Assessing Nuclear Power's Safety Japan raised the threat level at its malfunctioning nuclear plant to seven this week, the highest level. Physicist Tom Cochran discusses the ongoing situation at the reactors, and explains why he says it's time for an independent commission to review U.S. nuclear safety.
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Assessing Nuclear Power's Safety

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Assessing Nuclear Power's Safety

Assessing Nuclear Power's Safety

Assessing Nuclear Power's Safety

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Japan raised the threat level at its malfunctioning nuclear plant to seven this week, the highest level. Physicist Tom Cochran discusses the ongoing situation at the reactors, and explains why he says it's time for an independent commission to review U.S. nuclear safety.

IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Earlier this week, Japan raised the danger level rating at its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to the highest level possible, a seven, up from five. That puts the crisis in Japan at the same level as the worst civilian nuclear accident on record, Chernobyl.

The change in status is a result of new data on the amount of radiation released early on in the crisis, says Japan's nuclear and industrial safety agency. However, many experts are not ready to equate the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters quite yet.

One of them is Tom Cochran. He is a senior scientist in the nuclear program and the Wade Greene Chair for Nuclear Policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

This week he compared the two nuclear accidents and also told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that it's time for an independent review of U.S. nuclear safety, reactor safety, and he joins us here to talk more about it. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Tom.

Dr. THOMAS COCHRAN (Natural Resources Defense Council): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Tell us your impression of why the level was raised to seven.

Dr. COCHRAN: Well, I'm not sure why it was raised to seven. I believe it was raised to seven because there was substantial offsite deposition of radioactive materials from the cores of these reactors.

But the - they also pointed out that for a couple of principal isotopes, radioactive isotopes, the amount that was emitted appeared to be on - about 10 times less than that from the Chernobyl accident. But the health effects, I think, are substantially less than Chernobyl.

FLATOW: Well, why would they both be - don't we need another rating system if they're both rated as seven, but as you say, they're not close in health effects yet?

Dr. COCHRAN: Well, you could have a more refined system, but you know, Homeland Security has a system for rating the risk of terrorist events, and there are only three levels, and you can imagine at the highest level there could be substantial differences in risk and consequences.

FLATOW: What do we know about what's happening at the reactors now? Are we still basically - just don't really know what's going on inside there?

Dr. COCHRAN: We think that things are more or less stable, but not to the point that you couldn't get in a worse situation if you had some additional aftershocks, or something happened and you lost more coolant.

So things look better now, but I think people are still crossing their fingers.

FLATOW: You testified before the Senate this week on the subject of nuclear safety. What was the basic point you were trying to get across to them?

Dr. COCHRAN: Well, one thing they asked was what were the lessons from Fukushima with respect to the safety of the U.S. reactors. And that's a rather long list. There's more than a dozen issues that come to mind, including the safety of some of these older boiling-water reactors that we have that are similar to the Fukushima reactors.

There are about 23 boiling-water reactors with the Mark I containment, which would be identical to the three reactors that had core melts, and another eight with Mark II containments that are similar. So that's about 30 percent of our entire fleet of reactors.

So there's some substantial safety implications there. And there are implications with respect to capability to evacuate around a small number of reactors in the U.S. that have large populations within 20, 30 kilometers, or even 50 miles of the reactor.

Then there's the issue of: Have we - do we have adequate protection against earthquakes? And Diablo Canyon on the cost of California comes to mind because there was some pencil sharpening done to sort of ensure the license-ability of that plant several decades ago.

And there are other issues. Those are not the full...

FLATOW: So you're saying we should re-study, re-look, re-think or re-examine these...

Dr. COCHRAN: All of the above, but most importantly I think we need an independent review of really good technical experts, as we had with respect -after the Three Mile Island accident in the U.S. You may recall the Kimany(ph) commission...

FLATOW: Oh, I remember.

Dr. COCHRAN: ...that was established to review that accident and made recommendations.

To date the Obama administration and the Department of Energy have refused to call for or appoint a similar commission, and they've really turned it over to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and in effect asked the NRC to review its own past failings, in my judgment.

FLATOW: We have numerous times invited the NRC to come on and talk about it, and so far they have not taken us up on our offer to discuss it.

One of the points you did make was talking about - and you just brought it up a little bit, about reactor siting. You mention Indian Point here, right outside of New York City, which has 17 million people within a 50-mile radius and whose license - I think there's two licenses that expire in a few years from now.

Dr. COCHRAN: That's correct, and - but probably more importantly, worldwide there are many - not many, but I mean there are a dozen or more reactors that have substantially greater population densities around them than even at Indian Point.

If you are going out to 50 miles, Indian Point's probably the worst, has the highest population density of the U.S. reactors.

FLATOW: You also said in your testimony that the NRC is overdue in requiring that spent fuel be removed from those wet pools and put into those hardened dry casks as soon as the spent fuel has cooled sufficiently. Why not do that? It just seems logical.

Dr. COCHRAN: Well, it is logical, and you have to wonder why they don't order that. And I think it's because it will cost some billions - a few billion dollars, and the industry doesn't want to pay for it.

And the current Nuclear Regulatory Commission is made up of a majority of commissioners I would say strongly supportive of nuclear power, and if the companies don't want them to do something that would add substantially to the cost of operation, they'll - the majority will go along with it. And so that's why you haven't seen this.

If you think about spent fuel, it's probably in its most dangerous state, at least in terms of the radioactive content, when it's in the reactor. But when it's in the reactor, it's surrounded by a thick steel reactor vessel, which is inside of an additional secondary containment.

And after it's taken out of the reactor after it's used, it's put in a wet pool with essentially no steel containment. And then after it's cooled about five years, you can move this fuel to dry cask storage, where it's passively cooled, and again in a thick steel containment vessel.

So the wet pools are the only part of that sequence where the fuel is not really in a thick steel containment that represents an additional substantial barrier against release of the material to the environment.

FLATOW: You talked about reliving Three Mile Island 32 years ago. Do you think this is going to have the same effect on the nuclear industry as Three Mile Island did, putting - basically shutting it all down and making it you know (unintelligible) the insurance companies thought it was too expensive, they wouldn't insure any nuclear power plants?

Dr. COCHRAN: I think we're going to have to let that play out. I'm not sure. There are some similarities. For example, when the Three Mile accident - Three Mile Island accident occurred, the industry had already started canceling reactors it previously ordered following the energy crisis in 1972 and '3. And costs were going up.

And so, you know, Three Mile Island didn't sort of stop a flurry of activity. The new orders had already stopped years before. In fact, the last plant that was ordered and subsequently built was ordered in about 1973. Construction began in about '73.

So that's the same situation today that - now that we have more information about the cost of these new reactors that are being contemplated and under construction, it looks like they're not economically competitive and a lot of the utilities and energy companies that had stepped up to the plate to get federal subsidies for reactor construction have dropped a lot of their programs, or at least delayed them for indefinite periods. So it may be a very similar situation to Three Mile Island.

FLATOW: Any guesstimates on your - in your direction about where we're going to wind up with the Japanese plants here?

Dr. COCHRAN: What's going to happen?

FLATOW: Yeah. Are they going to be entombed, recovered? Will we get - will it get under control? What do you think?

Dr. COCHRAN: Well, one thing we do know is it's going to be a multi-billion-dollar cleanup, and it's going to take decades. This is not going to be an easy task. And the facilities are extremely radioactive now. And getting in there and removing the materials and disposing of all those materials is going to be a real nightmare.

FLATOW: All right, Tom, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. COCHRAN: You're quite welcome.

FLATOW: Thomas Cochran, senior scientist in the nuclear program and the Wade Greene Chair for Nuclear Policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

We're going to take a break. When we come back, we're going to talk about the aftermath of the BP oil spill. "A Sea In Flames" - Carl Safina is here to talk about his new book, "Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout." And believe it or not, it's already been a year. Hard to believe that time is going by since that blowout.

We'll come back. 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, with your questions about "A Sea In Flames" with Carl Safina. We'll be right back after this break.

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