“This Could Become Chernobyl on Steroids”: Nuclear Engineer Arnie Gundersen on Japan’s Growing Nuclear Crisis

About This Interview

In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, Arnie Gundersen is interviewed by Sharif Abdel Kouddous at Democracy Now.

Japan is on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe after a third explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was heavily damaged by Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami. The blast seriously damaged the plant’s Number Two reactor’s steel containment structure, causing nearby radiation levels to rise to 100 times the legal limit for exposure in a year. Plant workers “were manually opening valves into these containments to keep the pressure from building up,” says our guest Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer. “I would suspect that a lot of those efforts have been abandoned because of the high radiation levels.”

Source: Democracy Now



SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’ll be going to a break and coming back. We’ll be joined by Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer who’s coordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the country. He provides independent testimony on nuclear and radiation levels to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and congressional and state legislatures. Arnie Gundersen was a nuclear industry executive for many years before blowing the whistle on the company he worked for in 1990, when he found inappropriately stored radioactive material. He joins us right now from Burlington, Vermont.

And joining us from San Francisco is Aileen Mioko Smith. She is director of the Kyoto-based Green Action and a board member of Greenpeace International. Aileen is one of Japan’s leading voices challenging the production, commerce and transport of nuclear material, and calling for sustainable energy policies. She joins us from San Francisco.

But first, we to Arnie Gundersen in Burlington, Vermont. Mr. Gundersen, can you explain exactly what is happening right now at the plant in Tokyo?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Yes, thank you. The first unit exploded over the weekend, and the second unit, which is Unit Three, exploded the next day. Yesterday, the third unit, which is Unit Two there — so, One, Two and Three now have all had hydrogen explosions. This is not a nuclear explosion; this is a chemical explosion. Hydrogen is created because the fuel is too hot and enormous amounts of hydrogen are created.

The biggest problem seems to be in the second reactor, where the containment appears to be ruptured, and the reactor, as well, may be damaged from this explosion. So the explosion yesterday was the most severe. The most telling issue, as far as I’m concerned, is that the site has been evacuated. There was 800 people on the site, and then they evacuated all but 60 people. That’s basically telling the crew to man the lifeboats.

In the fourth unit, there is — there was a fire in the fuel pool. And I have heard unconfirmed reports that it has started back up again. In the fifth and six units, the fuel pools are getting warmer.

So, basically, three units are in meltdown condition. One is definitely worse than the other two. But, you know, "meltdown" and "worse" are relative terms. It’s very bad in three units. The fire in the fourth unit is also a serious concern.

Small amounts of radiation have been detected in Tokyo, which is not a problem, yet. Thank goodness. If there is any goodness coming out of this, it’s that the wind is blowing out to sea right now. If the wind were to shift inland, I think we’d have a different situation.

And the last thing is that the emergency zone, out to 20 kilometers, people have been told to leave. And out to 30 kilometers, people have been told to stay indoors, wash your clothes when you come in, wash your body if you go outside and come back in. I think that’s not enough. I really think that emergency planning needs to be — at least children out in that zone should be sent elsewhere.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And explain what you mean, what you understand, by the levels of radiation that are leaking right now. The levels around the plant, in one hour, at eight times the legal limit for exposure in one year — what does this mean?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: It’s very difficult to determine that right now. You have to remember, with the explosions, most of the radiation detectors have been destroyed. So, the New York Times is reporting that workers are picking up in seven minutes their yearly exposure in certain areas within the plant. I studied Three Mile Island extensively, and it’s very difficult to chase one of these radioactive clouds to determine exactly where it’s touching down. So, numbers in the vicinity of the plant are probably too low. It’s very difficult to be right at the spot where the worst exposures are occurring. So, I take with almost no credence any of the numbers in the vicinity of the plant. But my experience shows that they’re probably too low.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: What are the efforts right now to cool down the plant? Why do these explosions keep happening? This is the third explosion now.

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Yeah, that’s a great question. They will continue. I think, given that the site has been evacuated — you know, those 800 people were not sitting around playing poker. They were all doing critical, critical things. So, if you’ve let 800 people go and are trying to do the work of 800 with 60 people, clearly critical items are not going to be accomplished.

So, the reason these things are continuing to blow is because the zirconium oxide reactions are continuing. What that means is that the fuel is so hot, it’s chemically stripping water, and it’s creating oxygen and hydrogen. It’s just ripping the water molecule apart and creating hydrogen and oxygen. And that hydrogen continues to build up. That’s what’s causing the explosions.

In order to avoid that, they were manually opening valves into these containments to keep the pressure from building up. And that’s one of the critical activities that these 800 employees were doing, as well as manning fire pumps and pushing water in. But I would suspect that a lot of those efforts have been abandoned because of the high radiation levels right now.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: How similar is the plant in Japan, the Fukushima Daiichi plant, to many of the nuclear power plants in this country?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: It’s almost identical to 23 of them. For instance, the Quad Cities and the Dresden plant in Illinois, the Vermont Yankee plant here in Vermont, Oyster Creek in New Jersey, Pilgrim in Massachusetts — it’s almost identical to those and more than a dozen others.

You know, this reactor design, this containment design, has been questioned since 1972. The NRC in 1972 said we never should have licensed this containment. And in 1985, the NRC said they thought it was about a 90 percent chance that in a severe accident this containment would fail. So, that we’re seeing it at Fukushima is an indication that this is a weak link. It’s this Mark I, General Electric Mark I, containment. And we have — essentially one-quarter of all of the nuclear reactors in the United States, 23 out of 104, are of this identical design.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Arnie Gundersen is a nuclear engineer who has coordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the country. We’re going to break for 60 seconds. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Aileen Mioko Smith, director of the Kyoto-based Green Action, and we’ll speak with the Governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin. Stay with us.