Japan battles nuclear nightmare

Player utilities

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

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: While many hit by the earthquake might have bigger immediate worries than problems at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, problems there continue to mount and there's growing concern about the fate now of three reactors there. Many of us have seen the video this morning of what's said to be a second hydrogen explosion at a second reactor at Fukushima, this after a previous explosion at another reactor there on Saturday. The World's environment editor has been following the situation at Fukushima and joins me now. Peter Thomson, where do things stand right now?

Peter Thomson: Well, I should start by saying that even reporters and apparently officials on the ground in Japan seem to be having a hard time getting reliable information. This is a very fluid situation. Information since Friday really has been slow and at times contradictory in coming out. So what we do know is indeed there was this second explosion at another of the Fukushima plants this morning, and the International Atomic Energy Association says that Japanese officials have now told them there's a problem with a third reactor at the same plant, and they started pouring sea water over that reactor, just as they did with the other two over the weekend. I should remind folks that there's no evidence that the explosions today and Saturday were nuclear explosions, and that's a very important point to make. They involved hydrogen gas, which had been created as part of the reaction inside the core that was vented into the containment vessel, and there it exploded and blew the top off of both of those container vessels, but that was just hydrogen gas and it had very tiny trace amounts of radioactivity.

Werman: Still, there have been small amounts of radioactivity that's been spotted, that's been monitored in the area around Fukushima, but can you tell us what this is because it doesn't seem to be like bad radiation at least not right now.

Thomson: The stuff that people are more worried about and which over the weekend began to get people concerned that there were real problems there is radioactive caesium and radioactive iodine, both of which are fission products from the reactors themselves, and when that gets out it tells you that there is something escaping from the reactor and that there's an uncontrolled reaction going on in there.

Werman: Now, let's go back to this use of sea water over the weekend. Flooding the reactors with sea water, it's been described by many knowledgeable observers as sort of a hail mary pass, an extreme and highly unconventional move. Some say it seems to suggest that early on in this crisis officials have run out of options. How unconventional is it?

Thomson: Well, frankly, when I heard that on, it was either late Friday night or Saturday morning, I just thought oh, my God, this has gotten very bad very quickly. Essentially it means that all of the conventional fallbacks they had were not available and they were falling back on something which is in nobody's playbook, to flood these reactors with salt water. Salt water is highly corrosive, especially in an environment like this. And basically it means that they are gonna, that these reactors are certainly never gonna be used again because they are gonna destroy the reactors. But is also means they had no other -- I think somebody over the weekend said -- they had no other arrows in their quiver.

Werman: I understand today Japan has requested and will be receiving help from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. What kind of help do you think the U.S. can actually give the Japanese at this point?

Thomson: The reactors in question were designed by General Electric, and several of them are based on designs that are also in use in the United States, going back, or were in use in the United States going back four decades and more. So there's a lot of expertise in the United States about these kinds of reactors. But there again it shows that the Japanese are trying to get any help they can. When the Kobe earthquake happened several years ago, they were very slow to reach out to the international community to accept help. They didn't have a nuclear problem on their hands then, but they had a big problem. This time things are quite different. They are taking, they are asking for help and they're taking help.

Werman: You know, Japan has its unique history, Peter, of being the only country in the world to have been attacked by nuclear bombs. They're on a clearly mapped fault line, one of the world's most active, the so-called ring of fire. And yet Japan has 55 nuclear reactors. Why are they so heavily invested in nuclear given the known and presumed risks.

Thomson: You know, the first answer is that they don't have a lot of other options. You know, they've been highly relying on imported fuel of all kinds. They don't have much of their own coal, their own oil, natural gas, and they've been trying to wean themselves off of dependence on oil, which is extremely volatile, and natural gas. So in many people's eyes this was really the only option they had.

Werman: The World's environment editor, Peter Thomson. Thanks so much.

Thomson: Thanks, Marco.