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Japan Admits 3 Nuclear Meltdowns, More Radiation Leaked into Sea; U.S. Nuclear Waste Poses Deadly Risks

Video: Democracy Now June 10, 2011


3 months later Japan admits Fukushima Diasaster much worst than previously admitted. Interview with Robert Alvarez, former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Energy and now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies talks about dangers of nuclear storage in the United States.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Almost three months after the earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan, government officials say they may evacuate more towns affected by radiation. New monitoring data shows "hot spots" of elevated contamination farther away from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The new hot spots were announced after authorities conceded on Monday the crisis at the stricken nuclear power facility was far more severe than they had previously admitted. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency more than doubled its estimate for the amount of radiation that leaked from the plant in the first week of the disaster in March. The agency has also admitted for the first time that full nuclear meltdowns occurred at three of the plant’s reactors.

A recent law school graduate, Takanori Eto, is the first to file a lawsuit against the Japanese government over its handling of the crisis.

TAKANORI ETO: [translated] There are dangers inherent in the government’s nuclear policy. From the very beginning, there were also mistakes made. We also found out that, even after the accident, the Japanese government was unable to properly protect its people. So I decided, rather than remain silent, I needed to bring to light these lapses in judgment in a lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Takanori Eto, the first person to sue the Japanese government over its handling of the nuclear disaster.

The New York Times reports harsh economic conditions are driving laborers to Fukushima for work at the plant despite the dangers. Earlier this week, a robot sent into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility detected the highest levels of radiation since the onset of the crisis. A nuclear review by the U.S. power industry, convened this week, is weighing safety upgrades at domestic plants in the wake of Japan’s reactor crisis.

To discuss the state of nuclear power plants in Japan and the United States, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Robert Alvarez, former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Energy, now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. We’re also joined in Tokyo by Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of the group Green Action.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Bob Alvarez, start off by talking about what we know at this point and the fact that just this week we’re hearing there were three nuclear meltdowns. What does this mean?

ROBERT ALVAREZ: Well, I think it means that the accident was much more prompt and severe, and its radiological consequences are going to be—unfold in a more serious way. As you mentioned earlier, the contamination of land nearby, or not so nearby, is proving to be quite extensive. The reports that I’ve seen suggest that land contamination, in terms of areas that are technically uninhabitable because of cesium-137 contamination, is roughly 600 square kilometers, or about 17 times the size of Manhattan Island.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Aileen Mioko Smith, the reaction of the public to this increased contamination much further on than the exclusion zone, although it’s in hot spots—what has been the reaction to the government’s failure to make this clear early on?

AILEEN MIOKO SMITH: Well, there’s incredible concern, especially among parents in Fukushima prefecture. But now spreading is concern among parents in Tokyo, which is quite a far way from Fukushima. Mainly, what’s been happening is that citizens have been monitoring. And after they find high levels, they demand that the local authorities and the government look at those contaminated areas, and then the government looks, and it is contaminated. So it’s very much citizen-oriented. There are people going in all the time. There are radiation monitors all over. Parents are measuring. Mothers are measuring. University professors on weekends are measuring.

AMY GOODMAN: And a new study is being done by the prefecture, Aileen?

AILEEN MIOKO SMITH: Yes, we’re very concerned that a health study is starting at the end of this month. This is concerning the effects of the Fukushima residents, on the prefectural citizens. It’s headed by a Dr. Shunichi Yamashita, who’s at the Atomic Bomb Research Institute. He’s the radiological health safety risk management adviser for the prefecture. He’s widely shown on national TV. He speaks widely in the prefecture, always saying there’s absolutely no concern with the levels of radiation in Fukushima. He says that mothers, even mothers exposed to 100 millisieverts, pregnant mothers, will not have any effect, health effect. Remember the number 100. Compared to that, the Soviet Union required a mandatory evacuation during Chernobyl at five millisieverts. This doctor is quoted as saying, "The effects of radiation do not come to people that are happy and laughing. They come to people that are weak-spirited, that brood and fret." This is a direct quote. And he’s heading the study. And so, the citizens in Fukushima are very concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Alvarez, you’ve come out with a new report. What are your main findings?

ROBERT ALVAREZ: Well, my report dealt with the vulnerabilities and hazards of stored spent fuel at U.S. reactors in the United States. The United States shares similar designs, reactor designs, as the Japanese reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi station. And if you watched the accident unfold at the Daiichi station, the explosions basically showed you that the spent fuel pools were exposed to the open sky. We, in the United States, are currently storing on the order of three to four, five times more radioactivity in our pools than in Japan, and that the amount of radioactivity that we are storing in unsafe, vulnerable pools constitutes the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet.

In 2008, my colleagues and I issued a report, an in-depth study, following the 9/11 attacks. We became very concerned about the vulnerability of these pools after those attacks, and we pointed out that if somebody or something were to cause the water to drain, it would lead to a catastrophic radiological fire that could render an area uninhabitable far greater than that created by Chernobyl. Chernobyl created an area that’s currently uninhabitable that’s approximately the size of half of the state of New Jersey.

The fact of the matter is, is that we don’t have a final resting place for these wastes. We’ve been trying to find a disposal site for these wastes for the last 55 years. And the reality is that these wastes are going to continue to accumulate at U.S. sites, and the reactor operators are going to continue to squeeze spent fuel into pools that have nowhere near the level of protection of reactors. I mean, these pools are contained in structures that you would find at car dealerships or big box stores. And, for example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not require the pools to have backup diesel generators if they lose offsite power. It’s very important to keep the pools cool, and they do pose some very, very serious risks. They are, in my opinion, the most serious vulnerability of nuclear power that we have in the United States.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But what are the alternatives, given the fact, obviously, that the United States government, like several other governments around the world, are determined to continue to expand the use of nuclear power? What are the alternatives for storing the spent fuel?

ROBERT ALVAREZ: Well, I think that there are different—there’s a big difference between plans and reality. I think that the expansion of nuclear power in this country, if it occurs at all, is going to be rather modest and minor. We have to be concerned about the 104 reactors that are operating and the generation of that material, and that we should be doing what Germany did 25 years ago, which is to thin out the pools, use them for the original purpose they were intended, which is to allow the spent fuel to cool off for several years, and then to place the spent fuel into dry, hardened storage modules. And this significantly reduces the hazards of these spent fuel pools.

AMY GOODMAN: You say that what is recommended for expansion in the United States is relatively minor, Bob Alvarez, but I think many were shocked that President Obama has been pushing for something that presidents haven’t pushed for for decades. I mean, the last nuclear power plant in this country built, what, some 30, 40 years ago. I mean, Juan, you’ve written about President Obama, before he was president, getting a good deal of support from the nuclear industry, and he never said he wasn’t going to push for this, but they’ve been rather quiet about it right now, since the catastrophe in Japan.

ROBERT ALVAREZ: Well, I think a lot of this is rhetorical. I think that—I look at it as the equivalent of throwing nuclear candy at political supporters, or even political enemies who you’re trying to win over. The fact of the matter is, is that nuclear power is not going to have a chance in this country, at all, unless it has unfettered access to the United States Treasury. This is not going to happen. The House, for example, recently enacted the appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2012 and totally spurned Obama’s request to expand loan guarantee authority. In other words, the U.S. government would guarantee the loans, but the loans themselves would come out of the U.S. Treasury. I don’t think that the Congress right now has the stomach to open up the Treasury for reactors that are going to cost on the order of $10 billion apiece.

You also have to keep in mind that while he has been vocally supportive of nuclear power and has done things like try to seek expanded loan guarantee authority, he’s also pulled the rug out from under the nuclear industry by canceling the Yucca Mountain disposal site. And so, I think that we have to sort out, as we do with a lot of things the President does, the difference between what he says and what happens.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Aileen Mioko Smith, I’d like to get back to the disaster in Japan for a moment. Greenpeace has been reporting that the contamination levels—dangerous contamination levels in the ocean go out as—they found it as far as 50 miles out from the shore. What has been happening with the fishing industry in Japan and the reaction to the possible contamination of huge swaths of the ocean off the coast?

AILEEN MIOKO SMITH: Yes, the ocean contamination is very serious. There are estimates that it’s 10 times the release that was—that compared to Chernobyl into the Baltic Sea. So it’s very serious. And the National Fisheries Association came out very early on after the accident demanding the closure of all nuclear power plants in Japan. This is an incredible statement, because the industry has never been concerned about nuclear power before. Just right now, TEPCO is—the amount of contaminated water on site is building and building, and there’s intention to dump more. And the industry is opposing it right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Alvarez, can you talk about this contamination of the oceans?


P.S. Go to this blog and read the comments which really are critical of Alvarez bieng a non expert.

However this blog seems to supports Alvarez's assertions see below as in this clip below:

Gundersen Gives Testimony to NRC ACRS from Fairewinds Associates on Vimeo.