Japan Nuclear Crisis Raised To Chernobyl Level
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
For most of this hour, we'll focus on one of the most interesting conclusions of the new Census, which finds significant numbers of African-Americans moving south of the Mason-Dixon Line in a reversal of the Great Migration.
But we begin with the news today that authorities in Japan revised the severity of the accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant since the earthquake and tsunami there a month ago. We've heard comparisons to Three Mile Island, the partial meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979 that frightened many, but caused no casualties.
Today, Fukushima was placed in the worst rating possible on an international scale, a category previously reserved for Chernobyl, the Soviet-era plant in Ukraine that exploded in 1986, spewing radiation over a wide area and being blamed for the deaths of many thousands.
NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us here in Studio 3A.
And Richard, as always, thanks very much for coming in.
RICHARD HARRIS: I'm happy to be here.
CONAN: And as the World Health Organization said today, the health risk in Japan is unchanged, still very low outside of the evacuation zone. So why this upgrade?
HARRIS: Well, I think when Japan originally decided that they needed to put a number on this international scale, they made it a five, which was the same - this is a scale from zero to seven, essentially. And they initially said it was a five.
I think a lot of people scratched their heads, considering number six is defined as serious, and the idea that this would be below serious seemed to be a sort of an odd choice, anyway.
But the explanation from Japan is that basically, they've now had a chance to review the amount of radiation that has come out of the reactors over the course of the past month - most of it at the very beginning of the accident - and it turns out to be quite a lot.
And so on the basis of that, the international scale says you've got to make it a seven.
CONAN: Got to make it a seven. That doesn't yet make it, though, anywhere on the - close to Chernobyl.
HARRIS: The amount of radiation that came out is about one-tenth that Chernobyl emitted, according to the latest calculations. So it's - yeah, it's not quite a Chernobyl, but that's still an awful lot of radioactive material.
CONAN: Why is it that we're revising this calculation now? Aren't there a lot of sophisticated radiation monitors outside of nuclear power plants?
HARRIS: Yeah, well, I think that this is a - the International Atomic Energy Agency explained that this is actually a communications tool, just a way of giving a sense of how serious an accident this was.
I think we all knew that this was a really serious accident, and the number doesn't necessarily help the public that much. I think what's important to say is that it would - did not affect the way the Japanese government responded to the accident, because this number is - does not tell them, you know, if it's a seven you have to do this. If it's a six, you do this. Basically, this number just says: Yeah, this is a biggie, and we know that.
CONAN: And, well, they knew that from the beginning, and I guess experts knew it. But from the public's point of view, to hear this revision a month later is a sense that, wait a minute, they've not been telling us how severe this has been all along, and they're continuing to downplay the seriousness of this accident.
HARRIS: Yeah, well, I think the Japanese government's attitude has been that: Tell people what, you know, what is actionable, what they need to do - avoid eating spinach from certain prefectures or leave certain areas. And the Japanese government so far seems to have been fairly cautious and straightforward about those sorts of practical, nuts-and-bolts things.
What the Japanese government has not done is made very expansive statements about, you know, how worried to be and these kinds of things. They don't - you know, when they give information out, they usually give it in highly technical - you know, with very, very, very technical details. And they don't really tell the public how to interpret that.
So I think it's a - it's maybe partly a cultural thing, but I think it's also true that the Japanese government is rightly concerned about panic a little bit, too.
CONAN: And I'm old enough to remember Three Mile Island and remember that the authorities there were not exactly forthcoming with the extent of the - their true beliefs about the extent of that accident, either.
HARRIS: Right. And I think what happened in that was, in retrospect, I think that - sort of that looking back at that, the investigators found that the press ended up really grossly exaggerating what was going on at Three Mile Island, partly because it was an information vacuum and people were filling in the blanks and filling them in pretty badly.
When I headed off to Japan, I did some quick reading up on Three Mile Island, because I'd remembered it as being a huge accident. And I didn't realize how little radiation had actually come out of the Three Mile Island reactor, because there had been - it's so much part of the American mythology, in a way, by now.
CONAN: And had such a profound effect on the nuclear industry in this country for decades afterwards. In the meantime, one, of course, huge difference is that Three Mile Island, there was one reactor in trouble. In Japan, there are three in serious trouble, and three others in various stages.
HARRIS: Yeah, well, three reactors that are - apparently have partially melted down, as did the reactor at Three Mile Island, and three other, or four maybe, spent fuel pools that - whose conditions are not really clearly known. But it's quite possible that there's a risk of radiation releases from those pools. In fact, it may have already happened from at least one or two of those pools.
So, yeah, the situation is potentially very big. The difference is in Three Mile Island, the reactor pretty much remained intact, whereas in -and so the radiation release was fairly modest outside the plant here. We obviously saw these explosions early on in the accident, and so on.
So even though the reactor vessels are still apparently intact, it is quite evident that a lot of radiation has gotten out of them.
CONAN: And so what can we now judge - if that amount of radiation has been revised upwards - about the health effects of that radiation?
HARRIS: Well, the thing about that is that the Japanese government and international agencies, including the U.S. government, have done numerous surveys and been watching very carefully the radiation levels in Japan.
And this number doesn't change that at all, because those figures basically are what they are, radiation actually on the ground. And by and large, most of the area around the reactor, certainly outside of this 20-kilometer or 12-mile exclusion zone, has seen fairly low amounts of radiation. Obviously, there was a peak at the beginning, and it has been falling off fairly consistently.
So in terms of health effects in the surrounding areas, there are a couple of hotspots that the Japanese government is concerned about, but overall, it does not appear that there has been a very large public exposure.
CONAN: And what about the workers at the plant? We've heard of people's legs being burned with radioactive water.
HARRIS: Yeah. We'll have to see about how many plant workers get injured. So, you know, there's no reported deaths from this, other than a couple of plant workers who were in the plant during the tsunami and were killed by the wave, not by radiation.
But the story on that is by no means over. The cleanup in this plant is going to take, easily, a decade. And that will mean many, many people exposed to potentially high levels of radiation. It has to be managed very carefully. Accidents are, unfortunately, part of the - you know, seemingly inevitable in a situation where you have a dangerous situation like that.
So it's really - at this point, to really to say, you know, what the danger is to the workers...
CONAN: And we're not in the cleanup phase yet. These facilities are not yet under control.
HARRIS: That's right. And they're trying to wrestle some of the material under control - I mean, not only the reactors, but there's a lot of radioactive water that's sloshing right in the basements and trenches and pits and so on.
So there is some effort to clean up that water, which they need to do in order to essentially bring the reactors fully under control. So it's a kind of a mix of trying to get the reactors fully stabilized and trying to start cleaning up so they can get at the reactors a little bit better.
CONAN: In this country, we've seen - when the discussion comes up about licensing new power plants, new nuclear power plants, one of the proposals is: Well, we've already got a power plant over here. Why don't we put another reactor there because there's already one there? It's so difficult to get communities to accept these kinds of facilities.
Does this accident sort of raise the bar for saying: Maybe it's not such a great idea to have numbers of reactors on one site?
HARRIS: Well, I think the answer is you have to look very carefully what the hazards at that one site. I mean, you could see a scenario where, if you have backup generators failing in some reactors, if it hadn't been a tsunami, maybe some - maybe the backup generators in the reactors uphill would have worked in this circumstances, and so you could - so there is some synergy in having reactors close together.
But if you do have a common source of failure - like an earthquake or a tsunami or a terrorist attack or something like that on a single point -then you bring up a good point.
CONAN: And we are, at this point, how far away - does anybody know -from bringing these facilities under control?
HARRIS: Well, if anybody knows, they aren't saying. I think it's, optimistically, weeks, more likely months.
CONAN: And is there danger of more radiation leakage?
HARRIS: Yes. The situation is getting better, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and every passing week makes them feel a little bit more comfortable. But it's clearly still quite possible that there could be other major releases.
There still are minor releases of radiation as they proceed, because the way the reactors are being cooled right now is they inject water into them. And some of the water flashes as steam. And that steam, depending upon what happens to it, some of it may escape into the air and carry some radiation with it.
So there still are continual releases of radiation, but nothing on the scale, apparently, that we saw in the first week of the accident.
CONAN: And we have also seen a continuing series of aftershocks, and we read at least some experts suggesting these aftershocks are going to continue for some time, some of them quite strong.
HARRIS: Absolutely. With - if you have a magnitude nine earthquake, you should expect at least one magnitude eight aftershock, which we have not had yet, and quite a number of magnitudes in the seven range. And we've seen some of them, but there could easily be more, and then, you know, dozens and dozens in the six range, which, you know, we sort of shrug off as, well, that's nothing compared to a nine. But a six can still do significant damage if it's close to buildings, you know, depending upon where it hits. So yeah, there's - you know, aftershocks are likely to continue for years.
CONAN: And given the fragility of these recovery and control efforts, another big earthquake, another tsunami, it's impossible to say what might happen.
HARRIS: Right. I think it's highly unlikely that we would have another tsunami of the magnitude that we saw. And this plant is up off the shoreline a bit, and it was designed to cope with smaller tsunamis. So tsunami, you know, obviously we can't discount it entirely. But I think the seismic hazard of a close-by earthquake and more disruption, I think, is on everyone's minds as they're working on those plants.
CONAN: And in the meantime, is anybody suggesting to the authorities in Tokyo that more transparency might provide more comfort to people?
HARRIS: Well, it's an interesting question, because it's a cultural matter. And the Japanese - I mean, it would provide more comfort to Americans, who always want more information. But my experience in Japan was the public was more or less satisfied with just hearing the bottom line from the government about this is safe or this is not safe.
And they weren't - I didn't hear a lot of frustration during my admittedly short time there with people saying: I wish I knew more form the government. That may be more of an American attitude than a Japanese attitude.
CONAN: Richard Harris, thanks very much. We appreciate it.
HARRIS: My pleasure.
CONAN: Richard Harris has to get busy to monitor some hearings. You can expect to hear him later today, I suspect, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
HARRIS: That's the plan.
CONAN: When we come back, we're going to take a look at the stories behind some numbers in the recent Census reports, specifically that African-Americans are increasingly moving their families out of Northern cities and back to the South.
Stay with us for that. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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