MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Conditions at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant remain unsettled and won't be completely stabilized until early next year. At today's IAEA meeting in Vienna, officials released two reports that detail what went wrong and what went right in the aftermath of the March 11th disaster.
And for more on that, we're joined by NPR's Richard Harris. So glad you're in the studio, Richard.
RICHARD HARRIS: Good to be here.
NORRIS: So what do these reports tell us about the catastrophic string of events at that nuclear power station?
HARRIS: Well, there are two reports, one by the Japanese government and one by an IAEA team that visited Japan in May. But both tell similar stories of why things fell apart at the plant. First and foremost, as we well know, the plants were not designed to cope with a 40-foot-tall tsunami. But once that wave hit, working conditions at the plant were clearly miserable.
And to quote just a little bit from the IAEA report. It says: During the initial response, work was conducted in extremely poor conditions with uncovered manholes and cracks and depressions in the ground. Work at night was conducted in the dark. There were many obstacles blocking access to the road, such as debris from the tsunami and rubble that was produced by the explosions.
And it goes on and on and on, talking about lack of communication ability between the on-site Emergency Control Center and workers throughout the site. For example, they did have like one phone line to the control rooms. But that was about it.
NORRIS: So one of the questions, how did those miserable working conditions contribute to the multiple meltdowns at the plant?
HARRIS: Yeah, well, actually the reports praised the staff for courageous and sometimes creative attempts to get those reactors cooled off so they wouldn't melt down. But in the end, the loss of electrical power is really what did them in.
As you recall, the power lines were knocked down and the back-up diesel generators got swamped with seawater. The back-up cooling systems still operated for a few hours, but eventually they ran out of water and power, so they went down as well.
And even so, the reports talk about workers trying to operate valves using like a car battery for power in one place. Or they also tried to use bottled nitrogen gas to keep valves open. In the end, they lost that battle, though, as we well know.
And the first reactor actually started melting down within a few hours of the tsunami. And its core was actually mostly melted and sitting at the bottom of the reactor vessel in about five hours. The other two reactors also melted down. It took them a little bit longer, though.
NORRIS: Richard, what do the reports have to say about the way the Japanese government handled the disaster?
HARRIS: Well, the reports actually found quite a bit of fault here. Early on, there was a great deal of confusion over who was actually in charge - a command center headed by the prime minister or officials at the plant. It actually took days to get that all sorted out. And during that time, there were contradictory orders about what the plant operators should be doing.
But even so, the report says the people at the plant at least seemed to be making good decisions. The IAEA did question Japan's decisions to have some nearby residents stay inside instead of evacuating them altogether. And the Japanese government itself acknowledges that they didn't do a good job getting help from other countries, or telling the local community what was going on.
NORRIS: And as to those residents who live around the nuclear power plant, what seems to be the impact of the accident on human health, at least as far as we know right now?
HARRIS: As far as we know, there's considerable concern about their health. But the IAEA says the impact has been less than you might expect.
Let's start with the workers first. They found about 30 workers who've been exposed to radiation levels that are approaching the government's allowable limit for emergency workers. They are investigating a couple of cases of people who may have actually gotten higher exposures than that early on. That's an ongoing investigation.
As for the general public, the Japanese government screened nearly 200,000 people as of the end of May, including about a thousand children. And the Japanese government reports that nobody exceeded their standards for health hazards.
But let's remember, the standards could leave some people still at increased risk for cancer. You have a relatively small dose, or medium-sized dose, spread over a large number of people, you could end up with a few extra cancers. But that said, if there is an excess of cancer it will pale in comparison to the, what, 15,000-plus people who were actually killed by the tsunami.
NORRIS: That's Richard Harris. Richard, thank you very much.
HARRIS: It's my pleasure.