BOSTON — By March 16, the earthquake and tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daichi nuclear station had been the site of two fires, three explosions and significant radiation releases. In the midst of a region devastated by a tsunami and earthquake, workers struggled to stave off a full-scale meltdown and regain control of the nuclear power plant, which still lacked electricity needed to operate safety systems.
On Wednesday, Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission testified to Congress that “We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures,” the New York Times reported.
The Times added that the situation presented an "agonizing choice for Japanese authorities: Send a small number of workers into a increasingly radioactive area in a last-ditch effort to cover the spent fuel, and fuel in other reactors — with water, or do more to protect the workers but risk burning off the pools of water protecting the fuel — and thus risk a broader meltdown."
For an industry perspective on the risks from this accident, GlobalPost turned to Carl Baab, a spokesman at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. nuclear industry’s lobbying and public relations organization. (Update: as Justin Elliot points out on Salon, Tepco, the utility that operates the Fukushima reactors, is a member of the NEI.)
GlobalPost: We spoke with an independent expert this week who said that the chances of a catastrophic radiation release are 50-50. Would you agree with that?
Nuclear Energy Institute: I think this is a very serious accident. We’ve already seen significant releases. The Japanese government has taken the precautions of evacuating people to 12 miles, and advising protections to 20 miles. Whether it will get any worse remains to be seen. We certainly hope not.
GlobalPost: Can you give us a sense of how long the crisis might take to run its course? Every day we hear about another fire or explosion, and over the past couple days there have been significant radiation releases. We’ve been told that the venting of steam with low-level radiation will persist for months, if not a year.
Nuclear Energy Institute: Again, it’s very hard to tell exactly at this point. We know for certain that the energy in the fuel will decay fairly rapidly after a few days. That should end up in a reduction in emissions. The Japanese are making heroic efforts to address the situation. They have some control of the reactors, but they do not have full control at this stage.
GlobalPost: On Tuesday morning, the radiation dose near one of the reactors was 40 rem/hr. That’s an awful lot of radiation. On Wednesday, workers were evacuated due to high radiation levels. How can they get control of the reactors if they can’t even work in the area?
Nuclear Energy Institute: The high levels of radiation were spikes that occurred temporarily. The employees that were evacuated were only evacuated for a short time. Since then, they have sent in a bigger crew, of about 180 workers. The evacuation was a precaution to prevent workers from being exposed to serious level of radiation.
GlobalPost: Aren’t some of the workers maxing-out their exposure to radiation, to the point where they won’t be able to continue working at the site? When that happens, how does the utility find new trained workers to take over? And doesn’t a lot of the work need to be done manually?
Nuclear Energy Institute: Unfortunately we don’t have the level of detail to comment on individual workers’ exposure levels. We don’t have any indication that they have a shortage of workers. It’s too early to speculate on whether this will become a problem. That’s something that’s not foreseen.
GlobalPost: Once you have a radioactive release, doesn’t the contamination remain on-site? Some radioactive isotopes don’t decay for decades or even centuries.
Nuclear Energy Institute: It will certainly pose challenges at the plant, and there will be contamination that will remain. Some of these isotopes have long half lives as you point out, but some have short lives as well.
GlobalPost: Was this a bad place to site a nuclear plant?
Nuclear Energy Institute: The design basis for this plant took into account the potential for earthquakes and tsunamis, although this earthquake exceeded the magnitude that had been planned for. The sequence of catastrophic events here was unprecedented — the earthquake followed by the tsunami, causing a total, extended station blackout and a loss of backup generator power, along with the devastation that prevented authorities from brining in backup resources.
The industry in the U.S. is already looking at what happened in Fukushima, to see whether they have planned adequately for such an event. In the late 1980s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission required plants to upgrade their systems so they would be prepared to deal with extended blackouts.
GlobalPost: But in Japan they didn’t have the same requirement?
Nuclear Energy Institute: We don’t have enough information to comment on that.
GlobalPost: Aside from the reactors, the spent fuel rods are also becoming a problem. There was a fire in a facility housing spent fuel rods on Tuesday, and there was a second fire on Wednesday that has apparently gone out. The NY Times reported that “a pool storing spent fuel rods at that fourth reactor had overheated and reached boiling point and had become unapproachable by workers at the plant.”
Some scientists — notably Robert Alvarez, a former advisor to the US Secretary of Energy — say that these spent fuel rods could pose an even greater risk than the reactors themselves. According to Sharon Begley, Newsweek’s science editor, “scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated that a severe pool fire—made possible by the loss of cooling water—could leave about 188 square miles uninhabitable and cause up to 28,000 cancer deaths.”
How concerned should we be about this?
Nuclear Energy Institute: The assessment that is coming from the Japanese now is that the water in the unit 4 spent fuel pool has approached or is reaching the boiling point. That means that the operators need additional water, to prevent keep the fuel rods from overheating.
Normally, in a stable fuel pool, some water will be pumped through to dissipate the heat. If you stop the movement of water, the fuel rods will heat the water up, and you can cause the water to boil off. That’s a process that will normally take several days. Normally, a pool has about 13 feet of water above the spent fuel. So there’s a fair amount of water to boil off. If they can’t keep water on it, there’s a greater risk. We still believe that the risk of a major fire is low, but not impossible.
There’s not as much energy in the spent fuel rods than in the reactors, so the rate of burn-off is not nearly as high. The fuel is protected by a zirconium alloy that surrounds all of it.
This is a situation that’s being watched very carefully by the Japanese.
GlobalPost: Why has it been so hard to keep water on the fuel rods?
Nuclear Energy Institute: They’re not sure yet why this is happening. There’s concern that the spent fuel pools may have been damaged, and that there may have been some spillage. On top of that, the pumping systems that circulate water to keep the pools from getting hot are not operating. So they’re using fire hoses to cool the rods. They contemplated dropping water from a helicopter, but the radiation level was too high for them to do this.
GlobalPost: This problem with the fuel rods only emerged recently, several days after the earthquake. So is it possible that we’ll have similar problems in the spent fuel pools at the other five reactors?
Nuclear Energy Institute: That’s possible. They working hard right now to restore the operating and safety systems so that they can properly monitor and maintain everything. They’re working hard to do that, and they’re getting closer.
GlobalPost: So five days after the earthquake they still don’t have their systems back up and running?
Nuclear Energy Institute: I don’t think any of the reactors have all their operational systems working. There was a report this morning that they’re having to go in and construct facilities quickly.
GlobalPost: In the midst of this earthquake and tsunami devastation, it sounds like they’re rebuilding nuclear reactors on the fly.
Nuclear Energy Institute: They’re going to have to completely rebuild many parts of the plant, yes.
GlobalPost: Speaking of the spent fuel rods, don’t most U.S. nuclear power plants store spent fuel rods in pools on-site, the way the Japanese do? The Germans have moved their spent fuel to dry, hardened casks, but in the U.S. there are some 100 spent fuel pools. Don’t we face the threat of such a catastrophic accident? And why not move spent fuel to hardened casks, if that’s safer?
Nuclear Energy Institute: Yes, in the U.S. each reactor site has a spent fuel pool. When they become full, the operators have tended to put them in dry fuel casks, but a lot of material remains in spent fuel pools. There are a number of reactors in the U.S. that are Mark 1 Boiling-Water plants very similar in design to the Fukushima reactors.
Here, the licensing process is based on a thorough assessment of safety at each plant. And as I mentioned, in the late 1980s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that additional measures needed to be implemented at the plants to make sure they were prepared for an extended blackout. Those measures are in place, and should keep the spent fuel safe.
GlobalPost: What about in the event of a terrorist attack?
Nuclear Energy Institute: Precautions for a terrorist attack have been looked at by Nuclear Regulatory Commission after 2001, and upgrades were made. I must say that there’s a safety culture in the nuclear industry that exceeds anything else in the world.
Let me add that in Japan, you have people who are making heroic efforts to get this accident under control. You’ve got workers who may have lost their families and homes who are staying there trying to take care of that plant.
GlobalPost: In 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency examined a nuclear plant in western Japan that had been damaged by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake. They found that the plant had not been designed to withstand that size earthquake, even though it was many times smaller than the 8.9 or 9.0 magnitude March 11 quake. How is this possible, in a country where earthquakes are common?
Nuclear Energy Institute: I’m not an expert on the Japan’s specific plant design. In this particular plant, it had been designed to withstand a strong earthquake, but this one did exceed its design capacity. The reactors shut down as they are supposed, and the safety systems did work initially, until they lost power for an extended period. In order to determine whether the designs are satisfactory elsewhere, you’d have to go on a plant-by-plant basis, and I’m sure that’s one of the things that will be looked at.
GlobalPost: A lot countries around the world — and particularly China and other emerging markets — are embracing nuclear power. Is this accident a reason for them to rethink their plans?
Nuclear Energy Institute: I think this accident is going to be examined by any country considering nuclear. Every time there’s a significant accident — whether it’s Three Mile Island or any other Western reactor — that kind of examination occurs. There will be a lot of discussion and study. How it plays out with the regulatory process is too early to say.
Let me add that this question was posed to President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu yesterday, and they said that they firmly believe that nuclear power should remain part of the energy equation. The reason for that is that the U.S. needs new energy, and nuclear is the only one on a mass scale that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, and that reduces dependence on oil.
GlobalPost: How soon will people be able to return to the area around the plants?
That is impossible to say at this point. I don’t think anyone knows. It’s conceivable that it will be months before they can return. It’s too early to speculate if it will be years.
GlobalPost: How soon would you be willing to move your family to the area around this plant to live?
Nuclear Energy Institute: I think the way you have to look at this is that the precautionary measures – evacuating to 12 miles, and sheltering to 20 miles will remain the standard for the future, until the situation stabilizes.
Devastation done by nature's forces was unbelievable. I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of the nuclear accident, but comparatively, this plant has not created the level of danger that we’ve seen from nature.
GlobalPost: How much radiation are we likely to be exposed to in the U.S., and what precautions are you advising people to take?
Nuclear Energy Institute: At this point, there’s no need for precautions. The dispersion that occurs when radiation travels over significant distances means that even in places much closer than the U.S., exposure levels won’t be a cause for concern. The average person gets about 300 millirem per year just from living on earth. The additional exposure would be a small fraction of that, well below any regulatory limits or scientific concern.
GlobalPost: In the U.S., the industry still hasn’t solved what to do with nuclear waste.
Nuclear Energy Institute: Yes, that’s a continuing issue. The risk you see in Japan at the spent fuel pools demonstrates that when the nuke industry was developed by policy planners, they did not conceive for spent fuel to be stored at reactors. The industry’s view is that the safest approach is to move the fuel to temporary storage near the plants to let it cool, then to transport it to deep underground storage. We see additional risk because this has not been implemented.
GlobalPost: The problem is that nobody wants nuclear fuel in their backyard.
Nuclear Energy Institute: That’s true. That’s going to be a challenge. There were periods when some were more willing to take it than others. We firmly believe that it can be stored safely. Until such a permanent storage facility is available, the Nuclear Energy Institute is spearheading an interim storage initiative, to develop a facility where the spent fuel can be kept for 100 years, so that we can get it away from the nuclear plants.
GlobalPost: Rush Limbaugh is calling this "The Media Meltdown." Do you agree that the media have exaggerated the risks from the Fukushima nuclear accident?
Nuclear Energy Institute: I think it’s very natural for people to be concerned. I think it’s a serious concern, but I’m not going to comment directly on Mr. Limbaugh’s statement.
GlobalPost: Does this accident at all change your views about the safety of nuclear power?
Nuclear Energy Institute: Speaking for the Nuclear Energy Institute, we believe that it’s a safe technology, and we have the operating record to prove that. We also believe that the system we have here for managing the industry, with public companies running the reactors and strong a regulatory overview by federal government has worked very well in this country.
Follow David Case on Twitter: @DavidCaseReport
Editor’s note: for an independent nuclear expert’s view on the accident, see this GlobalPost interview.
This interview has been condensed and edited by GlobalPost.