Fukushima Starts Long Road To Recovery

NPR's Richard Harris talks with host Scott Simon about the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors, one year after multiple meltdowns there spread radioactive materials across a swath of northern Japan. Huge technical challenges remain and prospects for resettling the area are uncertain.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Down the coast from Natori lies the Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear power plant. The tsunami crashed into that facility a year ago and triggered three meltdowns. The world watched with alarm as large clouds of radioactive material steamed from the reactors. Some 170,000 people were evacuated from homes near the plant.

Joining us now for an update on the nuclear accident and its consequences is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, I know you're fighting some throat problems. Thanks very much for being with us.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Yeah. Sorry for the voice, but I'll do what I can here.

SIMON: What is the situation with the plant right now?

HARRIS: Well, I would say it's a stable mess. The nuclear fuel has been cooled down with water so it's not hot, hot, hot anymore - although it's still highly radioactive. Probably at least one of the three reactors have actually melted down - the cores have melted down through the bottom of its container. So this core is now sitting in an outer container made of steel and concrete. They're still pumping a huge amount of water through the plants to keep them cool, and then the water runs through multiple filters so they can remove the radioactive material from it. So right now, radioactive releases from the plant are minimal, and they're starting to turn the corner to clean up the mess - which is going to take decades.

SIMON: Because thousands - we're talking about thousands - of square miles of land around the nuclear power station. Any idea of when this land is going to be habitable again?

HARRIS: Well, it's very hard to say. There's still a 12-mile, essentially, evacuation zone and they're trying to clean it up. And they're using hoses to hose down the contaminated material, and scraping off radioactive soils. But the levels are still higher than normal background levels, and people don't really know what level they will consider to be safe and comfortable living there. So that's still being debated right now.

The radioactive material does decay gradually, over time, and some of these particles will get buried in the soil and so on. But some of this material will remain radioactive for centuries. So I think it's fair to say that some of these areas may be reinhabited in a few years, but it's likely the other areas will remain off-limits for decades, or maybe even longer.

SIMON: What happened to people who got exposed to radiation during the accident?

HARRIS: Well, amazingly enough, health experts say that nobody got enough radiation exposure to result in any really identifiable health risks. If you assume that there's no safe dose of radiation, there would be a very small increase in cancers in Japan. But that increase would be far too small to measure. In fact, it's possible there's no added risk at all to the general public. Some workers got extra doses and that's a concern as well, but even they didn't get doses that are known to cause health effects.

What really looms large are the psychological issues. Let's not forget, the meltdowns came on top of this earthquake, the tsunami, the evacuations. Many people lost their livelihoods because there's not much of a market for local fish and produce. So those are really overwhelming impacts, on top of the fear and the unknown about radiation.

SIMON: With these reactors and so many others shut down, how is Japan powering itself these days?

HARRIS: It's been very difficult, actually, partly because the federal government in Japan has let local officials decide whether to restart reactors once they shut down for routine maintenance. Right now, there are only two of the 54 reactors in the country still running, and those last two will probably be shut down later this spring.

So there's almost no nuclear power in Japan now, and there will be none. And it had been providing 30 percent of the nation's electricity. So they're now relying more heavily on imports of coal and natural gas, which are both expensive and more polluting. They're also trying to conserve electricity - wearing short sleeves in the summer and turning up the thermostats, and things like that.

SIMON: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Thanks so much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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