Japan quake prompts nuclear emergency

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: As we heard a few minutes ago, the earthquake triggered an emergency at one of Japan's nuclear power plants. The quake crippled the cooling system and backup power system at the Fukushima nuclear facility, about 150 miles north of Tokyo. It's unclear what the current status of the plant is as details are still emerging, but Japanese nuclear officials say radiation levels inside the plant have surged well above normal levels, and the government has ordered an evacuation of residents within a two-mile radius. Charles Ferguson is president of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington and is an expert on nuclear safety. I spoke with Mr. Ferguson earlier today.

Charles Ferguson: We're still collecting information. The International Atomic Energy Agency has an emergency response center and I've been monitoring their website. They have a brief press release talking about the fact that the emergency core cooling system has experienced some difficulties. The New York Times has reported that the backup diesel generators apparently haven't been working, and so it shows that at the very highest levels the United States and Japanese governments are coordinating efforts to make sure this plant is operated safely.

Werman: And government officials in Japan say there's no real need to worry. Are you reassured by statements like that?

Ferguson: I think so. I think Japan has a long history of dealing with earthquakes and nuclear power plants. Kobe earthquake in 1995 was a wake-up call for Japan. They did a massive reevaluation of all their nuclear power plant facilities and looked at the earthquake faults, but it's important to point out in 2007, in July 2007, there was a massive earthquake off the coast of Honshu, and the largest nuclear power plant in the world was shutdown and it remained shutdown for 21 months. So it shows the kind of damage that earthquakes can do to nuclear power plants, and Japan tends to be very cautious when it comes to nuclear power plants. If there's any kind of incident like this they want to make sure that everything is operating very safely before they bring the plant back into operation.

Werman: I mean if Japan is in such an active earthquake zone why is it so heavily invested in nuclear energy?

Ferguson: Well, Japan imports more than 80% of its energy supplies. It's very poor in natural resources in terms of fossil fuels, so it's heavily dependent on outside sources, and to reduce that dependence it's decided to rely on more nuclear power. Now, admittedly, it has to import uranium from outside sources, so to mitigate that risk Japan has been investing in a plutonium facility to recycle plutonium for fuels, but that has its own safety and proliferation risk involved. So Japan is in an interesting situation. It's the only country to have experienced nuclear war, so the Japanese public is very much against nuclear weapons, but they tend to be supportive of nuclear power. And roughly a third of Japan's electricity comes from nuclear generated electricity.

Werman: And briefly, what are the kind of precautions that the Japanese have had to take to protect their nuclear facilities against earthquakes?

Ferguson: Well, they built these facilities on really solid bedrock. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant experienced that massive earthquake in July 2007, its foundations are buried very, very deeply, and even then the earthquake exceeded the maximum acceleration standard at that time. So what's taken place in the years since then is a review of those standards and they upgraded the standards for that plant and several other plants.

Werman: Is Japan investing much in renewables and conservation to limit its exposure to the dangers of both nuclear power and imported fossil fuels, and do you think this earthquake is going to push that investment further?

Ferguson: Unfortunately, they haven't. The one renewable source that the Japanese government has been pushing has been solar photovoltaic power, but even that has not really gotten off the ground as much as it should. Basically what's happening is within Japan there are 10 utility monopolies and they tend to favor these very large power plants, whether it's nuclear, coal, or natural gas. And they tend to disfavor the smaller decentralized type of sources.

Werman: Hmm, I don't want to fear monger, but I do need to ask you this, I mean the government in Japan has ordered this evacuation of residents within a two-mile radius. What is the worst case scenario and does it go beyond a two-mile radius?

Ferguson: Well, the worst case scenario could be a reactor meltdown, and I know they've evacuated people within a two-mile radius, but within the U.S. we tend to go out to 10 miles in terms of that precautionary zone. I've also read that the Japanese authorities have advised that people within the 2-10 mile circumference should stay indoors, but that may not be enough. I think if there's enough warning time that they would have to evacuate people at least up to a 10 mile radius.

Werman: Charles Ferguson is the president of the American Federation of Scientists. Mr. Ferguson, thanks so much.

Ferguson: You're welcome.