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Bob Alvarez: Many factors could still cause a “worst case” nuclear event in Japan

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DAPHNE WYSHAM: Welcome to Earthbeat on The Real News Network. I’m Daphne Wysham. We’re continuing our conversation with Bob Alvarez. Bob is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, where I’m a fellow. And, Bob, we’re discussing this issue of nuclear power. We’re also obviously very concerned about the situation in Fukushima, Japan. One of the issues that’s difficult to talk about but I think everybody wants to know more about is what is the worst-case scenario.

BOB ALVAREZ: Well, the worst-case scenario has been spelled out in several studies over the years, and it’s fairly well known in the circles of the nuclear industry, which is the worst-case scenario involves catastrophic–and in this case catastrophic releases from multiple sources of radioactivity that could prove lethal, life-threatening to a lot of people, that could create enormous amounts of land contamination, rendering large areas uninhabitable, and then a radioactive aftermath that could go on for centuries.

WYSHAM: So the situation in Tokyo is not too promising. We’re hearing that drinking water is contaminated with radioactive iodine. Can you talk about what that means for children and for infants?

ALVAREZ: Well, my understanding is tap water has now been contaminated at levels that are not considered safe for children and infants. Children and infants, especially infants, are at least 15 times more sensitive to the hazards of radiation than an adult male, for example. So you have to be very careful. The Japanese are now going to have to resort to other water supplies than their tap water.

WYSHAM: For how long?

ALVAREZ: Well, these are questions that we don’t have answers to right now.

WYSHAM: So the worst-case scenario you mentioned was widespread contamination of the land. I’m assuming we’re talking just about contamination of Japan. Or are we talking about other parts of Asia or–?

ALVAREZ: We don’t know. It depends on the magnitude of the releases. But, you know, this is the–if you look at the Chernobyl event as a point of reference, this kind of event could prove to be very, very destructive to the entire Japanese economy. And Japan has the world’s third-largest economy and happens to be the world’s largest debtor nation right now. So if that economy is severely harmed for a long period of time, it’s going to have all kinds of ramifications for the other economies of the world.

WYSHAM: And I would assume it affects their ability to feed themselves. I mean, if you have large swaths of land that was once agricultural land suddenly contaminated to the point where people can no longer grow their crops there, can no longer live there, what does that mean for Japan being able to feed itself?

ALVAREZ: Japan becomes much more dependent on food exports. And this has–it also has its economic implications. So nuclear power, if it really runs way out of control and goes to the logical extreme, can bring down a nation.

WYSHAM: Now, the US military has ships off the coast of Japan. Tell us what we’re hearing about their response to this accident. And also, what exactly is our military relationship with Japan? And how much of that is being put toward right now in the aftermath of this disaster?

ALVAREZ: Well, the United States has had a large military presence in Japan and nearby since World War II, and that we have rushed more military assets to Japan to help the Japanese respond to the earthquake and the nuclear crisis. So–but we also have a lot of military assets there because of concerns about North Korea, the ability to collect intelligence on countries nearby such as China and the like. I find it a remarkable piece of information that one of our–I think it was called the largest aircraft carrier in the US fleet had to permanently withdraw from the area out of concern that the entire ship could get contaminated, and the crew, from the radioactive plumes emanating from the reactor, and that could prove to be an event that could ruin that whole vessel. And the crew, it was reported, were given potassium iodide tablets, which was indicative that they were probably being exposed, and that the levels of contamination that were depositing on the ship were just so unacceptable that they had to leave there on a permanent basis.

WYSHAM: Now, we hear that there’s a quarter of a ton of plutonium at one of these reactors in Fukushima.

ALVAREZ: Unit number three.

WYSHAM: Unit number three. And unit number three is in crisis.

ALVAREZ: Yes, that’s right.

WYSHAM: And yet you are less concerned about the plutonium situation, which I’ve heard is a very hazardous substance, than you are the caesium. Tell us why that is.

ALVAREZ: Well, my concerns–I have different kinds of concerns about the plutonium. Plutonium doesn’t volatilize as much as other radioactive products do. And my concern about the plutonium in that reactor is that if the reactor starts–the core, the fuel core really goes into a meltdown and the fuel starts to slump, that quarter ton of plutonium can concentrate [inaudible] there’ll be too much in one place at one time. And that can cause what they call a major criticality event. Now, when this is done by design, which was the original purpose of producing plutonium, it can lead to a nuclear explosion. We don’t know what kind of explosion might happen, but it could be of a nature that could destroy the reactor vessel and its secondary containment, and that’s one of these scenarios where you basically say all bets are off. The reason I’m concerned about caesium 137 is that it volatilizes, it gets out faster, and it makes up about four–well, in terms of the spent fuel, as opposed to the core, it makes up about half of the total radioactivity. Caesium 137 gives off gamma rays, external penetrating radiation. So if a significant amount of this deposits nearby a person, that person will start getting irradiated to their whole body, perhaps from significant exposures over time. The caesium, you know, sort of stays in the environment, and it has a half-life of 30 years. So the rule of thumb is that it takes 10 to 13 half-lives for this product or this fission product to decay to levels that are presumed to be safe.

WYSHAM: Okay. Translate that into English. Ten to 13 half-lives is how many years?

ALVAREZ: Well, we’re talking about 300 to 400 years, somewhere in that ballpark.

WYSHAM: And the caesium will be distributed across what–?

ALVAREZ: It could be distributed across a very wide area. I mean, with caesium 137–.

WYSHAM: Will it come to North America?

ALVAREZ: I believe it might be showing up already, but I haven’t checked carefully, so I’m hedging to say yes or no.

WYSHAM: But we’re hearing from the EPA that radiation levels are below the level of concern.

ALVAREZ: Well, the question is: below the level of concern to whom? And I hope they’re saying below the level of concern for infants and pregnant women. These are the things that we have to be very, very mindful of is that radiation affects–has–causes more harm to the very young and the developing fetus in embryo and the very old. So there isn’t some sort of uniform risk that you can say, well, everybody is–that this is not inconsequential. It really–really you have to ask: well, who is–what risk are we talking about? For infants? Or are we talking for adults? Getting back to the caesium is that because it has a half-life of 30 years and it takes roughly 300 to 400 years for it to decay to a level presumably safe, when it stays in the environment, it mimics potassium and is bioaccumulated–in other words, it concentrates into the plant life, the animal life, the biota, and the food chain.

WYSHAM: And milk.

ALVAREZ: Milk, meats, fruits, grains, vegetables, you name it, all require potassium and all absorb potassium from the soil. So this then creates a problem. The reason why there is such a large exclusionary area around the Chernobyl site is because of caesium 137.

WYSHAM: Well, just for 30 seconds, people that are concerned about this were hearing mixed messages. Should they consult their physicians? Should they be taking potassium iodide? What should they be doing?

ALVAREZ: It’s a very tough thing for me to say. I think that the United States government has to be extremely candid with its citizens about the nature and extent of these plumes and what they might mean and what precautionary measures should be taken. We who live on the East Coast of the United States, I don’t think we should be worried. I don’t think we need to worry right now on the west coast unless things take a really serious turn for the worse.

WYSHAM: Well, thank you so much for speaking with us. Bob Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. I’m Daphne Wysham. You’ve been watching Earthbeat on The Real News Network.

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Daphne Wysham is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and
founder and host of Earthbeat, now airing on 61 public radio stations in the US and Canada.

Robert Alvarez is a Senior Scholar at IPS, where he is currently focused on nuclear disarmament, environmental, and energy policies. Between 1993 and 1999, Mr. Alvarez served as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment. Prior to joining the DOE, Mr. Alvarez served for five years as a Senior Investigator for the U. S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, chaired by Senator John Glenn, and as one of the Senate’s primary staff experts on the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

Daphne Wysham is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and founder and host of Earthbeat, now airing on 61 public radio stations in the US and Canada.