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Arjun Makhijani: Removing the spent fuel rods from the Fukushima Reactor is a dangerous but necessary move

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

In Japan Friday, Tokyo Electric Power Company is to begin removing more than 1,300 spent fuel rods from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman writes, this is “humankind’s most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Now joining us to discuss this is Arjun Makhijani. He’s a nuclear and electrical engineer, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

Welcome back to The Real News Network, Dr. Makhijani.


NOOR: So can you just describe or explain what TEPCO is doing right now at Fukushima and the dangers involved? Many people argue that this is–it’s necessary to remove the fuel rods. But talk about the possible impact this could have.

MAKHIJANI: Well, every nuclear reactor creates a lot of highly radioactive materials in the course of producing power. And when the fuel in the reactor is used up, it’s called spent fuel, and it’s put into these pools because it’s very hot and has to be cooled by water or it may catch fire. And, of course, if it catches fire, it would create pretty severe environmental damage and health damage.

Now, the spent fuel pool number four at Fukushima, which is in question currently, has the most spent fuel of any of the damaged reactors. And the building itself is damaged. And if it is left there, there may be another earthquake. And if the spent fuel pool is destroyed in the next earthquake, there could be a much more severe environmental catastrophe than there was in 2011, in some ways, because the long-lived radioactive material in the spent fuel is more than what was emitted during that accident. I’m talking about long-lived material–cesium, strontium, and so on.

So I believe it is very important to empty spent fuel pool number four especially and put that spent fuel in safer storage.

Look, there’s no low-risk solution to this problem. Leaving it there is a significant risk, and removing it also involves significant risks. The spent fuel may be difficult to dislodge because it’s no longer in its proper original position. The fuel rods may break, and the fuel may wind up at the bottom of the reactor in the spent fuel pool. There may be an accident of criticality. I haven’t examined their plans in detail, but I do think it is very essential to remove this spent fuel, because in my judgment, the bigger danger is leaving it there and waiting for the earthquake to happen.

It’s unfortunate that TEPCO has not been a very good manager, has mismanaged this accident. And I wish there had been more oversight, including international oversight, before this step was taken. I personally do not know how good or adequate or inadequate these plans may be and how well they’ve understood exactly what they’re doing. TEPCO doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, that’s for sure. But I hope everything goes well tomorrow.

NOOR: And, you know, there’s been growing concern, as you mention, there’s been many reasons to be worried about how TEPCO is handling this. And international pressure is growing for the Japanese government to be more transparent, for TEPCO to be more transparent. What has been the international response? And do you think that TEPCO and the Japanese administration should be more transparent?

MAKHIJANI: Well, I think certainly they should be more transparent. They have initially welcomed–and some international involvement, but they closed up pretty quickly a few months after that, [incompr.] the French company Areva has offered them robotic technology to try to get at the molten fuel at the bottom of these reactors because there was a meltdown. And that is a large part of the problem with Fukushima, removing that molten fuel so it’s not contaminating the water, and so radioactivity is prevented or at least minimized from entering the ocean. But they have refused this international cooperation, at least so far. I don’t know what has happened in the last couple of months, but at least until the summer, there hadn’t been cooperation on this front.

I think the Japanese government had been more focused until this summer on reopening the shut down reactors in Japan than on dealing with Fukushima, if one is to go by the number of public meetings they’ve held on Fukushima compared to the public meetings they held on reopening their reactors. So I don’t think that the Japanese government has been focused enough on this. So I think they are appropriating a lot of money. But this is a complicated problem. You know, there is a money component and there are a lot of technical oversight components that need to be fulfilled. And, unfortunately, we are in a situation where it’s going to be a fingers-crossed situation, where they need to do everything they can to make sure they don’t have another serious problem tomorrow.

NOOR: And is it correct that something like this has never been attempted before, it’s never been attempted to remove fuel rods from a severely damaged pool?

MAKHIJANI: No. So, you know, we’ve never had a situation where, for instance, the entire fuel-handling structure of the reactor has been destroyed in an accident. That’s what happened in March 2011. These pools are sitting high up in the building, and above them there are cranes that move above the spent fuel pools and reactors that transfer fresh fuel into the reactor and used fuel out of the reactor into a pool. So these are pretty heavy pieces of equipment. And those frames were destroyed, along, you know, with the building infrastructure on which they were constructed. So they’ve had to build a whole new basically impromptu infrastructure to handle this spent fuel that–one hopes that is as precise as the other one, but it’s doubtful whether it can replicate the precision of the old, original crane, which could go back and forth above the pool. But it is–you know, they have actually built some kind of a structure, protective structure, not like the original containment. And they also have built a new crane and remote handling for the fuel. So they have done a fair amount of work preparing to go up to tomorrow. So I don’t think that one can say that they have been, you know, completely not on the job, because in my opinion this is a job that absolutely must be done, along with the removal of the molten fuel at the bottom of the three reactors.

NOOR: And can you talk a little bit about the growing health concerns in Japan, in Fukushima, and especially among the workers that are trying to salvage the nuclear reactors?

MAKHIJANI: [inaud.] very concerned about the workers. I think among all people, including in Japan, and certainly here, the workers are by far the most affected. I think many of them have received considerable radiation doses. They’re working in very highly radioactive environments sometimes, when they’re close to these leaks, for example. The radiation doses near some of the leaks have been very, very high. They’re basically using up the workers, ’cause they get their annual doses and, you know, in tens of minutes for a few hours, and so they have to be replaced with new workers. The morale of the workers, by all accounts, is not very good. And if you have to replace workers frequently, then their training isn’t going to be and experience isn’t going to be the same as the workers who were there for a long time and really know the reactor.

So I think the monitoring of the health of the workers should, in terms of health, be equal to the vigilance of monitoring of the health of the children downwind of Fukushima. I think those are the two most important populations to monitor: the Fukushima public, the children, and the workers. Of course it’s important to follow all of the others also who were downwind of Fukushima during the accident, but the workers are by far the most affected.

NOOR: And finally, there’s been a lot of buzz on the internet about radioactive fish or radioactive matter hitting the west coast of Canada and the U.S. Is this blown out of proportion? Or is this something that people should be concerned about, if not now, then in the near future?

MAKHIJANI: Well, I think there’s no call–you know, it’s not a panic type of situation. So if there are people who are panicking and talking about evacuations and so on on the west coast, I think that that is out of proportion.

But at the same time, there is a real cause for concern because, as we know, there are hundred of tons of radioactive water that are flowing into the ocean every day. While fishing in, you know, Fukushima is bad, you know, some fish do cross the ocean that initially would get their food near the Fukushima site or off the east coast of Japan. And radioactivity of Fukushima origin has been detected at elevated levels. The levels are not much different than the fallout created by nuclear weapons testing. And remember, everybody especially in the Northern Hemisphere has been living in a radioactively contaminated environment due to nuclear weapons testing. And we ingest the same materials in our food that have been put into the water and air by Fukushima, namely, cesium-137, strontium-90, and others, actually, that were would put into the environment by testing that are not in large amounts due to Fukushima, like plutonium and so on [incompr.]

I think that, yeah, it’s important to remember that every little bit of radiation creates an increment of cancer risk. A small dose will create a small increment. A large dose will create a larger increment. Now, if there are small doses in large populations, then you could get significant numbers of cancers, even if you the individual risk is low.

I think the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should be monitoring the food, fish especially, much more intensively and making those weapons results public, both because there is some physical concern, and there is some stress among the population from not knowing. Remember, when you wait for the bus, the worst part is not knowing when it’s going to come. So in a situation like this, which is more serious than waiting for the bus, the worst part is not snowing when you’re eating fish what kind of risk you are taking. I would be careful, especially if I were a pregnant women, about the provenance of my fish. You know.

But the ocean is a vast dilution, and I think the measurements that have been made, for instance, by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution indicate two things: that the levels of radioactivity are larger than what can be explained by the initial accident, which means the accident is continuing to aggravate the environmental problem, and secondly, that the levels are not at alarming levels where panic is indicated–though panic is never indicated, it’s never a good thing–but where serious levels of alarm are indicated about health in terms of very large numbers of cancers. That’s not how I read the numbers.

But there is a lack of information, and I think the EPA and FDA should be doing a better job of making the measurements and making them very easily available on the internet.

NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us.

MAKHIJANI: Sure. You’re very welcome.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Arjun Makhijani is a nuclear and electrical engineer, and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. He is the author of "Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy" (2007) and he has served as a consultant on energy issues for agencies of the United Nations.