of them haunted by the thoughts of their neighbors or their relatives who didn't get out alive.

But really, the resilience of the Japanese people is extraordinary, and I've reported on this a little bit over the last week. It's very striking. You know, they really are pulling together under very, very bad conditions.

CONAN: We've also heard, for example, in your report this morning from a hospital, about shortages of saline solution, about shortages of food and many other critical supplies. Why is it that a country like Japan cannot deliver supplies of food and water and fuel to people in the north?

GIFFORD: Well, I think it's just the size, the scale of the disaster. And it just takes them time to get these things through to them. And one of the big issues is the lack of fuel. There's just no gasoline in the area because, you know, they've run out, and they can't get it there fast enough, and it takes a while to get the whole machine rolling to deliver this stuff.

I mean, there are lines of cars around the block. I mean, people are talking about sitting in line in their car for six, seven hours just to get two or three gallons of fuel.

I think food is getting through, now. You have to bear in mind also there's about 500,000 people who've been displaced just like that, just suddenly, overnight, 10 days ago. So it's a lot of food that's needed. A lot of the running water supplies are down. So they're bringing in all the water. There's no electricity in these places. It's very, very basic conditions.

There are some complaints, it's true, and people saying: Look, this is just too slow. We need to get it through faster. Some foreign groups are coming in now to help. Japan has opened up to some help from abroad. And I think we're starting to see it speed up now.

But no, there have been some complaints that Japan is a first-world nation, it's not Haiti, and that they have been a bit slow. But I think it's starting to get through now.

CONAN: Is there a problem caused by the power plant problems at Fukushima Dai-ichi, that the - is that causing a blockage of preventing supplies from getting further north and diversion of resources like helicopters?

GIFFORD: Yes. And I think just - it's a very good point, diversion of attention, as well. You know, I think that the attention of the world and, of course, of the Japanese government has been diverted to the Fukushima nuclear plant.

So that's been - that has been a major issue, and I think it's fair to say that things would've got further north quicker and supplies would have got there quicker if it weren't for this nuclear crisis, because, you know, every day we've had - and as reporters here, we're watching it very carefully, as you can imagine. We're watching very carefully to what every little or big explosion is, what every word is from the fuel rods or from the reactors. So I think that there's so much attention on that.

And I think this is a slight tragedy in itself, that, of course, they have had to deal with that, but it has overshadowed very much the human disaster, the tragedy of the tsunami and the earthquake, that this - the nuclear plant - which clearly has to be taken care of - has meant that, at not least, the world's attention, as well, has not been on - not so much at least - on the people who are really suffering.

And as you said in your introduction, it could be as many as 20,000 people who have died, as well.

CONAN: And are people still going out by day to look for relatives, to look for whatever may have survived?

GIFFORD: They are, absolutely. The weather, it's warmed up a little bit. I was - we had snowstorms here last week, and it was bitterly, bitterly cold. But people were going round to the evacuation centers.

Some of the things that we saw after the tsunami in 2004 around the Indian Ocean, these centers that have been set up, these boards where people write these heartbreaking notes saying who they're looking for, they gather there.

And sometimes you find yourself in the midst of this, these emotional reunions. And Japanese people are not naturally very emotional. You know, that's a stereotype of Japanese people, but it comes from somewhere. They are quite reserved. And you see emotions flowing in a way that I think even long-term residents here say they've never seen before.

And suddenly, you're caught up in the middle of that, and it's very emotional. And that is going on all the time, every day. And I'm sure it will go on for days to come.

CONAN: You speak of the resilience of the Japanese people. We read of the recovery from the Kobe earthquake a few years ago and how much quicker that was than - well, maybe even quicker than many Japanese thought it might have been.

But as you look at the scale of what's happened on the northeast coast there, is there any conception of how long it can be before those half-million people have somewhere else to go and new lives to lead?

GIFFORD: Well, they're talking about five years, actually. That has been talked about as a phrase, I think, by - I'm not sure if the government here has actually said that. I know - I think it was the World Bank who said it today. And various people have been talking about that. Even just ordinary Japanese people are saying this will take five to 10 years.

I think that's, you know, that's true when you look at the level of devastation. I think in the short term, though, I think if they can sort out the nuclear plant - and there is sort of talk that that may be stabilizing. It's a big back and forth at the moment. You know, it stabilizes, then there's another kind of small explosion of some sort.

But if they can stabilize that and get that sorted out so they can devote 100 percent of their attention to the relief effort and the recovery effort, I think that will go a long way.

But in terms of actually rebuilding and constructing the houses, helping to rebuild the industries, like the fishing, the ports along the coast, that's going to take many, many years.

CONAN: Rob Gifford, thanks very much for your time.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Rob Gifford joined us from northern Japan. And more on that power plant when we return.

I'm Neal Conan. This is an NPR News special.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is an NPR News special. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Plumes of gray smoke rose from two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan today, and that prompted an evacuation of some workers. Since the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, the facility has been plagued with problems: overheating, radiation scares, explosions and radiation leaks.

Workers at the nuclear plant need to work methodically to make sure wiring, pumps and other machinery can be operated safety, but repeated incidents make that difficult.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is NPR science desk correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce, and good to have you with us today.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

CONAN: And it seems to be two steps forward, one step back.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, it's a little bit like that. This weekend there seemed to be some progress made on several fronts. And then on Monday, Japan time, in the afternoon, we saw some events that were setbacks.

You mentioned the smoke coming out of the remains of reactor building three, this gray smoke. It lasted for about two hours. They're not sure exactly sure what caused that. But that required workers to be evacuated from that area.

And then shortly after that there was white smoke or steam coming out of reactor building two, and again, no one's sure exactly what the cause was.

CONAN: Do we know if those workers have been able to go back?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I have not heard that they are going back. And I saw a couple news reports coming out of Japan that after the event at reactor building two, there was a brief spike in radiation but that that fell.

CONAN: So there is no way to know exactly what the condition of the -these various reactors. There are six on that site. Have any of them been declared okay? This one's stable, no need to worry about this one anymore.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, reactors five and six are now what's in - what's called cold shutdown. It's basically a kind of safe mode. And so they're saying we don't have to worry about reactors five and six. Now...

CONAN: They are off sort of by themselves.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I believe so, yes, and they have not been much in the news. They've seemed relatively stable this whole time. They were not in operation at the time of the quake.

But attention has been focused on reactors one, two and three, and of course the pond for spent fuel at reactor number four.

And the reactors - one, two and three - seem to be relatively stable. Over the weekend there was reports of increased pressure inside the containment chamber of reactor number three. And there was some talk that they might have to vent from that reactor, they might have to release some gases, which would mean sort of a deliberate release of radioactivity just to get the pressures down.

But in the end they decided that it was looking okay and they weren't going to have to do that. But it's just a reminder that even things that seem stable are sort of in flux. And so today the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said that he saw some signs of improvement. He just returned from a trip to Japan, but he said that the situation remains very serious.

CONAN: And you talked about the remains of building number three. We look at the pictures on television and we see what seemed to be abject ruins. Is there any way to know what's going on inside the containment vessels, where the nuclear material is?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, they have some ability to do readings, but again, they need to get more information by bringing power to the site. They want to power up control rooms that will give them more information about what's actually going on inside.

The building could look pretty bad, but that doesn't necessarily tell you about the state of the containment vessel. Thats the big steel and concrete structure that's designed to contain the radioactive materials. And so the building isn't necessarily what matters. It's that containment vessel.

CONAN: And what's the progress on bringing electricity back to these facilities so they can fire up the pumps eventually and get the circulation going, the system that's designed to keep these cool?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The cooling system, yeah. Well, that assumes that that hasn't been damaged by the earthquake or the tsunami or the explosions that have been happening.

But yes, over the weekend they did make some progress in laying electrical cables and hooking those up. So now there's external power hooked up to reactor number two and reactor number five, and I understand those can serve as hubs to give power to a couple of other reactors.

But that doesn't mean those buildings are now powered up. You know, they have to go in and do a very thorough check of the electrical systems and then look at the equipment, and then they'll start to hopefully bring systems online.

If they could get the regular cooling systems operating, then things could be brought under control relatively quickly. But again, they need to go step-by-step and see what's been damaged.

CONAN: So do we have any ideas whether those pumps can work at this stage or not?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I saw one report that there were some pumps that needed to be replaced. But again, I think that this is still an early part of the phase of making those assessments.

CONAN: Is there any timeline here? Is there any thought that in 10 days or two weeks or a month or two months this is going to be stabilized?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean, officials have basically been saying that it could take weeks.

CONAN: Weeks. So there is also some indication that there were some problems at these plants, at these reactors, even before the quake and tsunami. According to an analysis of the Japanese regulatory document by the Wall Street Journal, the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was one of the most trouble-prone nuclear facilities in Japan.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I have seen some reports. I haven't seen a report directly linking any problems to the events that are happening now, which are quite an extraordinary situation.

There was one report suggesting that perhaps inspections at the plant had been delayed or had not been done. But I think that after this event, clearly what's going to happen is they're going to go back and review everything leading up to this, not only for this plant but I'm sure other plants in Japan as well.

CONAN: And as you look at these facilities, one of the things that's been of concern to people throughout has been the quality of public information that's been released.

So there's been a feeling that they have not been completely forthcoming, maybe even edging into dissembling it sometimes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I think that, you know, that could be due to a number of things. It could the information isn't being released. It could be that the people who have the information are so caught up in the moment of responding to emergencies that they are not able to get that out.

It also could be that they just don't know. Some of these buildings are releasing high amounts of radioactivity. And so it's not like workers can easily access these buildings and find out exactly what's going on.

And so, you know, there'll be a report of a fire or something like that, and you'll wonder: Well, what's the exact cause? What exactly happened? And those things are still unclear.

CONAN: And finally, these workers themselves, we know that they go in in shifts. We know that the limit to which they've been allowed to be exposed has been increased over time. These men, and I presume women as well, have they been cast as heroes in Japan? And are they making tremendous sacrifices here?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I think that we haven't gotten a lot of information about the exposures that the workers have had. Clearly, the levels at the plant, you would need to limit the amount of time they're working in certain areas, and you know, concerns about that could delay certain kinds of repairs.

I think that people do appreciate the efforts that are being made on the part of the workers. You see it on TV. And I think that so far we haven't seen many reports of severe injuries to workers.

CONAN: So do we know how many workers we're talking about, how many people overall have been in and out over the past, well, three weeks?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I don't have those numbers. I've seen reports that, you know, a few, a handful of workers have gotten a certain amount of radiation that would be, you know, worrisome but not lethal or anything, you know, dramatically having immediate danger to health.

CONAN: And I said three weeks. It seems like three weeks. It's only been 10 days.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right.

CONAN: Nell Greenfieldboyce, thank you very much for your time today.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

CONAN: Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR science desk correspondent, with us here in Studio 3A.

Now, on top of everything, there are growing concerns about radiation in food in Japan. The government said it found food with higher than normal levels of radioactivity at farms as far as 90 miles from the plants. It's shown up in milk and in spinach.

Dr. Harold Swartz is a professor of radiology and medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and joins us now from his office in Hannover, New Hampshire. Good of you to be with us today.

Dr. HAROLD SWARTZ (Dartmouth Medical School, Dartmouth University): Glad to be here.

CONAN: And as you've looked at these reports, what strikes you?

Dr. SWARTZ: Well, it's a difficult balance that I think the government is doing a pretty good job trying to do. There are really two issues. So one is: Are there real, genuine, serious health effects? And the other is reassuring and calming the public and responding to normal, reasonable human concerns.

CONAN: Well, first is a problem for science, and the other is a more delicate problem.

Dr. SWARTZ: That's correct. But people are real, and you know, and you have to deal with both parts. And if people are anxious, that's a health effect also.

CONAN: Well, the iodine levels are - in these foods are well beyond what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers a cause for concern. But Yukio Odano(ph), Japan's chief cabinet secretary, said: Please do not overreact. Act calmly. Even if you eat contaminated vegetables several times, it will not harm your health at all. Is that an apparent contradiction, or can both those things be accurate?

Dr. SWARTZ: No, that's correct. It's both true that the levels are above that which is recommended and also that there's no known acute or any detectable probability of long-term effects due to the levels, at least so far that they've reported.

When the levels of possible radiation exposure are set, they're really set on two grounds. One, again, is levels that are known to be scientifically - scientifically are known to be medically harmful, and the other is how low can you get the levels so that in case we're wrong about what's harmful, you'd like to keep it as low as possible.

So as public limits - or limits for workers in radiation - the permissible levels keep going down not because the danger is going up but because it appears practical to reduce them.

CONAN: Because it - and any reduction, if it's possible, is a good thing. Nevertheless, as you look at the levels of radiation that have been detected thus far - yes, we hear this is, well, beyond recommended levels, but that also you could drink this milk for a year and still not have any problems.

Dr. SWARTZ: Yeah. That's probably correct. One way of looking at it in perspective is the radiation dose differences - the amount of radiation that you're - that they're talking about is less than the difference that you would encounter living a year in Denver versus living for a year on the East Coast. That is in Denver, because the elevation is higher, you get more cosmic radiation so that your background radiation that you'd received as a citizen in Denver is quite a bit higher than you'll get living in New York. I don't see us recommending a mass exodus from Denver to New York.

CONAN: The World Health Organization said that the detection of radiation levels in the food represents a, quote, unquote, "serious problem."

Dr. SWARTZ: Well, I guess it depends - you know, so it's a serious problem in terms of concerns of people, in terms of confidence in the food chain. So it's back to the dilemma that you correctly outlined earlier in terms of, you know, what's needed for the public versus a strict scientific fact.

CONAN: And this is a public in Japan that sadly has more experience with radiation than any other public anywhere in the world. Does that make them more sanguine about this, more willing to accept small levels of radiation, seeing that it is not necessarily catastrophic? Or does that make them even more sensitive to any level of radiation?

Dr. SWARTZ: Well, it's a good point, and I'm certainly not wise enough to be able to differentiate between that. I would imagine that, outwardly, people in Japan tend to be accepting and passive. I think, inwardly, they - there may be heightened anxiety having already experienced extraordinary exposures to radiation at the end of World War II.

CONAN: So as we go through this crisis, public information is going to be absolutely critical. And yet, we have also heard that people in Japan have been skeptical - and Americans will certainly understand that. Americans would be very skeptical of official announcements. But the people in Japan have been skeptical about the announcements they've been hearing from their government.

Dr. SWARTZ: Absolutely. And probably, just as it is in the United States, on reasonably good grounds. I think governments from - in many areas, but particularly for radiation, have tended to be rather paternalistic and have shielded the public from unnecessary worries sometimes by outright lying. And so having done that that genie is out of the bottle. And now we have a really hard problem in convincing the public that they can trust us, having demonstrated previously that they shouldn't have.

CONAN: And if, as we heard just a few minutes ago from Nell Greenfieldboyce, if it is going to be a matter of weeks before the situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is brought under control, if there are subsequent releases of radiation, small levels of radiation, but nevertheless some is too much, this is going exacerbate with time.

Dr. SWARTZ: You're absolutely right. Yes, it's going to be a problem. And it's compounded by the fact that we're so very, very good at detecting radiation. We can detect such minute amounts of radiation, so that we can say that it's going two or three or four or 10 times background. And when something increases tenfold, you know, that's kind of scary. But if a very tiny amount increases 10 times, it's still a tiny amount. But as human beings, we're really not very well-equipped to deal with that.

CONAN: You mentioned how good we are at detecting radiation. Indeed, some tiny amounts of radiation from the plant in Japan have been detected in this country. And there are people, particularly on the West Coast, who say the prevailing winds across the Pacific bring that material over here.

Dr. SWARTZ: That's right. And I think we, in fact, may have some significant health effects from that. Not from the radiation, but from the kinds of things that people do.

CONAN: What...

Dr. SWARTZ: So if you try to get potassium iodide on the West Coast, I understand you can't buy it. So now you have maybe millions of people taking what is really a very low-risk drug. But if enough people take the drug, even though the risk is low, then you multiply it by a large number of people, then you're going to start getting side effects.

So it's really important, but I'm not sure that it's possible, to keep people from acting foolishly to protect themselves against really essentially non-existing hazards and introduce hazards in the act.

CONAN: What are the side effects or potential side effects of potassium iodide?

Dr. SWARTZ: I don't know particularly. I really had meant to write it up and I didn't. But one thing that we know is that there has never been a drug that doesn't have some side effects. There has never been a substance, including water, that if you take too much of it doesn't cause you problems. And so unless potassium iodide is the one exception to all of our experience, it's got to have some side effects. But, unfortunately, I can't (unintelligible) them for you.

CONAN: And finally, Dr. Swartz, as we look at the situation back in Japan, for the men and women who've been going in and outside of the plant, we've been talking about minimal risks to people in Japan, nonexistent risks to people in this country, do those people face real risks in your estimation?

Dr. SWARTZ: Yes, but fairly modest risks, but real risks. So there are two types of risks that you can think about. One is - are acute effects. You know, are they going to get radiation sickness, which really is a failure of the bone marrow. And the answer is, unequivocally, no. So the doses that - with the increased threshold that they've been allowed to go to, that still is less than one-tenth the amount of radiation that it would take to begin to have any significant probability of acute effects.

CONAN: And if you could...

Dr. SWARTZ: So they're not going to have acute effects of radiation.

CONAN: And if I could ask you to summarize the other one very quickly.

Dr. SWARTZ: Sure. The other chronic effects is: Are they going to have an increased probability of cancer? The answer is yes, but it will still be a very small probability.

CONAN: Dr. Swartz, I'm afraid we're going to have to end it there. But thank you very much for your time today.

Dr. SWARTZ: Okay. My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: You're listening to an NPR News special. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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