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A US nuclear spokesman on Japan’s Fukushima Daichi nuke disaster

Nuclear Energy Institute: Japanese must rebuild reactor parts in midst of disaster and radiation.

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An employee for Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) explains about a fire at the TEPCO Fukushima No.1 power plant on March 16, 2011. A fresh fire broke out at the quake-hit Japanese atomic power plant in Fukushima early on March 16, compounding Japan's nuclear crisis following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster. (JIJI PRESS /AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — By March 16, the earthquake and tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daichi nuclear station had been the site of two fires, three explosions and significant radiation releases. In the midst of a region devastated by a tsunami and earthquake, workers struggled to stave off a full-scale meltdown and regain control of the nuclear power plant, which still lacked electricity needed to operate safety systems.

On Wednesday, Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission testified to Congress that “We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures,” the New York Times reported.

The Times added that the situation presented an "agonizing choice for Japanese authorities: Send a small number of workers into a increasingly radioactive area in a last-ditch effort to cover the spent fuel, and fuel in other reactors — with water, or do more to protect the workers but risk burning off the pools of water protecting the fuel — and thus risk a broader meltdown."

For an industry perspective on the risks from this accident, GlobalPost turned to Carl Baab, a spokesman at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. nuclear industry’s lobbying and public relations organization. (Update: as Justin Elliot points out on Salon, Tepco, the utility that operates the Fukushima reactors, is a member of the NEI.)

GlobalPost: We spoke with an independent expert this week who said that the chances of a catastrophic radiation release are 50-50. Would you agree with that?

Nuclear Energy Institute: I think this is a very serious accident. We’ve already seen significant releases. The Japanese government has taken the precautions of evacuating people to 12 miles, and advising protections to 20 miles. Whether it will get any worse remains to be seen. We certainly hope not.

GlobalPost: Can you give us a sense of how long the crisis might take to run its course? Every day we hear about another fire or explosion, and over the past couple days there have been significant radiation releases. We’ve been told that the venting of steam with low-level radiation will persist for months, if not a year.

Nuclear Energy Institute: Again, it’s very hard to tell exactly at this point. We know for certain that the energy in the fuel will decay fairly rapidly after a few days. That should end up in a reduction in emissions. The Japanese are making heroic efforts to address the situation. They have some control of the reactors, but they do not have full control at this stage.

GlobalPost: On Tuesday morning, the radiation dose near one of the reactors was 40 rem/hr. That’s an awful lot of radiation. On Wednesday, workers were evacuated due to high radiation levels. How can they get control of the reactors if they can’t even work in the area?

Nuclear Energy Institute: The high levels of radiation were spikes that occurred temporarily. The employees that were evacuated were only evacuated for a short time. Since then, they have sent in a bigger crew, of about 180 workers. The evacuation was a precaution to prevent workers from being exposed to serious level of radiation.

GlobalPost: Aren’t some of the workers maxing-out their exposure to radiation, to the point where they won’t be able to continue working at the site? When that happens, how does the utility find new trained workers to take over? And doesn’t a lot of the work need to be done manually?

Nuclear Energy Institute: Unfortunately we don’t have the level of detail to comment on individual workers’ exposure levels. We don’t have any indication that they have a shortage of workers. It’s too early to speculate on whether this will become a problem. That’s something that’s not foreseen.

GlobalPost: Once you have a radioactive release, doesn’t the contamination remain on-site? Some radioactive isotopes don’t decay for decades or even centuries.

Nuclear Energy Institute: It will certainly pose challenges at the plant, and there will be contamination that will remain. Some of these isotopes have long half lives as you point out, but some have short lives as well.

GlobalPost: Was this a bad place to site a nuclear plant?

Nuclear Energy Institute: The design basis for this plant took into account the potential for earthquakes and tsunamis, although this earthquake exceeded the magnitude that had been planned for. The sequence of catastrophic events here was unprecedented — the earthquake followed by the tsunami, causing a total, extended station blackout and a loss of backup generator power, along with the devastation that prevented authorities from brining in backup resources.

The industry in the U.S. is already looking at what happened in Fukushima, to see whether they have planned adequately for such an event. In the late 1980s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission required plants to upgrade their systems so they would be prepared to deal with extended blackouts.

GlobalPost: But in Japan they didn’t have the same requirement?

Nuclear Energy Institute: We don’t have enough information to comment on that.

GlobalPost: Aside from the reactors, the spent fuel rods are also becoming a problem. There was a fire in a facility housing spent fuel rods on Tuesday, and there was a second fire on Wednesday that has apparently gone out. The NY Times reported that “a pool storing spent fuel rods at that fourth reactor had overheated and reached boiling point and had become unapproachable by workers at the plant.”

Some scientists — notably Robert Alvarez, a former advisor to the US Secretary of Energy — say that these spent fuel rods could pose an even greater risk than the reactors themselves. According to Sharon Begley, Newsweek’s science editor, “scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated that a severe pool fire—made possible by the loss of cooling water—could leave about 188 square miles uninhabitable and cause up to 28,000 cancer deaths.”

How concerned should we be about this?

Nuclear Energy Institute: The assessment that is coming from the Japanese now is that the water in the unit 4 spent fuel pool has approached or is reaching the boiling point. That means that the operators need additional water, to prevent keep the fuel rods from overheating.

Normally, in a stable fuel pool, some water will be pumped through to dissipate the heat. If you stop the movement of water, the fuel rods will heat the water up, and you can cause the water to boil off. That’s a process that will normally take several days. Normally, a pool has about 13 feet of water above the spent fuel. So there’s a fair amount of water to boil off. If they can’t keep water on it, there’s a greater risk. We still believe that the risk of a major fire is low, but not impossible.

There’s not as much energy in the spent fuel rods than in the reactors, so the rate of burn-off is not nearly as high. The fuel is protected by a zirconium alloy that surrounds all of it.

This is a situation that’s being watched very carefully by the Japanese.

GlobalPost: Why has it been so hard to keep water on the fuel rods?

Nuclear Energy Institute: They’re not sure yet why this is happening. There’s concern that the spent fuel pools may have been damaged, and that there may have been some spillage. On top of that, the pumping systems that circulate water to keep the pools from getting hot are not operating. So they’re using fire hoses to cool the rods. They contemplated dropping water from a helicopter, but the radiation level was too high for them to do this.

GlobalPost: This problem with the fuel rods only emerged recently, several days after the earthquake. So is it possible that we’ll have similar problems in the spent fuel pools at the other five reactors?

Nuclear Energy Institute: That’s possible. They working hard right now to restore the operating and safety systems so that they can properly monitor and maintain everything. They’re working hard to do that, and they’re getting closer.

GlobalPost: So five days after the earthquake they still don’t have their systems back up and running?