Anchor Marco Werman gets the latest on Japan’s nuclear crisis from The World’s environment editor Peter Thomson. Extremely high levels of radiation were found today in groundwater under the plant. Download MP3
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. Japan and France today promised to lead an international effort to write new global safety rules for nuclear power plants. The two countries are among the most dependent on nuclear power, and the goal is to avoid a repeat of this month’s still unfolding disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant. In Fukushima today the struggle to contain the disaster continued amid more bad news about the spread of radioactive compounds. The World’s environment editor Peter Thomson joins us again. Peter, we’ve been hearing more today about high levels of radioactivity in water around the reactors.
Peter Thomson: Yeah, Marco, the latest news just in the past few hours is that the plant’s owners have found extremely high levels of radioactive iodine in groundwater about 15 feet underneath one of the reactors. The company measured those levels at roughly ten thousand times what the government considers safe. We’ve heard in the last week that similar levels of contaminated water have been found in concrete trenches and tunnels under the plant. But this is the first indication that radioactive water has actually leached into the ground itself. Company officials say they don’t believe that any drinking water supply has been contaminated, but of course, groundwater moves around, sometimes in unpredictable ways. So even if that assurance is valid now, it might not be for long. I think it is safe to say that this is a cause for concern and something that officials are going to have to watch very closely. I should mention that iodine-131, which is the stuff they found in the groundwater, decays relatively quickly. So, the amount may dissipate quickly, but of course the crisis is far from over. So the flow of radioactive water from the ground may continue.
Werman: And we’ve also been hearing about very high levels of radiation in seawater, not just groundwater but seawater near the plant.
Thomson: Yeah, levels just offshore from the reactor were measured this week at more than four thousand times the level of health concern. And this is both iodine and radioactive cesium, which persists in the environment a lot longer â€“ for decades instead of days. In some ways this is less of a concern because there’s less chance of people coming into direct contact with this water. But of course, contamination of the food chain is a real fear. The Japanese eat more seafood than just about anybody else and a lot of that still comes from local waters. So this really could affect local fishing communities even if the actual radiation itself dissipates fairly quickly.
Werman: So Peter, a simple question: how is this radiation getting out? Do they know yet?
Thomson: Not exactly, it seems. But it’s strange. There seems to be sort of an element of surprise to all of this from the company and the government. But of course, emergency workers have been spraying four of this plant’s six reactors with hundreds of thousands of gallons of water for almost three weeks now. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that some of the water is finding its way out. There’s a sort of Oops! factor this week as we start to see this happening, but I’m not sure that it should be much of a surprise. Which is not to say that they had many other choices in this case. They had to do what they could to keep these reactors and the spent fuel pools from overheating once the cooling systems failed.
Werman: Meanwhile, Peter, we’re also hearing that that ring of significant contamination from the plant seems to be spreading. There was a report yesterday of high levels in at least one location 25 miles inland from Fukushima.
Thomson: Yeah, the International Atomic Agency is reporting that total radiation from both iodine and cesium found in one small village was high enough that the Japanese government should consider expanding its current evacuation zone around the plant. The government said today there is no need to do that and residents should remain calm. As far as we know, this was an isolated finding but it does show the movement of radioactive stuff from these plants is extremely unpredictable. And almost three weeks into this crisis, officials are still struggling to get the situation under control and to figure out how they might contain and clean up the highly radioactive stuff on-site, in the long run. One other thing, Marco, there were a couple of other interesting developments today in response to this disaster, outside of Japan. French officials said they might delay construction of the first of their new-generation nuclear plants, pending a safety review. And one of China’s official news outlets is reporting that, amid the global jitters about nuclear power, China may double its target for new solar electricity capacity in the next five years.
Werman: Interesting reactions. The World’s environment editor, Peter Thomson. Thank you for the update.
Thomson: Thanks, Marco.
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