Japan Tries to Soothe Nuclear Worries

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

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Japanese authorities are saying today that the reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant are under control. The announcement comes nine months after the plant was crippled by an earthquake and tsunami, triggering one of the most clear energy disasters in history.

Joshihiko Noda: [speaking Japanese]

Werman: Japanese Prime Minister Joshihiko Noda said the reactors have reached a state of cold shutdown and that the accident at the nuclear power plant is now over. He declared that phase II of the roadmap to bringing the accident under control is now complete. Edward Lyman is a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He joins us now from Washington. So the Japanese prime minister declared the plant has reached a stable state of cold shutdown, I guess that was the goal all along, but what does that mean exactly, cold shutdown?

Edward Lyman: Well, cold shutdown has a pretty precise meaning when you're talking about a nuclear plant that has undergone some kind of a crisis. And if you can bring the plant to a stable state where the temperature is lower than the boiling point of water and there's no risk of the reactor becoming critical again. Now, in the case of Fukushima because they still don't know a lot of the issues within the reactor itself, they can't come to such a firm conclusion, so they characterize it as a condition of cold shutdown.

Werman: It almost sounds like you're saying that the government has kind of redefined what cold shutdown means for their own needs.

Lyman: Yes, and to some extent it's a practical definition. I don't have a problem with it, but to the extent that it gives people false confidence I think that would be a bad thing.

Werman: Prime Minister Noda also said many issues remain. So even he tempered the good news. What for you are the big outstanding issues that make you feel that this crisis is not over?

Lyman: With regards to the reactors themselves, clearly they're being cooled now by a Jerry-rigged cooling system that is not hardened against large earthquakes. But what concerns me the most is the radioactivity that's already been released out into the environment that is now contaminating thousands of square kilometers of residential areas and farmland in Japan, and they still don't have a coherent or responsible plan for coping with that contamination.

Werman: And is that contamination still happening? Is it still leaking?

Lyman: It is, but to a much lower extent.

Werman: Edward Lyman, you've been following this crisis since the beginning. I mean you know the political coziness between the utility, TEPCO, that owns and operates the Fukushima plant, and the government. That coziness diminished the trust in what the government says about Fukushima. I mean in June of this year TEPCO said it was gonna be impossible as a result of the crisis at the plant until 2012. Now, the government says the crisis is over. Why should the Japanese even believe what the government says about progress at the plant right now?

Lyman: Well, it's very important that people maintain in multiple sources of information analysis, and so clearly no one should trust a single source in their assessment. Of course, control of information is one factor and to the extent that the source information they choose to make these decisions is kept from the public, that presents independent assessments from being generated.

Werman: Edward Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, thanks very much indeed.

Lyman: Thank you.