Arnie Gundersen Discusses Radioactive Water Leaking Into the Pacific Ocean with CNN's John King

Gundersen discusses the radioactive water which is sitting in trenches and leaking into the ocean. He explains how the hydrogen explosion in reactor 2 caused a breeched containment. Gundersen puts into perspective the level of radiation being released into the ocean.

Transcript:

KING: Here to help us better understand the situation is Arne Gundersen, a nuclear safety advocate who consults with Vermont state government about the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Mr. Gundersen, let's start with Tokyo Electric Power saying it has plugged the big leak in reactor number two by using 1,500 liters apparently of water glass or sodium silicate. Help us understand the significance.

ARNIE GUNDERSEN, CHIEF NUCLEAR ENGINEER, FAIREWINDS ASSOCIATES: Well, there are trenches outside the building. And one of those trenches had an eight-inch hole in it. And that led directly into the ocean. So, they plugged that leak. And that's good news for the ocean.

The trench, however, is still getting radioactive liquid from the unit to containment building itself because there is -- the containment has been damaged. So, radioactive water is leaking out into the trench now. But now, the trench is not leaking out into the ocean.

KING: Well, I've come over here to the wall to pull out the photos here. I want to strip this down just a little bit. What makes this interesting to the naked eye, anyway, if you look at from the out, it's four heavily damaged, three, destroyed, two seems from the outside to be the most intact of the buildings. You see the steam coming out here. I assume that's from the water they're pouring to cool it.

But explain to the layman why the building being in pretty good shape does not tell you anything about the severity of the problem inside.

GUNDERSEN: Yes, the building, that box is called a reactor building. And inside that is the containment. And as pressure started to build up in unit one and unit three, they vented the hydrogen gases into the reactor building. That's what blew up. And the dramatic pictures of the explosion were of the reactor building.

Underneath that rubble is the containment. But in the building underneath that's intact, they didn't vent it time. And they had a hydrogen detonation inside the containment. And that's kind of like sneezing with your mouth closed and your nose pinched. It's going to pop your eardrums.

Well, what happened in unit two is that, as a result of the explosion, the containment itself broke. And so, now, radioactive liquids are leaking out of the containment into that trench.

KING: I'm going to shrink this down for a second. I'm going to come back to the pictures in a minute. But, for now, I just want to talk about how much water -- because the company says 11,500 tons of radioactive water. We're not minimizing this at all going into the Pacific Ocean. That's enough water to fill five large swimming pools.

The Pacific Ocean, as you can see -- this is -- in term of the volume of the Pacific Ocean, Mr. Gundersen, this is literally a drop in the bucket. However, you think the company is understating the concern here about the radioactivity?

GUNDERSEN: Well, they pumped -- they needed to empty tanks onsite because the tanks had concentrations of liquid that were 500 times what was permissible. But the stuff they needed to put in them was much more radioactive than that. So, the 11,000 tons that they pumped overboard today was to clear tanks so that more radioactive liquid could come behind it.

The leak that they just fixed, though, for the last couple of weeks has been leaking something on the order of seven tons a day, not of the 500-time concentration but of the much more concentrated radioactivity into the ocean. So, there's a lot of radiation in the ocean.

KING: A lot of radiation in the ocean. And you don't think this is a one-time affair. I want you to explain why as I pull out another one of these satellite images. We've talked about this a bit in the past. You're seeing it now from another angle. I'd switch it around -- it's four, three, two, one here.

But as you see these blue pumps here, these are backup pumps, right? Safety pumps along here. And you can see if you come in close -- and I'll bring it up a little bit -- they have been severely damaged if not debilitated. Help us understand the significance.

GUNDERSEN: Yes. No one ever thought that you'd be pumping water into a nuclear reactor and letting it run out of the bottom called "feed and bleed." That was not the plan in the case of an accident. The plan was you'd circulate water inside the reactor and there would be a heat exchanger and you'd circulate ocean water through the other side of the reactor.

And those pumps that are destroyed are called service order pumps, and we talked about them about two weeks ago. They were to cool that heat exchanger so that you didn't have to feed and bleed the reactor. So, until the service water system gets re-established, they're going to be feed and bleeding, which is still going to create more waste.

KING: And so, help us understand. I want to ask you a seafood safety question in a minute. But looking at another one of these images and the level of destruction, if one was where we started on the earthquake and tsunami day, and 10 is relative containment to the point where everybody can take a breath and go from the emergency containment challenge to the long-term challenge -- where are we?

GUNDERSEN: I guess we're -- one was bad, 10 was good?

KING: Yes. Ten would be where you could probably deal with the long term challenge and not a day of emergency.

GUNDERSEN: Yes. I'd say we're between a three and a four. The worst is behind us because the reactor cores are down now to where they're generating only about 1 percent of the heat that they did when they ran. So, there's less of this decay heat to deal with. And then, still the best news of all is that the wind has been blowing out to sea.

KING: The wind keeps blowing out, and we're thankful for that.

I want to bring up one more thing here and take a look. We'll call this the life cycle here, with the photos out of the way. You're having radioactivity get into the water. This is oversimplified but it will help people understand.

So, radioactivity gets into the coral, gets down to any grass and sea life there, obviously eaten by little fish which become food for larger fish which often end up on your table.

And again, we're not trying to alarm people, Mr. Gundersen, but in the sense of how long -- how long, once this gets in there, you're talking about cesium and you're talking about other radioactive material as well, once it's in there, how long is it there?

GUNDERSEN: Well, I think -- there's two isotopes, there's iodine, and iodine goes away in about 90 days. That's going to be in seaweed and the Japanese use seaweed a lot for cooking. So, I wouldn't use seaweed within 100 miles of the plant for 90 days.

But the nasty isotope is cesium 137, and that hangs around for 300 years. So, I'm not suggesting it's a 300-year problem, but it will dilute over time and it will reduce.

But, you know, in Germany, they are still experiencing cesium 137 in the wild boars that ate mushrooms from Chernobyl, and that was 25 years ago.

So, it's -- I think, within 100 miles from the plant, you're going to be watching the fish a good 25 years.

KING: You say within 100 miles of the plant -- again, I want to close this down and bring this up. You say within 100 miles of the plant, because most of the discussion from the Japanese government has been 12 and the United States government has said maybe a 50-mile radius. You think it goes well beyond this.

GUNDERSEN: Out in the ocean, I think it will. You know, the fish move, the currents move, and it will push that cesium out into the deep ocean -- and also, more importantly, laterally along the coast.

KING: Arnie Gundersen -- as always, appreciate your insights. We'll keep in touch. We hope -- we hope this announcement tonight they believe they've stopped the more dramatic of the leaks from reactor two is good news. We'll keep on top of that to make sure, sometimes we get word from TEPCO, it turns the next day, we step back. We'll stay on top of that one.

Mr. Gundersen, thanks again.