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Q&A: What is Japan doing to fix quake-stricken reactors?

Robert Bazell, NBC News Chief Science Correspondent, is in Tokyo covering the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant and the growing fears of a massive radiation leak. He spoke to msnbc.com by phone Thursday morning to discuss the crisis.

There seems to be a lot of confusion over what is happening at Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant. What is the government doing to fix the problem at this point?
There are really two voices of authority on the nuclear reactor – the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electrical Power Company, which owns and operates the power plant. The company doesn’t have press conferences; they issue press releases that get translated into English and so far the information has been very confusing.
But today the government met with foreign reporters for the first time. That’s important because it shows that they want to communicate with the outside world. That came after the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission Gregory Jaczko raised concerns that there may be little or no water in Number 4 reactor’s cooling pool. That would be an extremely serious situation because the rods could get extremely hot, melt and release a lot of radiation into the atmosphere if they are not covered by water.

Kenji Shimizu / AP

Japan's Self-Defense Forces's helicopters scoop water off Japan's northeast coast on their way to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant Thursday morning. Click on the photo for a complete slideshow from Japan.

At the press conference today the Japanese minister said that there were two views within the Japanese government: One, that there was no water, and the one that there is some water in the No. 4 reactor. They said that was based interpretations of photographs they somehow got from inside the plant.

That was a big admission – they had never said before that anyone thought there was no water. But it revealed how bad the potential is – and it’s still just potential, no one is saying for sure that these reactors are going to blow out a significant amount of radiation. We just don’t know what may happen.

Today, we saw dramatic shots of helicopters dropping water on one of the reactors. Many here had a visceral response to those photos because that’s what we saw at Chernobyl, which was the worst nuclear disaster ever.

This will never be as bad as Chernobyl, because even though we may have some complaints about how forthright the Japanese have been, they did announce immediately that they had a problem. The then-Soviet Union tried to keep Chernobyl a secret for a long time, so people couldn’t even get out of the way if they wanted to.

But as soon as they recognized there was a problem, the Japanese government set up a zone where they urged people to evacuate who weren’t working on the power plant.

So it is a question of how big the threat of a massive radiation leak is. But it’s not for certain it’s going to happen.
And the Japanese government, even though they have given conflicting – and perhaps less forthright answers sometimes – at least they have been giving answers.  

How are people dealing with the situation in Tokyo? How are they determining what’s real vs. rumors and the immediate risks? Are people trying to prepare themselves? Rushing to buy things at stores?
It varies from person to person. Quite a lot of people are being very stoic and believe the government. Others, if they have a place to go, and the means to do it, they are trying to get out of Tokyo.
Right now, the wind is blowing in such a way that if there was a big radiation release, it would head to the Tokyo area. An estimated 30 million people live in the Tokyo area. It is one of the greatest concentrations of human beings on earth. So you have to think of the seriousness of that.

The biggest problem is gasoline. There is almost no gasoline to be had – except for taxi cabs and emergency vehicles. A lot of commuter trains aren’t running and there are rolling blackouts, so a lot of businesses aren’t operating. Those things are not as much a result of the risk of radiation, but the consequences of the earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese schools are still open. But schools for children of foreigners are closed for two weeks and then they will reassess the situation. A lot of foreigners have left already.

There are reports that at least 19 workers at the power plant in Japan have been injured, more than 20 exposed to radiation and two have gone missing during the battle to prevent a nuclear disaster. Who does that leave to deal with the crisis there?
At the government news conference today they said there are at least 270 working to try to contain the problem. They have to rotate and work in shifts because the radiation the level is so high that they can’t work for very long. There are limits to how much exposure each individual can take.

How are you and the crews protecting yourselves?
Right now there is no radiation in Tokyo. We have instruments to measure it and there is none here.

The Japanese government also has at least one radiation activity monitoring system in every prefecture in the country. The results from those tools are posted every hour, 24/7, on the Internet. So you can log-on and see where the government says it’s detecting radiation. Even more so, we have our own detectors.

So if there was a radiation cloud coming, first of all, I think we’d get a warning about it. Secondly, you would take the precaution of going indoors.

People who have studied Chernobyl and other radioactive leak events say that if you are in a well-sealed building, your exposure goes down by 95 percent because the exposure is mostly particular matter you need to avoid.

Are you still being screened for radiation daily? 
No, the NBC people who got screened were those reporters who had traveled from the quake area in the north back to Tokyo. And they were screened by our own private nuclear experts. They found slightly elevated doses on a few people’s shoes – but again these doses are not anything that anyone would consider to be a health risk.

You are still there in Tokyo reporting and as you said there is no radiation there, but are you starting to get a little nervous?
Personally, I’m not nervous about this. During my graduate studies I worked at what was then called the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, now known as the Berkeley Lab. http://www.lbl.gov/ Because I was trained in science, I am familiar with what radiation can and can’t do.

I think there is a lot of irrational fear about radiation. You definitely have to be careful – radiation is a threat that you can’t see, you can’t feel, you can’t smell. As a result, people fear it a lot more than they would fear other things that are probably a much bigger threat to them.
I’m not trying to be blasé or casual about it, but you just have to be knowledgeable about it.
So what are the steps that need to be taken to contain the radiation threat?
Obviously today was desperation day because of the helicopters. They weren’t getting enough water into the reactor pools that contain the spent fuel rods which are enormously hot. If the rods are not covered in water, they melt and they could create a chain reaction. That would be really bad because the explosion would be huge.

So they have to fight to keep water in there. Water is actually the only thing you can battle this threat with – they need to just keep circulating water around the fuel rods.

Seeing the helicopters made everyone realize that pumping sea water in wasn’t working. Then they brought in water cannons that are usually used to suppress riots.

Apparently they have now finally gotten a huge electrical cable near the plant. That should enable them to run water pumps in a much simpler way than using fire trucks. So if they can get pumps up and running, which they are supposed to start doing tomorrow, that could reduce the threat considerably. So it’s sort of a race against time.

If it works out, there will be electrical pumps finally working again that could circulate enough water to cool down the reactors and greatly diminish the threat.

It’s a race to get water in there.