Leak at Japan Nuclear Plant Went Undetected After Monday's powerful earthquake in Japan, radioactive material leaked from a nuclear plant, undetected for days — even as the utility company assured the public that there was no danger.
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Leak at Japan Nuclear Plant Went Undetected

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Leak at Japan Nuclear Plant Went Undetected

Leak at Japan Nuclear Plant Went Undetected

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Japan, the world's largest nuclear power plant has been shut down.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant was badly shaken by a major earthquake on Monday. Canisters of low-level nuclear waste fell over and more than 50 items were damaged.

SIEGEL: NPR's David Kestenbaum is in Tokyo. And David, where is the power plant and how close was the plant to the fault line?

DAVID KESTENBAUM: It's about 150 miles north of Tokyo and puts it right on the Sea of Japan there. It was very close to the fault line, not right on top but pretty close.

The, you know, earthquakes are always a risk in Japan. And the Tokyo Electric Power, the company that owns the plant, says when it was built, they did a survey looking for fault lines going down about 1,000 feet, but this quake was much deeper about 20 kilometers, around 12 miles. And the plant was designed for a 6.5 magnitude quake and this was significantly larger, it was measured at 6.8.

SIEGEL: Well, what kind of damage did the quake do to the plant?

KESTENBAUM: The most immediately visible thing was a smoke from a transformer building that caught on fire that took a while to put out. There were some 400 barrels that were toppled, some containing low-level nuclear waste and the lids came off some of those, the contents were described to us as bolts(ph) and abrading agents, things like that.

There was some leakage of radioactive water into the Sea of Japan, but that sort of measured in liters. A spokesman said the radioactivity was very low. The person we talked to said he compared it to the radioactivity in some hot springs that people get in.

You know, the thing you really want to happen when there is an earthquake is you want the reactor to shut down safely and that part did happen.

SIEGEL: Now, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant is described as the largest nuclear power plant in the world. How long is it going to be shut down and do we know what sort of impact that would have on power supplies in Japan?

KESTENBAUM: I couldn't get a clear answer to how long it was going to be shut down. The spokesman for the power plant - I said, are we talking months, a year? And he said, he just couldn't say, he just couldn't say. Basically, the local government has ordered shutdown until the safety checks are done and, as you mentioned, there's a list of over 50 things that are broken.

You know, this is a - it is by capacity, the largest nuclear plant in the world, 8,000 megawatts, which is, you know, electricity for millions of households. So they're going to try and import power from surrounding regions or put additional power stations online. We'll have to see how well that works.

SIEGEL: And what has local reaction been to all of this in Japan?

KESTENBAUM: There has been frustration because the information coming out seems to have been changing over the last few days. The numbers of barrels overturned have changed, the amount of radioactivity in the water, the company said they miscalculated that and they had to increase the number.

The president of Tokyo Electric has apologized for this. But Mohamed ElBaradei at the International Atomic Energy Agency said, look, we need more transparency. The nuclear industry here does not have the Japanese people's trust. There'd been a series of incidents where they haven't been very forthcoming about things.

I was over here a number of years ago when there was an accident with too much uranium put in a bucket and two workers died, you know. And this is the only country in the world that's been - that's had atomic bombs dropped on them. So people - the word they use is allergy. People have an allergy to nuclear power. But they don't have a lot of options because Japan doesn't have a lot of natural resources, and they get 35 percent of their power from nuclear.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Kestenbaum in Tokyo. David, thank you very much.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

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