Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is the world, the co-production of the BBC world service PRI and WGBH Boston. The evidence is now in on. The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan was in fact the second worst nuclear accident, after the one in Chernobyl in 1986. The Fukushima accident, you'll recall, occurred just after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami devastated northeast Japan. A new report describes just how serious the accident was. The report was compiled by experts at the Atlanta based organization, The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. Geoff Brumfiel is a science journalist at Nature magazine and has been covering the nuclear Fukushima disaster. He joins us from the BBC studio in London. Geoff, the broad strokes of what happened at Fukushima are well known now, but what new information does this report provide that we didn't know before?

Geoff Brumfiel: Well, I think that what this report provides really, is a very in-depth look of exactly what happened and what the workers at the plant were facing. I mean it's really, it reads like an airport thriller with a lot of acronyms. Basically, it shows that the situation at Fukushima spiraled out of control in the hours and days after it was first rocked by this big earthquake on March 11th, and then hit by a tsunami.

Werman: Right, and especially the conditions for the workers. I mean, the one thing that struck me when I was reading parts of this report, were the details of the workers of the plant, the conditions they were living in as they tried to control this evolving disaster. It's been said before, but remind us, just kind of, what conditions these guys were working under that made them truly nothing short of heroes.

Brumfiel: Well yeah, first of all, they were surviving on biscuits and cups of noodles. The life on the plant for the first couple of days was extremely rough. Beyond that they were contending with very high levels of radiation and radiation in the control rooms where they were struggling to contain this accident. They were working at consoles that were completely black, there was no electricity anywhere on site. They were working with flashlights, with emergency lighting, whatever they could get their hands on. At one point they were using car batteries to try and hook up the emergency relief valves on the reactor cores. And, not only were they sitting in these contaminated control rooms, struggling, they would go out into the reactor building and there's just some chilling stories there of you know, things shuddering in the turbine halls and they're wading through radioactive water trying to find out if emergency systems were operating, I mean it was a real nightmare.

Werman: I was wondering if you have a sense, Geoff, of what kind of health effects these workers are bound to face?

Brumfiel: Well if the radiation numbers that are detailed in the report are to be believed, you know, it's reasonable they they're probably in the ballpark. Dozens of workers received fairly high doses of radiation, and two, received you know, high enough doses that it could lead to cancer later in life. The insidious thing about radiation is that usually it means that you are going to develop cancer earlier on than you might have otherwise done, or there may be some sort of complication many years in the future. Now, trying to untangle this, from you know, the normal occurrence of cancer in the population is quite tricky; so we may never know exactly what effect the radiation had on these workers.

Werman: One thing that is definitely keeping people scratching their heads is where the radiation from Fukushima has gone in Japan, and what in Japan is contaminated. So, a few weeks ago a new study claimed that the amount of radiation released from the plant was far more than the Japanese government claimed. Has that debate been resolved?

Brumfiel: No, it hasn't. As far as I know, the Japanese government really has kind of given up on estimating how much radiation came out of Fukushima. They made an initial estimate back in June and then they just sort of decided to let that stand as a rough ballpark figure. The big problem is that there is so much uncertainty about what happened inside the reactors themselves, and unless you know that and you know the way they were venting radiation and the quantity of radiation they were venting in those first few days, that first week after the accident started, there's really no way to tell how much radiation was released. The report, which came out of a Scandinavian group, said it was about double what the government said. Other reports may say a little bit less. I think the government feels like, ok, we've got a ballpark figure now, we're just going to stick with that and kind of the real issue is the clean up.

Werman: Now I've also heard, Geoff, that mercifully, the environmental conditions in mid March were such that Tokyo, which is a hundred miles or more south of Fukushima, was actually spared any major radioactive blowback from the meltdowns in Fukushima. Explain why a different and more tragic outcome in Tokyo did not happen.

Brumfiel: So, there's still a lot of uncertainty about what was coming out of the plant and where it was going but the best pictures we have are computer models that sort of estimate the emission and take into account weather conditions at the time. Now one of the models that came out from an independent group in Scandinavia showed that there was actually a chance that Tokyo could have gotten a pretty serious dose of radioactive contamination. What was going on was there was this plume of radiation that was streaming out of the plant, it was whipping around in the wind and where ever the rain fell, that's where the radiation ended up. Now, it happened to be dry in Tokyo when this model showed the radiation plume passing over and if it hadn't been, I think conditions in Tokyo would have been so bad that people may have had to evacuate. So, I do think that Tokyo dodged a bullet there.

Werman: Geoff Brumfiel, a science journalist from Nature magazine joining us from our studios in London. Geoff, we greatly appreciate your time indeed. Thank you.

Brumfiel: Thank you.