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One Year Later, 'Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown'

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One Year Later, 'Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown'

One Year Later, 'Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown'

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. March 11th will be the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that killed 20,000 people and caused a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant on the Pacific Coast.

Our guest, Dan Edge, has produced a documentary about the Fukushima crisis for "Frontline," which airs on PBS stations tonight. The program chronicles the often heroic efforts of plant workers, soldiers and firefighters to contain the meltdown at the plant, which was rocked by several explosions in the days following the tsunami.

Edge spent months in Japan and in the evacuated area around the plant researching the documentary, working to overcome constraints imposed by TEPCO, the utility which owns the disabled plant. Though the company forbid plant workers from giving interviews, Edge was able to speak to several workers. One who has left the company appeared on camera, and another agreed to speak in silhouette so his identity was not revealed.

Edge also spoke to many others involved in the crisis, including the prime minister at the time. Dan Edge is a veteran investigative reporter and documentary producer. His "Frontline" documentary, which is called "Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown," relives the first days of the crisis, when the tsunami knocked out the power in the plant, and fuel rods began to melt down.

Well, Dan Edge, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start from the beginning. You talked to people who were inside the Fukushima nuclear plant when the earthquake itself happened. What was their experience?

DAN EDGE: Well, this was really what motivated the whole project in the first place, is trying to find out what it was like to be on the inside of that nuclear plant when the meltdowns began. No one had spoken to them. These workers have been kept from the media by TEPCO, the company that run the plant.

And it took us a long time to track them down. Once we did, it was a very interesting progression, actually. When the earthquake hit - it was a massive earthquake, biggest earthquake in recorded history in Japan - the workers were very calm. There were 6,000 onsite that day, but they knew that Japanese power plants, Japanese buildings, are very, very well-designed, in terms of earthquake protection.

So it seems like there was a pretty orderly evacuation away from the reactors. The reactors shut down, as they should do. You know, everything went textbook. It was fine until the tsunami came.

DAVIES: Now before we get back to what happened at the plant, there's a remarkable detail that you share with us early in this film, and that is a fisherman you interviewed, who, after the earthquake, recognized that a tsunami was coming. He went to his boat not to secure it at the dock. What did he do?

EDGE: Yeah, I mean, this is one of those pieces of folklore almost that's handed down from generation to generation amongst the fisherman on that - on the coast of Japan there. And what he did - his name was Yoshi Orochito(ph) - it was something that would seem insane to most people.

After the earthquake, again massive earthquake, he knew there might be a tsunami. So he ran down to the dock, jumped in his boat and headed straight out to sea. He gunned his boat straight into the wave, the rationale being if you can get over that wave, and this turned out to be a 15-meter wave - if you can get over that wave before it breaks, then you're safe.

And more importantly to a fisherman, your boat is safe because of course the boat is the livelihood.

DAVIES: And if you leave it on the dock, by contrast...

EDGE: As we saw from the horrific pictures that started broadcasting, you know, all over the world within minutes of the tsunami hitting, many, many boats were completely destroyed; smashed up within seconds of the tsunami hitting.

So at that particular port, which was a few miles from the Fukushima nuclear plant, several of the fisherman made it out to sea, actually went over the wave as it approached and made it to safety in the deep seas. I think more than 20 didn't make it and died.

DAVIES: So when this tsunami hit the Pacific shore, at Fukushima, what was the immediate impact on the plant?

EDGE: Well, one of the cruel facts of tsunamis is there's rarely just one tsunami. Several waves will hit, and in this case, the first wave that arrived at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was actually lower than the level of the sea wall, didn't do any damage to the plant at all.

The biggest wave, which arrived at 3:35 P.M. that day, totally overwhelmed the sea wall. It was 15 meters high. That's almost 50 feet high, which is three times higher than the wall that TEPCO had built to protect from tsunamis.

And it's completely flooded the basement and the first floor of the nuclear power plant, and unfortunately situated in the basement were all the backup power supply. Now, the earthquake had already knocked out the main supply of power into the plant. The tsunami knocked out the backup power supply into the plant. And when you have no power in a nuclear power plant, it means you have no cooling systems.

When you have no cooling systems, the nuclear fuel will overheat and eventually will melt.

DAVIES: All right, so the nuclear reaction, which generates power, shut down immediately and automatically, as it was supposed to. But the fuel rods will generate enormous heat unless water is constantly pumped through them, right?

EDGE: That's correct, yeah, even though the nuclear power plant is essentially shut down automatically after the earthquake. And that all happened correctly. But there's huge amounts of decay heat, it's known as, which still exists after shutdown. And if you don't have a constant supply of cooling water, then it leads very quickly to what we all call a nuclear meltdown.

DAVIES: Now in addition to not having - not being able to operate the pumps to cool the reactors, they didn't have the instruments that they needed to tell what was going on in the plant from the control room. And they improvised a fascinating solution there. What did they do?

EDGE: The workers, as you say, it must have been horrific for them. Not only do they have no power for the cooling systems, they have no lights, they have no power for the instrumentation. They do not know what is happening inside the nuclear reactor, although, you know, they feared the worst.

The needed to improvise. They needed any form of power they could think of. They found some backup batteries in cupboards. It wasn't enough. They found small generators, it wasn't enough, and pretty soon on that first night, the plant manager, Masao Yoshida, told the workers to go out into the car parks, which had been devastated by the tsunami, open their car bonnets and rip the batteries out, rip the batteries out, bring them back, plug them in. Just use anything to try and get the power plant working again.

DAVIES: So they managed to bring car batteries in, get enough power to at least get the instruments working, and what did the readings tell them?

EDGE: They got some of the instruments working, and the most disturbing thing they discovered, and this by just after midnight on - a few hours after the tsunami, they discover that the pressure in the reactor is out of control. It's much, much, much too high.

And this is a nightmare scenario for someone who works in a nuclear power plant. Very high pressure within a reactor means a possible explosion.

DAVIES: And where was the pressure coming from?

EDGE: The pressure - they didn't know, but they could only assume, and they rightly assumed, that the fuel rods within the reactor were overheating. And now when they overheat, the water that surrounds them turns into steam. So we have huge amounts of steam. They also feared that a chemical reaction was happening there creating huge amounts of hydrogen. Again, they turned out to be right about that.

So you have this brew of hydrogen and steam, which is just - the reactor just wasn't built to contain it. So they have to think, you know, of emergency protocols very quickly.

DAVIES: OK, and what do you do about a buildup of pressure and potentially hydrogen gas at a nuclear reactor?

EDGE: It turned out there was only one thing they could do, and they established very quickly that they needed to vent the reactor. They essentially needed to pipe all of that gas out into the atmosphere.

This is a really big deal, OK? And some of the workers we spoke to, you know, were just horrified when they realized what they were going to have to do. They were going to have to release radiation into the atmosphere. This is like the No. 1 rule of running a nuclear power plant. You don't do that. You don't release radiation into the atmosphere.

But the alternative was much, much worse: The alternative was a nuclear reactor potentially exploding, showering nuclear fuel over the area, which would be much, much worse.

DAVIES: OK, now this is unfolding at the plant. You have the officials in Tokyo of TEPCO, the utility which own this nuclear reactor, and then you have the government. And you spoke to the Japanese prime minister at the time, Naoto Kan. What kind of information was he getting from the corporate folks at TEPCO who owned the reactor?

EDGE: This is a hugely controversial matter. If you ask the prime minister, he would say he was getting very fragmented, fractured information. And that's what - and incomplete information. That's what he tells us in the film. And the difficulty is the ambiguity at this stage of who is in control, if you like.

TEPCO are taking the decisions about what needs to be done at the plant, but very quickly, this is obviously becoming a matter of national importance, and decisions such as a deliberate release of radiation into the atmosphere need to be - and were - referred to the prime minister immediately.

So there is, if you like - I mean, what our film charts, really, is a government and a prime minister being increasingly drawn into intervention in a nuclear disaster. You have to remember, of course, that on day one, Japan was facing one of the worst natural disasters in the country's history.

You had 20,000 people dead or missing from the tsunami. You had entire towns that had disappeared. So in those first few hours, the government was very much focused upon disaster relief - saving lives, finding bodies. It was only as the nuclear disaster unfolded, and it became clear that it was even worse that people had first feared, that the government took a frontline role in tackling it.

DAVIES: Now, so there was this agreement that you had to do the almost unthinkable and vent this radioactive gas into the atmosphere to prevent a much more terrible explosion, but that didn't happen right away. What was going on?

EDGE: This again must have been horrific for the workers in the plant. They realized in order to avert a much worse disaster, they needed to release radiation into the atmosphere. So they opened their emergency manual, which they hope will tell them how to vent the reactors, and there's nothing in it.

The manual tells you how to vent a reactor if you have electricity. You press this button, you know, there's a process for it. But there is nothing in the manual about how to vent a reactor if you don't have electricity. They don't know how to do it.

And so what you have throughout that night, the night from 11th to 12th of March, is the workers literally pulling out the blueprints of the plant, going back to square one and trying to work out, there and then, on the ground, with no lights, in the middle of a nuclear disaster, how to vent a reactor.

And this is really one of the crucial beats of the story, and the government, the Japanese government seems to have been kept in the dark as to what was going on. The prime minister had given the order to vent, he was waiting for news the reactor had been vented. Meanwhile at the plant, the venting wasn't happening because the workers didn't know how to do it.

DAVIES: Then this remarkable thing happens. The prime minister himself goes to the plant. Did he put himself at risk? I mean, who could he talk to?

EDGE: We know from speaking to the prime minister's team that this was a hugely controversial decision even amongst his supporters. I mean, this is an unfolding nuclear disaster. The prime minister, pretty much on a whim, jumps in a helicopter, flies the 200 kilometers up from Tokyo to the Fukushima plant and lands at the site of what we now know was a triple nuclear meltdown.

There - he came under a lot of criticism for this in Japan because a lot of people, quite rightly, said what can you achieve? I mean, you can't really learn anything from turning up at the site of a nuclear meltdown. There - the workers were in the middle of trying to respond to the disaster. What could the prime minister achieve?

The prime minster says he did a crucial thing that morning. His argument is that he looked the plant manager in the eye, he looked - the plant manager, a man called Masao Yoshida, in the eye, and he started - he developed an understanding with him that was crucial to the functioning of the emergency response over the next few days. So this debate continues to rage in Japan.

DAVIES: And so they decided they could manually vent the gases, but there was a problem, which was that a lot of people were in the surrounding countryside, and you interview one of them, a farmer. Just tell us what his experience was.

EDGE: Well, we met one resident, he lived at - well, we met many residents - but in the film, we focus on a resident called Noriyo Kimura(ph). He lived just two miles from the nuclear plant. And he, like many of the people who lived around the - in that area, had lost family in the tsunami. In fact tragically in his case, his father, his wife and his youngest daughter were all swept away in the wave.

Now Noriyo, like many residents, wanted to find them. He still hoped they'd be alive the morning after the tsunami. He was still looking for them. And he had one surviving daughter. Now - and rather tragically, that morning, the morning of the 12th, all the residents were told they had to leave the area. TEPCO were about to release radiation in the atmosphere. People had to leave. It was too dangerous for them to stay.

So Noriyo Kimura and many others - and I wish we could have focused on more residents in the film - he had to make a decision, basically. Does he abandon the search for his family, for his missing family members? Or does he flee the area with his surviving daughter, one of his daughters survived, to keep her safe from radiation? And he made the decision to leave.

DAVIES: We're speaking with investigative reporter and documentary producer Dan Edge. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is investigative reporter and documentary producer Dan Edge. He reported and directed the documentary "Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown," which will be shown on "Frontline," on PBS stations tonight.

So we're in a situation here - this is day two after the tsunami - when a meltdown is beginning to occur at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and they've discovered there's this buildup of intense pressure, probably hydrogen gas, inside the reactors themselves, which must be vented, which will release radiation but is better than letting an explosion occur.

And as you've explained, they didn't have the power to vent it in the normal way, so they put together a team of people to take on this task. Just describe, if you will, what conditions they faced in going inside the reactor and trying to manually open these vents.

EDGE: These are volunteers. These are TEPCO employees who decide at great personal risk to themselves to try to avert great disaster. Now, what they are doing is walking into a reactor building, basically walking into the unknown.

All the radiation monitoring equipment is not working because of tsunami damage. So they don't know how bad the radiation levels will be in the reactor building. It's pitch black. It's very, very hot. There's condensation. They are - they're wearing gas masks and full HAZMAT suits, and they don't really know where they're going.

So the first team went in at 9:04 A.M. the morning after the tsunami, and they've been told, due to predicted radiation levels, they could spend a maximum of 17 minutes in that building before the radiation levels became dangerous to their health. They had a very short window in which to try to find what they needed to find.

They went in there, within nine minutes, they found a wheel which they thought, if they turned - they weren't sure - but they thought if they turned it, it might begin the venting process of the reactors. They managed to crank it round about a quarter of the way, then time ran out, they pulled out.

And what you had that morning, incredibly dramatic story, is a relay, essentially, of workers going in just for a few minutes, just turning that wheel a bit more or a couple of wheels involved and pulling out again before, you know, before they were exposed to radiation that essentially could kill them.

DAVIES: And was it successful?

EDGE: It was. By 2 o'clock that day, we're now almost 24 hours after the tsunami, TEPCO confirmed that radiation levels had risen around the plant, and for once that was good news, actually. A slight rise in radiation level meant that venting had been successful.

Pressure started to drop in Reactors 1 and 2, and for a brief moment, for a brief moment, some of the workers started to think that maybe the worst was over. One of the workers we spoke to said he felt huge relief when he heard the venting had happened, and he started to think about going home, started to think about seeing his family again.

DAVIES: All right, so this material was vented. Was there a significant impact of the radiation on the general population of Japan?

EDGE: At that stage no. From the venting, radioactive material was released. It's never a good thing. But it was certainly much, much, much better than the alternative, which is a potentially exploding reactor. So this has happened a few times in the history of nuclear power. Plants have had to vent for safety reasons. It's a very serious and undesirable scenario, but it's not - it doesn't release radiation which is necessarily damaging to health.

DAVIES: It was done in Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, wasn't it?

EDGE: Exactly, yeah.

DAVIES: All right, so they managed to release the pressure and put off the prospect of an explosion within the reactor vessels themselves, which is great, but they still have the problem that they need to get water flowing through these nuclear fuel rods to prevent a complete meltdown. So how did they proceed with that?

EDGE: Well, at the same time as the venting teams were trying to lower the pressure in the reactors, other workers were rigging up hoses, improvising with fire trucks, trying every way they could think of to get water into the reactors. And actually by about 2 o'clock in the afternoon of the 12th of March, the day after the tsunami, they had rigged up an improvised system that which could, they hope, get water into Reactors 1 and 2 and start the process of cooling that overheating nuclear fuel, essentially stop a nuclear meltdown.

They'd also managed to rig up some improved power. They think they might have some power back to make the cooling systems work again on a more or less permanent basis. Things are starting to look like they might have some solution in place, and suddenly Reactor 1 explodes.

DAVIES: Dan Edge will be back in the second half of the show to explain what had happened and how workers coped with the deepening crisis. His "Frontline" documentary, "Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown," airs on PBS stations tonight. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross who is off this week.

We're speaking with investigative reporter Dan Edge, who has produced a documentary which airs on Frontline tonight, about the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Dai-icihi Power Plant, which followed an earthquake and tsunami last March. The program is a gripping account of a series of potentially catastrophic developments, and how the government, plant workers, and citizens responded.

In the first half of the show, Edge explained that by the afternoon of the day of the tsunami, workers had managed to relieve building pressure in the reactors and get some water on nuclear fuel rods to keep them from melting down. Workers thought they might be getting the crisis under control, but then the plant was rocked by a massive explosion.

EDGE: Of all the workers we've spoken to, this was the worst moment for just about all of them. They didn't know what happened. Most of them were in a building they called a proof(ph) building. It's essentially a emergency control center. They're all - most of the workers are holed up in there. And suddenly they feel a colossal rumbling. So it's more like an earthquake than anything else. They didn't have any monitors. They can't see what's happening on the plant. They just feel a colossal rumbling. There's a moment of confusion. Then suddenly some injured men start piling in to the emergency control center. And Yoshida, the plant manager, I think, says out loud actually, did reactor one just explode? At that moment the workers think the reactors itself has exploded.

Now what that would mean, if the reactor itself had exploded it would mean there was nuclear fuel scattered all over the plant. It would mean a catastrophic release of radiation. It would mean fatal levels of radiation in the plant. So at that moment, many of the workers we spoke to thought they were going to die. They really did think it was finished - they were finished.

Radiation levels didn't rise that much. So after about an hour, I think it was about an hour of confusion, they started to realize what must have happened. It wasn't the reactor itself that had exploded. It was hydrogen, which built up in the roof of the building that surrounds the reactor. And that hydrogen had exploded in the roof. The explosion happened above the reactor vessel itself. It's a nightmare scenario, but it's not as much of a nightmare scenario as an exploding reactor.

DAVIES: Right. And this is an explosion that was captured on cameras at long-distance in which people saw at the time. It was a massive concussion.

EDGE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EDGE: Yeah. It was a huge explosion. One of the - I think one of the almost surreal aspects of being a worker in the plant that day is they didn't see that footage. They didn't see it go up. We all did at home. And, you know, it's an extraordinary piece of footage. It looks like the world. But those workers didn't see it. The information of what was happening just a couple of hundred meters from them came very piecemeal and over time. But, yeah, it became clear to the workers and to the world, that this was not a nuclear explosion. It looked terrific but it was not a nuclear explosion. It was a hydrogen explosion.

DAVIES: Right. So we have a situation where the housing around one of these reactors exploded. But the reactor vessels themselves are incredibly fortified and they managed to remain intact but we still have a problem inside of these nuclear fuel rods - heating and heating and heating - and there's this dire need to get water pumped in there and begin the cooling process.

And you describe how a particular group of soldiers were brought in and to try and get water into the reactor core. But then they encountered a horrific obstacle. Tell us what happened.

EDGE: So there were three reactors that the workers were focusing on. Reactors one and two deteriorated very quickly. Reactor three, somewhat less so. But it became clear by about the third day of the crisis that reactor number three was in meltdown, and that there was just an urgent a need to get water in there as the other two reactors. So a small team of Japanese soldiers from the Japanese Self-Defense Force were sent in. These are guys who are experts in biological, chemical and nuclear warfare. But, of course, they have no personal experience of working in generally radioactive conditions.

they went in there, they had water spraying equipment - essentially firefighting equipment - and army Jeeps and so on. They park up right next to reactor three. They're just getting their hoses ready to try and find a way - just to improvise a way of getting water into the reactor, and the reactor building explodes. I mean, they're literally a yard from this thing and the whole thing goes up. And again, we saw the footage on a camera placed 20 miles or so away. This is a colossal explosion. It's actually much bigger than the explosion of reactor one. And frankly, I must've seen this footage hundreds of times in the editing of the film. I still cannot believe that the soldiers who were right there survived that blast. It's extraordinary that they survived.

DAVIES: Right. But it certainly terminated their efforts to try and get water into reactor three. So we really have a terribly deteriorating situation here. They need to get cooling into - they need to get water into the reactors to try and stop the meltdown. How many people were still in the plant? You said about 6,000 were there when it began.

EDGE: Six thousand workers were there when the earthquake happened. That very quickly, many of them evacuated there and then. Many of them were menial workers, you know, support staff, people who cleaned, cooked, things like that. So by day two, there were just, you know, a few hundred there and every day after that workers would leave. Some of them worked for subcontractors, companies of TEPCO who were given permission to leave. So by the time reactor three exploded, it was on 14th March, three days after the tsunami struck, there were only about 250 workers left. Many of whom worked for TEPCO, some of whom worked for companies contracted to TEPCO.

DAVIES: So at this point, what would've been the consequences had they simply been unable to do anything in the meltdown had simply just gone uncontrolled?

EDGE: Different people will give you different answers to that question. Of course, we haven't had the luxury of experimenting with nuclear meltdowns. So other than Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, we don't have any models really, that we can accurately refer to.

A worse case an area, if all the workers had pulled out at Fukushima, which at one point seems to have been on the cards, would have been not only a meltdown of three reactors, but what's known as a melt-through, where the nuclear fuel rods melt, they melt through their containment vessel. They keep going down. They melt through the secondary containment vessel and into the ground. And essentially then they are in the water table and the radioactive contamination of the area is much, much worse than it turned out to be.

It's known as China Syndrome, on the basis that if such a thing happened in the States you could have nuclear fuel melting all the way through to China. That would never happen. But it still, it's the worst nightmare of someone who works in a nuclear power plant, a complete melt-through.

DAVIES: So would we be talking about, you know, radiation, deaths and hundreds and thousands? I mean, huge areas of Japan rendered uninhabitable?

EDGE: Began, this is a controversial area to stray on and I'm not a scientist, but the people we spoke to in the film - certainly the Japanese prime minister, for instance - was exploring worst-case scenarios. And at one stage he was looking at a plan to evacuate two to 300 kilometers from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, so that includes Tokyo. You'd be talking about evacuating Tokyo. I mean Japan would grind to a halt.

Radiation deaths in hundreds and thousands, I really don't know about that. I think the evacuation happened quickly in Japan and I'm sure if they had decided to evacuate two to 300 kilometers it would have been quick as well. It was very hard to predict how many people would actually be killed by radiation, but it's certainly the case the Japanese government was looking at worst-case scenarios of evacuating Tokyo.

DAVIES: We're speaking with investigative reporter and documentary producer Dan Edge. His story about the meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant appears on Frontline tonight.

We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is investigative reporter and documentary producer Dan Edge. He reported and directed the documentary "Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown," which will be shown on Frontline on PBS stations tonight.

So four days after the tsunami hits, you still have a situation where in three of these nuclear reactors at Fukushima, fuel rods are melting, heat is being generated, and there really isn't at that point a reliable method to get the necessary water in to cool them and stop the meltdown process. And at this point, the Japanese prime minister goes over to the headquarters of TEPCO, the utility that owns these reactors, and demands a meeting. And if I have this right, the workers at the plant were hooked in by a video link? Is that right?

EDGE: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah.

EDGE: No. That's absolutely right.

DAVIES: So what was this about? What was the gist of this?

EDGE: Extraordinarily dramatic events, sort of four days after the disaster began. Three AM on the morning of the 15th of March the prime minister is woken up and he's given a message, and the message, it makes his blood run cold. He's told that TEPCO are planning to pull all of their workers at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, the reactors would be completely abandoned.

Now I should point out that TEPCO dispute this account. They now say that they never intended to pull all their workers out. But it's not disputed that at three o'clock that morning the prime minister was told that they were pulling all their workers out of the plant. So the government goes into overdrive and, as you say, the prime minister drives over to TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo and demands to meet the executives of TEPCO there and also address the workers, who are at that stage, video linked through. So these are the guys at Fukushima who are coping with very high radiation levels.

And the prime minister makes a direct plea to the workers; he asks them to stay. He asks everyone over 60 to stay and take the lead and counters this in terms almost of a war, that this is a fight now for Japan's survival. A fight against an invisible enemy, but a fight nonetheless, and he orders them to remain.

DAVIES: And they stay?

EDGE: Many evacuate. In fact, and so much happens in the 24-hour period that we weren't able to cover it all in a 52-minute film. In fact, as the prime minister is speaking, there are now there's another explosion at the nuclear power plant. Radiation levels keep on rising. The situation is just deteriorating, deteriorating, deteriorating. Of the 250 workers, about 200 evacuate at that point. So it leaves, people differ about the numbers, but about 50, possibly 60 or 70 workers are left there. These are the guys that became known as the Fukushima 50.

DAVIES: And what are the conditions they are facing? I mean temperature, radiation, food?

EDGE: These guys are locked down at this stage. Radiation levels, particularly around reactor three, are life-threatening. You know, they are at levels that if you were exposed for more than a couple of hours your life would be in serious danger. So at this stage these guys are locked down in the earthquake and radiation-proof building. They haven't, they are on very very small rations of food. They haven't spoken to their families for days since the disaster started. Some of them don't even know if their families are alive, 'cause a lot of these people are local, of course. A lot of these people had families whose homes were destroyed in the tsunami. And communications are down. The folks, they've been very busy dealing with a nuclear disaster. So it's unimaginable what these guys were going through at this stage.

DAVIES: Did you talk to Masao Yoshida?

EDGE: No. No. Masao Yoshida was like everyone else who worked at the plant, was not allowed to give interviews to the press. He is now rather ill with cancer. TEPCO made a statement that his cancer has nothing to do with radiation levels and I have no reason to believe otherwise. But, no, we didn't speak to Masao Yoshida.

DAVIES: While the situation is deteriorating, across the Atlantic, American officials have been watching. Do they feel they understand what's going on? How do they respond?

EDGE: No one in the United States or indeed, across the world, really knew what was happening in Fukushima in those first few days. The Japanese government and TEPCO have come under a lot of criticism since then, of being economical with the truth of what was happening and of not really sharing information about how serious the disaster was becoming with its nuclear regulatory counterparts across the world.

The NRC in the United States, certainly there had been some phone calls and documents published recently under Freedom of Information...

DAVIES: That's the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, right?

EDGE: Yes. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission certainly didn't have much to go on in terms of building up a picture of what was happening. They were relying as much on news reports. In fact, they were relying more on news reports than they were on direct information flow from TEPCO and Japanese government.

So they sent a team out just to try and help the Japanese, try and offer what support they could - also to try and find out what on earth was going on. And in our film we interview Chuck Casto who led that mission, and he was very open about the fact that they just really didn't understand or know what was going on when they arrived.

Chuck Casto arrived four days after the tsunami and he arrived amidst rumors that TEPCO were about to pull everybody out, that there was a triple nuclear meltdown underway, that it was going to get worse. So, you know, he arrived, really, in what he calls the fog of war.

DAVIES: And they commissioned a drone flight over the reactor, right, to take pictures and get their own look, right? What did they see?

EDGE: Yeah. I mean, the United States realized it was going to have to develop independent sources of information if it wanted to really get a handle as to what was going on and also offer help to its ally. They sent a drone over on the 15th of March and they were very disturbing information, and new information, which was that the spent fuel pools seemed to be overheating.

Now, this isn't something that people had been focusing on, really, on the first few days. You have – each of these reactor buildings has a nuclear reactor in it. Three of these reactors were in meltdown. Clearly the focus has been on preventing that in the first few days. But also, each of these reactor buildings has a spent fuel pool in where all the discarded nuclear fuel is put when it's no longer generating enough heat to run – to create electricity.

DAVIES: And that is outside the reactor vessels themselves, right?

EDGE: Outside the reactor vessels themselves but inside the reactor buildings. And these spent fuel pools are full of discarded radioactive fuel. They're absolutely crammed full. And for many, many years after they're not using reactors anymore, they still generate large amounts of heat. They still require large amounts of water to keep them cool.

And it's actually--it's a very interesting side effect of the fact that Japan has no real working policy on what to do with nuclear waste. All the nuclear waste ever generated at the Fukushima nuclear plant is currently still at the Fukushima nuclear plant, after 40 years of operation, in these spent fuel pools.

And the United States flies a drone over on the 15th of March and detects very high levels of heat coming off these spent fuel pools. And the experts conclude that this means the water is boiling away and very soon this spent fuel will be exposed. If it's exposed, they fear it could catch fire. If there's a fire in a nuclear spent fuel pool, that will create a plume of radiation, actually far, far worse than anything that's happened so far.

So you have a sudden laser-like focus, if you like, on the part of the Americans and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the spent fuel pools. And they are stressing, they're urging, they are almost demanding of their Japanese counterparts that they get water into those fuel pools as quickly as possible.

DAVIES: We're speaking with investigative reporter and documentary producer, Dan Edge. His story about the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant appears on Frontline tonight. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with investigative reporter and documentary producer, Dan Edge. He reported and directed the documentary "Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown" which will be shown on Frontline on PBS stations tonight.

Well, in the documentary, you chronicle two more efforts to get water to the plant - one unsuccessful, one successful. Folks can watch this. There's incredibly dramatic stories of heroism involved in those efforts. In the end it was contained. You know, the uncontrolled meltdown was averted. I wanted to talk about sort of some of the aftermath of all this. What's the condition of the surrounding countryside around Fukushima today?

EDGE: Around the Fukushima nuclear point there is a 12-mile exclusion zone. Nobody lives there. No one has lived there since the 12th of March last year. And it's an extraordinary landscape, a landscape sort of frozen in time. Horrific in some ways. Many farm animals that were locked in their pens at the time have starved to death.

Some farmers managed to sneak back into the exclusion zone and release their animals so there are cows, pigs, roaming wild. But there's nobody there. There's nobody there. And unlike the rest of the Japanese coast where much work has been done to rebuild and tidy up from the tsunami damage, obviously that work hasn't taken place in the exclusion zone.

So there's still evidence of the horrors of the tsunami. Now, it's very interesting because within that exclusion zone there are areas of very high radiation and I traveled into the zone, I think, seven times in the making of this film. And there are areas you really don't want to hang about it. And then there are areas, 100, 200 yards away, where levels are comparatively safe.

So the challenge that faces the Japanese government at the moment is trying to develop a policy, if possible, to bring people back to their homes, if it's safe, or develop a decontamination policy to try and make areas safe that aren't now. But these are all things for the future. The government is very much feeling its way towards this at the moment. And the situation as it stands is that over 100,000 people have had to leave their homes.

DAVIES: And what's the state of the plant itself?

EDGE: No ones knows for sure what the state of the reactor cores is, because they're buried under many, many, many tons of rubble from the explosions and you just can't get down into them. TEPCO and the Japanese nuclear regulatory agencies have conducted various simulations and I think there's, now, more or less a consensus, that there have been three meltdowns.

That in each case the fuel has slumped to the bottom and started to eat through the bottom of the containment vessels, but did not eat its way all the way out. So for reactors one, two, and three there was melted fuel at the bottom of the reactor vessels but it hasn't eaten its way through into the earth.

DAVIES: But the situation has stabilized. There's enough water to maintain the heat levels?

EDGE: Yeah. The plant has reached what is known in the trade as cold shutdown, which is that the temperature of the reactor cores of each of those reactors is stably beneath 100 degrees Centigrade. So there is a degree of stability there, and I think the way the work has been characterized is that it's stable but it's not safe.

There are still areas of the plant where radiation levels are very, very dangerously high and you can't spend very long there before becoming sick. There is still great fear amongst the workers I spoke to, of the consequences of another colossal tsunami or earthquake. So it's – I think anyone who works there always hesitates if you ask them the question: is it safe now?

It's obviously a lot more stable than it was on March the 15th last year, a few days after the tsunami, but it's still a work in progress and it will take – estimates are that it will take about 20 to 30 years to actually get down to the cores and clean the place up.

DAVIES: Right. Because the fuel rods that were in the reactor vessels are still there. The spent nuclear fuel that was around them is still there. Are there any workers who are there now?

EDGE: Yeah. Now that the place – Fukushima plant is full of workers at the moment. There is a lot to do. There is a lot to do. I mean they're building new reactor housings around the exploded reactors they've, I believe, completed the building around reactor one. They plan to do the same around reactor three quite soon. The idea there is to just contain radiation levels, to try and get any releases down to zero. And there will be workers there for decades, clearing up.

DAVIES: And what about the health of those who were exposed to radiation in the course of fighting the disaster? Do we know how their health has been affected?

EDGE: Short-term, what's remarkable about the nuclear disaster in Japan, and what's really quite impressive, actually what I've personally found impressive, is that nobody died. Nobody died from radiation exposure. None of the workers who were just yards away from colossal hydrogen explosions were killed.

So in one sense it's been very well managed. But long-term, the picture is much more cloudy. We know that over 100 workers were exposed to radiation levels which will certainly increase their chances of developing cancer over the coming years. So long-term, these workers I think know that they will pay the price. They will pay the price for the work they did, saving Japan from a much worse nuclear disaster. But only time will tell.

DAVIES: Dan Edge, thanks so much for speaking with us.

EDGE: My pleasure. Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: Dan Edge is an investigative reporter. He wrote and directed the Frontline documentary "Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown." It airs on PBS stations tonight.

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