Spent Nuclear Fuel – The Real Danger?
Harvey Wasserman: In Japan and around the world problem of storing spent nuclear fuel still not solved; Could be another Chernobyl
DAPHNE WYSHAM, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Daphne Wysham for Earth Beat. Today we’re discussing the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in the aftermath of one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded. We’re joined by Harvey Wasserman. He is the editor of NukeFree.org and the author of the book Solartopia. Welcome to The Real News Network, Harvey.
HARVEY WASSERMAN, WRITER AND ACTIVIST: Great to be with you, Daphne.
WYSHAM: So, Harvey, let’s start with the latest information that we have coming out of Fukushima. How many reactors exactly are in a state of crisis?
WASSERMAN: Well, we know at least four are, maybe more. The problem is we can’t be really 100 percent certain that we’re getting the full story from the Japanese government and the industry, and we’re not even 100 percent certain that they know what’s going on. So it’s a really serious situation. We know at least two reactors have had explosions and at least two have had seawater poured into them, which is really a desperate measure of last resort–it’s not a good sign that they’re pouring in seawater. We think they’re going to do it to a third. And who knows what else? I think it’s also important to remember that there could be another earthquake. Very often when you have a big earthquake like this, others follow. And we can see what kind of disaster that will be.
WYSHAM: Now, one of the situations that people are keeping a close eye on is the spent fuel that is sitting outside of these reactor vessels. And in some cases we’re seeing steam possibly rising from the spent fuel rods. Do you know what exactly–why is that such dangerous situation, Harvey?
WASSERMAN: Well, I’ve got to tell you, Daphne, I was in Japan in 1975, ’76, and ’78. These things were discussed. This is not exactly a surprise here. We were told by the Japanese government that these things could not happen. The opposition to these plants did raise these issues. Now you have spent fuel at these plants. Under some designs, the spent fuel is actually on top, in the top of the containment. There are some people believe some of the spent fuel may have actually broken and fell into the core. We don’t know about that. There also may be spent fuel outside, and of course this could have been hit by the tsunami. It’s very poorly managed, this spent fuel, at all reactors all over the world, since there’s no solution to the nuclear waste problem. If steam is coming off these spent fuel poles, then we have a serious problem, because the spent fuel has enough energy in it to actually cause an explosion on its own with huge radiation releases. So not only are we concerned about the cores in these reactors; we’re also concerned about the spent fuel rods.
WYSHAM: Now, the reactors are manufactured by General Electric, which of course is a US corporation, and they are, what, almost 40 years old, correct?
WASSERMAN: Well, actually, one of them is 40 years old. And General Electric, of course, began as an American corporation. It still has American assets. But the nuclear division is owned by a Japanese corporation, as is Westinghouse. The two major purveyors of American nuclear power plants are actually owned by Japanese now. And, you know, after Chernobyl, the nuclear industry said, oh, that was just the Soviets; they don’t know what they’re doing; we understand nuclear technology. Well, the Japanese are certainly on a par or better than the American industry, and they can’t handle this at all. So the most serious part of the situation as far as we can tell is that we don’t know how serious the situation really is, and the people operating plants probably don’t know how serious the situation is.
WYSHAM: Now, one of the things that we’ve learned is that the French Embassy has actually released a memo suggesting that its citizens evacuate from Japan, and that if there is an explosion or a continuing meltdown at the Fukushima reactors, that it could contaminate all of Tokyo within a matter of hours. Do you know more about this memo, Harvey?
WASSERMAN: Yes. The–well, you know, my suggestion is the French, given the state of their nuclear industry, they might consider evacuating France. I mean, but they are concerned. They understand the ramifications here. Fukushima is somewhere between 170 and 200 miles from Tokyo, and it is absolutely credible that a major radiation release could force evacuation of Tokyo, just as, you know, we have four reactors in California on or near major earthquake faults, and the San Onofre plant is not far–much closer to Los Angeles than Fukushima is to Tokyo. And I got to tell you that if a 9.0 earthquake had hit San Onofre, we’d be watching video now of people evacuating Los Angeles. And so that’s how serious this is.
WYSHAM: Now, one of the things that’s fairly unusual, as I understand it, about one of these reactors is that it was in the process of using plutonium as a source of fuel. Can you explain that situation and why if there’s a meltdown involving plutonium and MOX, and exactly what MOX is, why that would be a serious situation, even more so than your average nuclear meltdown?
WASSERMAN: Well, you know, the great geniuses that have put together the nuclear industry decided as a selling point that they would take fuel from old weapons. And the antinuclear movement has been warning that this is a serious liability. It’s expensive, and also it has plutonium in it. Plutonium is the most lethal substance known to humankind. If you ingest, breathe in just a tiny, tiny particle of plutonium, it can cause lung cancer. And my understanding is one of–I think it’s the third, but one of the Fukushima reactors has MOX fuel in it–and mixed oxide is what it’s called. And if this particular stuff burns and sends particulates into the atmosphere, then you’re really, really talking about a whole other order of magnitude of health danger, because anything with plutonium in it is going to be many times more lethal than the usual stuff coming out of a nuclear plant, which is of course bad enough to begin with.
WYSHAM: Now, we’re hearing that the US military is actually picking up signs of radiation on their ships within–.
WASSERMAN: Yes, 100 miles to sea.
WYSHAM: A hundred miles at sea. And, of course, as you mentioned, Tokyo is what, 140 miles away from Fukushima?
WASSERMAN: It’s between 170 and 200. There are two sites at Fukushima. One has six reactors, one has four. And they are right on the ocean. And, you know, the tsunami just kept–came pouring in there, as it would, by the way, at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in California. But the mileage to Tokyo is–you know, for a small radiation release, may be okay. But a large radiation release, there it’s very clear that the radiation will go to Tokyo. And, in fact, the radiation from Chernobyl came to California within ten days and went across the northern interior of the United States after covering all of Europe. So one of the killer aspects, unfortunately, of radiation emissions from nuclear plants is that they do go all over the world.
WYSHAM: Well, thank you for joining us. Harvey Wasserman, editor of NukeFree.org, author of Solartopia. On The Real News Network and Earth Beat, I’m Daphne Wysham. Thank you for watching.
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