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Local Experts Discuss Latest News On Nuclear Crisis In Japan

A screen grab taken from news footage by Japanese public broadcaster NHK shows the moment of a hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station number three reactor on Monday.
AFP/Getty Images
A screen grab taken from news footage by Japanese public broadcaster NHK shows the moment of a hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station number three reactor on Monday.
Local Experts Discuss Latest News On Nuclear Crisis In Japan
As workers try to cool the radioactive materials at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, we discuss the long- and short-term risks this crisis could pose to the Japanese people. Plus, we discuss the lessons being learned from the still unfolding nuclear crisis. We speak to experts from SDSU and UC San Diego about the latest details coming out of Japan.

As workers try to cool the radioactive materials at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, we discuss the long- and short-term risks this crisis could pose to the Japanese people. Plus, we discuss the lessons being learned from the still unfolding nuclear crisis. We speak to experts from SDSU and UC San Diego about the latest details coming out of Japan.


George Tynan, Professor Engineering Science at UC San Diego


Dr. Murray Jennex, associate professor at San Diego State University. Dr. Jennex is an expert on nuclear reactors.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and your listening to these days on KPBS as we just heard on NPR news [CHECK] continues while [CHECK] in Japan to leave the country and US officials are offering to arrange charter flights out for any Americans who want to leave. We hear that miles from the reactors Tokyo is virtually shut down as people are reluctant to go out of their homes people here in the US have bought out supplies and stocked up on electrocutes even with this very bad news coming from the Fukushima nuclear plant is it possible that people are overreacting to? My guests Dr. Murrey Jennex associated profession at San Diego state university doctor good morning.

JENNEX: Good morning Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And good morning. Professor Tynan is U S San Diego.

TYNAN: Good morning.


CAVANAUGH: Now Dr. Jennex we usually talk to you about internet security matters bit you are also have 20 years experience in [CHECK] power introductory in with that was sort of your career before you wept into academia.

TYNAN: That's correct and I'm actually still active I'm on the national standards committee [CHECK].

CAVANAUGH: So you've heard about the recent efforts to drop water at this do each [CHECK] from what you understand it Y is the situation improving.

JENNEX: No I really had much hope for the helicopter drops there's only one of the problems that might bee access able that's the fuel pool over reactors I don't ‑‑ the helicopters are really never going to reach that.

CAVANAUGH: Now you actually did some testing on those very containment structures?

JENNEX: Not on those [CHECK] the same model here in the united states.


JENNEX: And it is a U.S. design.

CAVANAUGH: So Professor Tynan what are is causing these problems at the Fukushima plant we hear it's the failure of had back up electrical systems to pump that water in to cope those fuel rods from overheating so is it impossible for them to get that energy that electricity in the to cope pumping that water at this point.

TYNAN: Well the fuel rods whether their in shot down or spent fuel pool they release heat to the decay of the radio active elements that are within the fuel rods so that heat has to be removed somewhere and if there's a loss [CHECK] it's [CHECK] the reactor core or core to the pumping system and cooling systems in spent fuel pool then that result will bee the same the cooling water will heat up and eventually begin to be lost and if the coolant waters [CHECK] then they can begin to over heat and present a danger.

CAVANAUGH: Now the Fukushima plant is not the only nuclear plant in Japan that's being watched but somewhat with with had the situation is the ‑‑

TYNAN: As far as I'm aware of the reactor in the last couple days seems to be the spent fuel.

CAVANAUGH: Now when we hear about explosions at these plants does that has released some radiation into the atmosphere is that correct.

TYNAN: It's my understanding that there's been some radiation released certainly and perhaps that the radiation coming spent fuel pools making it difficult it the workers on site to try to deal with the problem ‑‑

JENNEX: Maureen I was also ‑‑ when you talk about rays of radiation this is boiling water react and boiling water reactor the entire system gets contaminated because it's all exposed to radio active off the core and the radiation that's being released is [CHECK] in smoke.


JENNEX: It's contaminated particles been building up over the or years their in the plant but their getting pushed out.

CAVANAUGH: I see so do we are to fear then that these rods are going to get more and more over heated and their for will see more and more [CHECK] at this plant.

JENNEX: I think if your going to [CHECK] exposures their opening up and venting the better so the the only one that seems to be having [CHECK[ and definitely to fire is it spent fuel pool which the fuel it's self turning a little bit.

TYNAN: And that burning if left unchecked is can release additional [CHECK] matter into the atmosphere and that's probably the principal risk at this point in time.

CAVANAUGH: Now I'm wonder, oh the spent fuel can release it into the atmosphere so it wouldn't necessarily have to bee an explosion[CHECK] reactor site it wouldn't necessarily be any think that we would [CHECK] like a huge explosion or anything like that is that correct Dr. Jennex?

JENNEX: You see a fire, there would be some method for coming up not general radiation.

CAVANAUGH: Particles right?

JENNEX: So I like to call it contamination clouds not radiation clouds because their not quite the same thing.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Lets stay with the radiation cloud then because I think that sounds scary enough to people suppose. A major Radiation cloud is released because it's my understanding that a mayor Radiation cloud has not yet been released from these damaged reactors am I right about that?

TYNAN: As far as I can tell from what's bone released in the press I think that's the case so far I think the developments in the next day or two will determine that.

CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry.

JENNEX: Released to the public right there at the plant there's been quite a bit of exposure generated.


CAVANAUGH: So if a major radiation cloud were to result from the problems that their having at Dai‑ichi each would be impacted by that Dr. Jennex.

JENNEX: People right near there first and then people [CHECK] but these are heavy particles and most of them won't go an extreme distance so I would anticipate they [CHECK] explosion I have been trying to ‑‑ I would have gone 50 but right now i really don't sEE much more beyond that unless there was sort of heavy explosion or heavy smoke even more particles up into the air.

TYNAN: And I think you know the degree and extent of that contamination will really depend upon how long the situation continues you know.

CAVANAUGH: Now Professor Tynan you along with of us are bone hearing reports of people in Tokyo of being very concerned about radiation exposure people here on the west cost of the US becoming some what alarmed about the possibility. What goes through your mind when you hear that is this all a miss take or are there had reasons for concern.

TYNAN: Well and think certainly that people it's understand able that there's concern what I've again read in the press reports had had some testimony the N R C chair man yesterday is that the radiation levels in Tokyo are elevated are still well below what's considered for human health but it's a large part of that depends upon if the future weather patterns and release rates that source as to whether that will continue to bee true or not.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Jennex, what is the risk for let says the west cost of the U.S.

JENNEX: Well I don't believe the risk is going to be very high, their saying that getting reports that the radiation in Tokyo has gone up slightly and in a way that's true but the real danger here isn't really from a general rise in radiation it's from one of these part Cals landing on you or getting into your body.

TYNAN: And being ingested.

JENNEX: Right and you do that by breathing, drinking or eating it [CHECK] to get damages wore going to are particles come through in our food or water source because the particles are going to be the highest contamination are had so the heaviest.

CAVANAUGH: Now it's up post to just do bring it home here San Diego it's supposed to rain here on Sunday over the weekend is there any chance there for and know we have a lot of [CHECK] if the we ‑‑ there's a significant radioactive release at one of these plants that rain if might force some of these particles into the ground.

TYNAN: It's conceive able but again I think the distance sep rating San Diego from Japan will make a large reduction in the amount of particles that even make it to this region oh there might bee some measure able impact but it would bee extremely [CHECK].

CAVANAUGH: Do we have any kind of an add caution a network of detectors here in San Diego do we have any thing like that doctor Jennex.

JENNEX: Well we've always had radiation detectors up in San Onofre because obviously they have to monitor and while I'm not possible from personal knowledge that there are detectors at the military that wouldn't surprise me.



JENNEX: Their working to get few down here and see if we can patch them into a website to get public awareness out.

CAVANAUGH: Right so your trying to put up a web site to monitor radiation levels here in San Diego.

JENNEX: If we can put detectors up or get some feeds.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know what a harm full level of radiation would be here?

JENNEX: We know what a harm full level is but and know and keep betting this that isn't really what's going to happen wore not going to have a harm full levels wore going to have part Cals.


JENNEX: And the particles will be what it concern we'll be I don't believe we'll ever measure a harm full level of radiation in San Diego or on the west cost but if we start detecting particles that can be little bit different.

CAVANAUGH: So if we do start to detecting any particles in our atmosphere from a release of radiation at a reactor in Japan what would we do.

JENNEX: We know what people around that plant are doing, if we do believe that there are a lot of particles near they'd tell us to stay in side go out with sleeves long pants they'll tell us perhaps not to drink water unless it's bone tested so stick with the bottled water there will be just general guidelines as to what not to do to improve our chance of ingesting those particles.

CAVANAUGH: Now let he [CHECK] this back a little bit because we've been dealing with a late of if as we know there's bone no radiation yet from the plant at Dai‑ichi their working hard to make sure that doesn't happen but the area of Japan that are around in that evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant is it going to be a long time before people can re inhabit that area or do you see something happening so that people could go back in there.

TYNAN: My guess would be that it depends upon what happens in the next few days. As was mention said earlier, the radiation intensity is very high in the vicinity of the plant [CHECK] leave the boundaries of the site and go out into the surrounding communities my understanding is that it drops off rapidly and if that's still the case under control that that will hit gate at least help to mitigate it [CHECK] acts in the local region as we've said earlier if the situation deteriorates further, then, there could bee a longer[ CHECK] act in the surrounding communities.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller Jim from San Diego good morning Jim. And well come to these days.

CALLER: [CHECK] day one and two will begin that was apparently part of the process of the foul rods now they've never [CHECK] radioactive iodine or [CHECK] radiation is made of [CHECK]

JENNEX: Yes we do care what type of particle it is. And that's why I was saying earlier what were really seeing mostly contaminates that were from around different areas of the plant and that is not it season that's why they are monitoring Fukushima but that as very very small of the over all contamination.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know all though you both sound rather concerned if I say so I just want to make it clear doctor Jennex we are quite some way from actually having any kind of particulate matter falling to ‑‑ falling on San Diego isn't that right.

JENNEX: That's right and correct and what it's worth I haven't going out and bought any Potassium Iodine pills.

TYNAN: Neither have I.

CAVANAUGH: And the idea that most of the particulates would dissipate before it got over here; is that right?

TYNAN: Absolutely.


TYNAN: As well as other contaminates.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. Now what about any contamination of the ocean [CHECK } been looking into that getting into the food chain with food and so forth is that a concern.

TYNAN: Minimal it is in terms the ocean is very vast that most of it fixing done in the shallow waters so yes the shallow waters near the plant may bee getting some particulate matter and what that could [CHECK]in is that it bottom feeders might be investing particles and what they'll end up doing is Sampling and testing the area right around the plant to see if it's still safe to fish and as it goes over the wide we don't pull any thing from sixty feet deep in ocean that's where these particles going to eventually wind up.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering what would you tell our listeners about what to look for in the next couple of days good sign and bad signs.

JENNEX: About the [CHECK] or about contamination?

CAVANAUGH: About both.

JENNEX: About contamination just needs to be listening to public officials you got to have somebody with detecters monitor ‑‑ because you won't be able to see them it's not like some cloud is going to blow over west cost that we can see and detect it's going to have to be monitored by sin equipment as far as the event I'm focusing now on getting water into fuel pool as the critical[CHECK].

TYNAN: Yeah my understanding is that there's a great effort being made to restore power ‑‑ now power lines into the site so that pumping can be reactivated and try to cool the fuel [CHECK] that's what I'm watching for in the next couple of days to see whether that helps the situation at all.

CAVANAUGH: And also I don't sort of really want to end on this note with what are the concerning signs to watch if in other words for the lay person trying take this news in you hear so many terms and melt down and radio active cloud and contamination what is it that we should listen for and really note in our minds that this is not a good think.

JENNEX: Well if you see them evacuate the reaction site completely that's not a good thing.

TYNAN: Yeah I would say if the contaminates begin to prop gate into the surrounding communities so that the radiation levels outside the site are are presenting health danger then and think that's very significant.

CAVANAUGH: Are you both somewhat hopeful that this going be managed to the extent that it can at this point.

JENNEX: I'm hopeful to be honest I release on [CHECK] structures and there's had of us that may be that there's a little bit of damage on but I still believe they're going to hold the vast majority of the radiation from the re actor pours so that's only really leaving the danger from the spent fuel pool.

TYNAN: I agree on that so my attention has bone focused on the foul pools the next few days.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Jennex, Professor Tynan, thank you very much.

JENNEX: Thank you.

TYNAN: Thank you.

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