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Officials Are "Underestimating the Seriousness of the Problem" with Japan's Nuclear Reactors

Japan raised the nuclear alert level from a four to a five, on par with Three Mile Island. This decision has shocked many nuclear experts who thought it should be higher.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Japanese nuclear crisis continues to worsen as authorities race to find a way to cool the overheating reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Earlier today, Japan raised the nuclear alert level at the crippled plant from a four to a five, which is on par with Three Mile Island. Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, described the situation as, quote, "still very grave."

Japan is continuing to dump water on the reactors, while attempting to fix a power cable that could help restart the water pumps needed to cool the overheating nuclear fuel rods. But Gregory Jaczko, the chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Thursday that it could take weeks for the crisis to be brought under control.

Meanwhile, the number of dead and missing from last week’s devastating earthquake and tsunami has now topped 16,000. It is the deadliest natural disaster to hit Japan in nearly a century.

Twenty-two hundred emergency shelters are operating in the disaster zone, but many are running out of food, fuel, water and medicine. The organization Save the Children estimates 100,000 children have been left homeless.

To talk more about the crisis in Japan, we’re joined by Philip White of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo, Japan. Also with us is Dr. Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social Responsibility and longtime nuclear critic Ralph Nader, author of the recent book Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!

I want to begin with Philip White in Tokyo. Your sense of this latest announcement by the Japanese government that it’s raising the level of the emergency and what you’re seeing from Tokyo?

PHILIP WHITE: I think it’s a good indication of how they are underestimating the seriousness of the problem. Our experts think that it’s a level 6.5 already, and it’s on the way to a seven, which was Chernobyl. We were very shocked that they only called it a five.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what makes you think that the level is still being so grossly underestimated?

PHILIP WHITE: Well, so much radioactivity is already out there. You have spent fuel pools in at least two of the reactors that are burning and exploding and things like that. You’ve got a hole in another reactor—well, in the containment vessel. You’ve got six reactors lined up there, ready to go off any minute. And they think that’s a five. I’m not quite sure what they’re thinking about, really.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’ve begun to get some of the actual levels of radiation that have been measured. The helicopters, for instance, that flew over some of the reactors yesterday, trying to dump water on them, measured, supposedly, according to the Japanese government, at levels of 300 meters above the reactors, about four millisieverts of radiation per hour, and then at 100 meters, which is where they descended to, 87 millisieverts per hour. Could you tell us what that means in layman’s terms, for those who don’t know the levels of radiation measurement?

PHILIP WHITE: Millisieverts, so that’s a thousand of those makes up one sievert. And one sievert is well and truly into the high dose of radiation, and you’re getting acute—you’re getting acute radiation symptoms well below that. When you’re counting millisieverts, you’ve got to remember, this is per hour, so people who are actually there for any length of time, you multiply that figure by the number of hours they’re there. So, people who are actually in the plant, although they’ll have protective clothing, they’re getting massive doses of radiation by now.

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