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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Fighting Further Meltdowns

Air Date: Week of March 18, 2011

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Arjun Makhijani (Photo: Francisco Martinez)

The nuclear reactor situation in Japan is still precarious. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, tells host Steve Curwood that this is the first time a country has faced simultaneous reactor emergencies. He also raises an eyebrow at the Obama administration’s plans to push ahead with nuclear power in the United States.

Transcript

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth - I'm Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. After the devastating earthquake and tsunami, a nuclear power complex stands at the brink of catastrophe, defying heroic last ditch efforts. And amid the ruins and pain, a soft, rarely heard voice; the Emperor talks to his people.

[EMPEROR AKIHITO SPEAKING JAPANESE]

CURWOOD: (Translation) I pray that we will all take care of each other and overcome this tragedy.

Thousands have died. Half a million are homeless. And millions have been evacuated. At the Fukushima atomic power plant, workers struggle to control the reactors that once supplied so much energy to Japan. Now the very future of the nation is at stake. Arjun Makhijani is president at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.


A map showing epicenter of earthquake and positions of nuclear power plants. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

MAKHIJANI: This is completely unprecedented in terms of the scale of the emergency management problem. Four stricken reactors, each with a spent fuel pool, each with cooling problems, each with a problem of accidental critical chain reactions. The reactors are like pressure cookers, with a heat source on the inside. And so if you don’t cool it, and at the same time vent the steam, at a certain point the pressure builds up and the pressure cooker will explode. And that may be part of the mechanism that has caused damage in two of these reactors.

CURWOOD: Now you have raised the question that the earthquake itself may have damaged the cooling systems in these reactors, if I understand it.

MAKHIJANI: Yeah, especially the spent fuel pools. That’s my surmise, because in spent fuel pool number four, reactor number four, the problem of leaks and hydrogen and fires emerge - seemed to emerge - suddenly after four days. And I suspect that damage to pumps and pipes and perhaps small leaks that were actually going on for some time - and when there was enough evaporation of water or enough leak of water that spent fuel actually got uncovered and started heating up and reacting with the steam, that’s the point at which there was an explosion and a fire.

CURWOOD: You know, as we’ve watched the sometimes heroic and desperate measures to deal with this - throwing all kinds of alternatives - it kind of reminds me of what happened in the oil disaster last year where every little old thing was tried.

MAKHIJANI: Yes, in the oil disaster, there were already developed robotic instruments that in the end were very central to stopping the disaster, but remember, it also took a very long time to get it done. Here, I think the places that we’re dealing with, the environments that we’re dealing with, are not accessible to robotics and I’m not aware that any have been developed that could help to deal with these situations.

CURWOOD: How much of the fate of Japan now rests on whether there’s a fire and which way the wind is blowing?

MAKHIJANI: Well I think a good part of the fate of the country around the Fukushima plant - maybe for ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty miles or more - does rest on the winds and the degree of the accident, whether there’s a fire or a large-scale release of radioactivity. So yes, they are now at the sort of mercy of the evolution of this accident.

CURWOOD: What does it mean for the Japanese economy going forward to have such a crisis in its electricity generation?

MAKHIJANI: Well they’re going to have to continue to use their remaining nuclear power plants for some time. There’s essentially no choice without collapsing a good bit of the economy in the electricity sector. They may be able to import gas and substitute gas turbines as they have done in the past in emergencies. But to replace the whole infrastructure very quickly will be very, very difficult and very, very costly at a time when they obviously have gigantic amounts of repair to do with the destroyed cities and transportation structures and homes and businesses.

CURWOOD: As the emergency in Japan stretched towards a week, the governments of France, the United States, and many others issued the call to their citizens to say, ‘Leave Japan if you can.’ How wise was that decision?

MAKHIJANI: Well I think that is a wise decision, because the calculations indicate that the radiation could exceed the norms, and the United States, I think, did a good thing to inform its public that that would be the case. Now, you know, there may be thousands of Americans there who have some place to go and there are 120 million Japanese, but they don’t have anywhere to go. It’s not sensible to think that tens of millions of people could go somewhere. So they’re going to have to find other ways to protect themselves. It’s going to be a very difficult situation for the Japanese government.

CURWOOD: If you were in Japan right now, would you leave?

MAKHIJANI: Well if I were in Japan with a house someplace else, yes, I would leave.

CURWOOD: Arjun, what was unthinkable seems now to be reality. To what extent could this, should this nuclear disaster in Japan be foreseen and guarded against?


Arjun Makhijani (Photo: Francisco Martinez)

MAKHIJANI: You know, just as 9-11 kind of engendered a new thinking about, well, what kind of terrorist attacks and where are we vulnerable and so on, this must engender a new kind of thinking about how we deal with risk, how we deal with emergency management - and how we calculate risk. How we calculate risk currently in this kind of situation is not sensible.

We say, well it’s a low probability, one in a million, and the damage could be 500 billion, so the annual risk is 500,000 dollars. That’s not a sensible way to deal with this kind of risk. If you have a risk of 500 billion dollars for something that’s possible, you better make sure it won’t happen. I also think we need to revisit the Price-Anderson act which limits liability of the nuclear industry to just 11 billion dollars when official studies have acknowledged that liability could extend to hundreds of billions.

Who is going to cover that? Is it going to be the taxpayers? I hope that this will raise the question worldwide, in Japan and here, Is it sensible to make plutonium just to boil water? Which is essentially what a nuclear reactor does. If this doesn’t cause a time-out, I don’t know what will. This must cause a time-out.

CURWOOD: Arjun Makhijani is President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Thank you so much.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much for asking me, Steve.

 

Links

Visit Makhijani’s organization, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research

 

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