Nuclear safety expert David Lochbaum brings us up to date on the reactors at the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power complex in Japan. He speaks with host Bruce Gellerman about the first photos from inside the reactors, and the prospects for the surrounding land and for nuclear power in East Asia as Japan calls a halt to its own nuclear power expansion plans.
GELLERMAN: It’s been just over two months since the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. And the radioactive and public policy fallout has spread worldwide. In Germany, a government committee is recommending that all of the nation’s 17 nuclear plants be shut down within a decade. Switzerland has stopped the development of new reactors. And Japan is rethinking its nuclear future.
Prime Minister Kan says the nation is going to abandon plans to construct 14 new reactors and instead start from scratch to develop an energy policy based on renewable sources and conservation. David Lochbaum directs the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project.
LOCHBAUM: Well I think it’s - it is ambitious, it's going to be a difficult challenge - but I think it's possible because if you look at the history of nuclear power, the first time that anybody on the planet split an atom to produce electricity was back in 1952 in Idaho. And that test lit up four light bulbs. We went from lighting up four light bulbs to having over four hundred nuclear power plants in about 50 years. So if there’s a rallying cry behind renewables or alternatives to nuclear power, it seems like they could have the same growth in the future that nuclear power has had in the past.
The refueling floor of Fukushima I Unit 4. The yellow is the the head of the drywell, removed during refueling. Unit 4 holds significant numbers of highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies. (TEPCO)
GELLERMAN: News from the Fukushima disaster has really slowed, but is it still dangerous - are these reactors and fuel pools still leaking?
LOCHBAUM: Well the plus side: the more time that goes by, the decay heat levels drop off, they’re getting better treatment of the water - all the water that’s been dumped in the basements and places - they’re now treating that water, cleaning it up, and limiting how much leaks out to the ocean and ground. So there’s a lot of progress being made dealing with the challenges they have. At the same time, the challenges themselves are diminishing - so that’s all on the plus side. On the downside is that there’s still a lot of contaminated water within the buildings.
GELLERMAN: Do they know what’s going on in these reactors? I know that immediately after the disaster, they lacked the instruments - they lost total understanding of what was going on in these reactors.
LOCHBAUM: The primary problem that they faced was the total loss of power. You know, the instrumentation was dead. The computer was dead. All their instruments throughout the plant monitoring temperature, pressure, and water levels were not telling them anything. Only in the last few days have humans been allowed to re-enter the reactor building to assay what was damaged. You know, what equipment’s available if I restore power to it, what equipment’s been broken that’s a waste of time to try to restore power. So they’re still doing, essentially, a CSI: Nuclear to figure out what they’ve got over there - what works, what doesn’t work.
GELLERMAN: They got the first images from inside some of these reactors - have you seen them?
LOCHBAUM: I’ve seen some of them. For example, the remote camera they dropped into the Unit Four spent fuel pool makes things look much better than had been anticipated. The racks and the fuel themselves looks like they’re intact. That’s not the same case on the Unit Three spent fuel pool - that looks almost like the images of the people diving on the Titanic. It’s just a mire of debris and mess, and it’s a very bad situation.
GELLERMAN: So let’s see, we have…how many reactor cores were damaged?
LOCHBAUM: Three reactor cores - Units One, Two, and Three - have fairly significant fuel damage.
GELLERMAN: Are they still emitting radiation into the atmosphere, into the environment?
LOCHBAUM: Yes they are. The hydrogen explosions that were very vividly seen on Units One, Three, and Four destroyed the reactor buildings. So as the contaminated water evaporates, it’s got a direct pathway to the environment.
GELLERMAN: The first hundred of the 80,000 people that were evacuated from 12 miles around the plant returned to their homes recently, and - but what happens to that area now?
LOCHBAUM: There will have to be surveys done to see how badly contaminated the soil is. Depending on the results from those surveys, it may be possible to scrape the first few inches of soil away to remove the bulk of that radioactivity and leave, basically, uncontaminated soil beneath it. If the depth and the amount of contamination is higher than that, it may be cheaper just to abandon those areas for a period of time until that radioactivity decays away. So it’s going to be a combination of how badly it’s contaminated and how badly you need to re-enter those areas.
GELLERMAN: So right now, we really don’t know if those people can return to their homes.
LOCHBAUM: Well they are prioritizing areas that need to go back - for example, schools and other locations. So they’ll do the surveys on a triage system - you know, who needs the survey first, make a decision based on the results, and either allow people to re-enter or proceed with the cleanup so that re-entry can occur later.
GELLERMAN: David, how have other nations responded to Japan’s decision to scrap 14 reactors? China, for example - very ambitious plans. Have they said they’re going to rethink what they’re doing?
LOCHBAUM: The word we’ve heard out of China is that they’re revisiting their program. Reading between the lines, it doesn’t sound like China is going to abandon its program. One of the advantages China has is that they’ve embarked fairly recently on a construction program so they have the luxury of making adjustments to the designs without having to retrofit all those ideas into existing plants.
It’s hard to speculate because, a lot of times, I think I have more of a bowling ball than a crystal ball - but I think Fukushima is not going to be the end of nuclear power.
GELLERMAN: Well David, thank you so very much, I really appreciate it.
LOCHBAUM: Thank you, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: David Lochbaum is Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project.
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