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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.

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JUAN GONZALEZ: And your sense of the differences that have emerged between the U.S. government’s assessment of the problem and the Japanese government at this stage?

IRA HELFAND: Well, I think it’s very hard to figure out what’s going on for sure. And I think both the U.S. and the Japanese governments are working somewhat in the dark here. And so, it’s kind of hard to know whose assessment is right. But I think that what you’re seeing on the part of the Japanese is that—one might perhaps wish to evacuate up to 50 miles, as the U.S. government has suggested should be done. I’m not sure how you do that in a situation where the area has been devastated by an earthquake and a tsunami.

I think, from my point of view, the most important aspect of the U.S. government recommendation of a 50-mile evacuation zone applies not just to the situation here in Japan right now, but to potential future situations in the United States. The primary danger to American citizens at the moment is not from radiation emanating from the plant in Japan; it’s the potential future release of radiation if we have an accident like this in the United States. And, for example, the nuclear plant in the U.S. which has been said to be most vulnerable to earthquake activity is not, as I had expected, in California; it’s Indian Point, 27 miles north of New York City. If there were to be the kind of release at Indian Point that we are seeing now at Fukushima, a 50-mile evacuation zone involves the entire New York metropolitan area. And I’m not sure quite how we would evacuate the 20 million people who live in that metropolitan area or where we would put them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ralph Nader joins us from Washington, longtime consumer advocate, corporate critic and former presidential candidate. His latest book is Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ralph.

RALPH NADER: Thank you, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your assessment not only what’s happening in Japan, but what the impact will be here in the United States, and especially with the Obama administration and Congress trying to move forward with a renaissance of development of nuclear plants here in the United States?

RALPH NADER: The Japanese disaster has ended whatever nuclear renaissance is being considered here in the United States. The problem is that people have got to get more involved, because the government and the industry will defend nuclear power in the United States to the last mutation. They are representing a closed, monetized mind that does not have options for revision, which true science should provide for. Secretary Chu, Energy Secretary, has refused for two years to meet with the leading critics of nuclear power, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth and other groups. He has met with nuclear business interests regularly, and he has written articles touting nuclear power.

What we’re seeing here is 110 or so operating nuclear plants in the United States, many of them aging, many of them infected with corrosion, faulty pipes, leaky pumps and combustible materials. These have been documented by data from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assembled by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Indian Point, for example, is a plant that presents undue risks, in the opinion of the Union of Concerned Scientists, to millions of people in the New York City greater area. And it is unevacuable if there’s an accident. You’re never going to evacuate a population of millions of people, whether it’s around San Onofre or Diablo Canyon in Southern California or Indian Point or Davis-Besse near Toledo and Detroit or any of the other endangered nuclear plants.

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