Video: Expert: Evacuation zone may not be adequate

  1. Transcript of: Expert: Evacuation zone may not be adequate

    LESTER HOLT, co-host (Tokyo): We're bringing in Edwin Lyman now. He is a nuclear energy expert and joins us this morning from Washington . Mr. Lyman , we appreciate you being with us. I'll start off by asking you point blank, what is a meltdown, how serious is it?

    Mr. EDWIN LYMAN (Senior Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists): Well, a meltdown is when the radioactive fuel in the core of a reactor overheats to the extent that the uranium ceramic fuel actually begins to turn to a liquid, to melt. And the danger is that if the entire core melts, it becomes something like a lava, which can then slump down to the bottom of the metal vessel that it's contained in, and it's so corrosive that it can eat through the bottom of that vessel and then drop to the floor of the containment building , and then the ability to contain the radiation becomes much, much more challenging. So the goal is to prevent a full...

    HOLT: I don't want to trivialize this...

    Mr. LYMAN: Sorry.

    HOLT: ...but -- yeah. I don't want to trivialize this, but years ago there was a movie called " The China Syndrome ," and it was about a nuclear accident and the thought that this meltdown would go all the way through the earth. Would it be that catastrophic? Would it -- would it not only put radiation in the air, but also into the earth?

    Mr. LYMAN: Well, probably not. The most likely scenario is that it melt -- the molten fuel would eat through the sides of the containment building and then most of the gases and other vapors would escape to the sides and probably end up in the atmosphere. So the most likely path would be upward.

    HOLT: They've got a 20 kilometer exclusion zone right now that works out to a little over 12 miles. Would they have to expand that? And would there be any warning for the folks living in the area if the situation became exponentially worse?

    Mr. LYMAN: I believe that the 20-kilometer zone is not adequate. If there is a severe accident, a loss of containment, there could be severe contamination for probably hundreds of miles downwind, and I'm not sure that they are adequately educating the public about that potential risk. So I'm quite concerned.

    HOLT: The prevailing winds would blow east out over the water, and that leads to my next question. Does this have a global impact? When you get a radioactive release, does it continue to sail around the world and just to be at the whim of the winds, the wind patterns?

    Mr. LYMAN: Well, what we saw after the Chernobyl accident was that, yes, it actually sent radiation all around the northern hemisphere. Of course, most of that, the most severely contaminated areas were settled within hundreds of miles of the plant. And in this case I would expect that we would probably be able to detect some of the radioactivity emitted from the plant, but at this point, I don't think it would pose a serious health threat to the United States .

    HOLT: Well, it is all very scary stuff for those of us laymen, and we hear nuclear in terms of meltdown. Edwin Lyman , we do appreciate you coming on and offering your expertise this morning. It's very helpful.

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 3/13/2011 9:50:24 AM ET 2011-03-13T13:50:24

Key details:

  • Japan's prime minister says crisis is country's worst since World War II
  • Police estimate more than 10,000 people have been killed in one area
  • Second nuclear reactor explosion feared
  • 22 people confirmed to have radiation poisoning following first blast
  • 60-year-old man found alive 9 miles out to sea, clinging to roof of his house

The death toll in Japan's earthquake and tsunami will likely exceed 10,000 in one state alone, an official said Sunday, as millions of survivors were left without drinking water, electricity and proper food along the pulverized northeastern coast.

"This is Japan's most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago," Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters.

Kan said in a television address that the nation's future would be decided by the choices made by each person and urged everyone to join in their determination to rebuild the nation.

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    9. Devastation in Japan after quake

At least 1.4 million households had gone without water since the quake struck and some 2.5 million households were without electricity.

Large areas of the countryside were surrounded by water and unreachable. Fuel stations were closed and people were running out of gasoline for their cars.

According to officials, more than 1,400 people were killed — including 200 people whose bodies were found Sunday along the coast — and more than 1,000 were missing in the disasters. Another 1,700 were injured.

However, police said the death toll was likely far higher in the prefecture of Miyagi alone.

Miyagi police spokesman Go Sugawara said Sunday that the prefecture's police chief told a gathering of disaster relief officials that his estimate for deaths in the prefecture was more than 10,000. Miyagi was one of the areas worst affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Nuclear fears
Adding to the country's woes, there were fears that a second nuclear reactor at the Dai-ichi power plant would explode Sunday and problems with three reactors at another power plant.

On Saturday, Japan's nuclear safety agency reported that radioactive cesium and iodine were detected near the Dai-ichi power plant after one of its reactor exploded. Authorities said the blast did not damage the containment structure surrounding the reactor.

The detection of the materials, which are created during atomic fission, prompted the company to acknowledge that the reactor's fuel had partially melted, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported.

Twenty-two people have been contaminated by radiation.

Video: Meltdown fears at damaged nuclear reactor

Japan's Meteorological Agency said it had upgraded the magnitude of Friday's catastrophic earthquake to 9.0. The agency earlier measured it at 8.8. The U.S. Geological Survey measured the quake at 8.9.

The quake was already the biggest to hit Japan since record-keeping began in the late 1800s and one of the biggest ever recorded in the world.

Aerial footage from the hardest-hit areas showed buildings and trains strewn like children's toys after powerful walls of seawater swamped areas around the worst-hit city of Sendai, about 100 miles from the earthquake's epicenter.

Japan's government has ordered 100,000 troops to join the rescue and recovery effort.

Teams searched for the missing along hundreds of miles of the coast.

In one extraordinary story of survival , a 60-year-old man was found clinging to the roof of his wrecked house some nine miles offshore after two days at sea. He was said to be in "good condition."

Thousands of hungry survivors huddled in darkened emergency centers that were cut off from rescuers and aid.

Public broadcaster NHK said around 380,000 people have been evacuated to emergency shelters, many of them without power.

In Iwanuma, not far from Sendai, nurses and doctors were rescued Saturday after spelling S.O.S. on the rooftop of a partially submerged hospital, one of many desperate scenes. In cities and towns across the northeast, worried relatives checked information boards on survivors at evacuation centers.

Helicopters also plucked survivors from an elementary school in Sendai.

The government doubled the number of troops ordered into the rescue and recovery operations to 100,000.

''First and foremost, we need to make full efforts in saving lives and rescuing people,'' Prime Minister Naoto Kan said.

The military forces were helping evacuate survivors from the quake-damaged area, with about 300,000 relocated so far, according to Kyodo.

Map: Japan earthquake (on this page)

The scale of destruction was overwhelming, with grim signs that the death toll — officially in the hundreds — could soar. A police official in Miyagi said another 200 bodies were found Sunday. One report said four whole trains had disappeared Friday and still had not been found. Others said 9,500 people in one coastal town were unaccounted for.

Atsushi Ito, an official in Miyagi prefecture, among the worst-hit states, could not confirm that, noting that with so little access to the area, thousands of people in scores of towns could not be contacted.

Early Sunday, firefighters had yet to contain a large blaze at the Cosmo Oil refinery in the city of Ichihara. Four million households remained without power. The Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that Japan had asked for additional energy supplies from Russia.

New evacuations ordered
Government officials also ordered new evacuations in several coastal areas as they warned that aftershocks may trigger new tsunamis. Residents were told to head for higher ground.

More than 150 aftershocks — including a 6.8 temblor just before noon Saturday — followed Friday's massive quake. Another, Sunday morning, a 6.2 earthquake centered just 111 miles east of Tokyo at a depth of 15.2 miles, swayed buildings in the capital.

Video: Scale of Japanese disaster reveals grim equation

President Barack Obama pledged U.S. help following what he called a potentially "catastrophic" disaster. One U.S. aircraft carrier is already in Japan and a second was on its way, he said. A U.S. ship also was also heading to the U.S.-owned Marianas Islands to assist, he added.

The situation in Sendai, one of the cities nearest to the epicenter of the earthquake, which occurred about 80 to 100 miles offshore, was particularly grim.

"Everything is so hard now," said Kumi Onodera, a 34-year-old dental technician in Sendai, who described the quake and tsunami that quickly followed as being "like a scene from a disaster movie."

"The road was moving up and down like a wave. Things were on fire and it was snowing," she said. "You really come to appreciate what you have in your everyday life."

Weary, mud-spattered survivors wandered streets strewn with fallen trees, crumpled cars, even small airplanes. Relics of lives now destroyed were everywhere — half a piano, a textbook, a soiled red sleeping bag.

Video: Shattered Sendai spends another night in darkness

Rescue workers rode boats through murky waters around flooded structures, nosing their way through a sea of detritus, while smoke from at least one large fire billowed in the distance. Power and phone reception was cut, while hundreds of people lined up outside the few still-operating supermarkets for basic necessities. The gas stations on streets not covered with water were swamped with people waiting to fill their cars.

Slideshow: Devastation in Japan after quake (on this page)

To the south of Sendai, in Iwaki city, many area residents spent the night outdoors, or wandering debris-strewn streets, unable to return to homes damaged or destroyed by the quake or tsunami. Those who did find a place to rest for the night awoke to scenes of utter devastation.

The city's Wakabayashi district, which runs down to the sea, remained a swampy wasteland with murky, waist-high water. Most houses were completely flattened, as if a giant bulldozer had swept through.

In Iwaki town, residents were leaving due to concerns they over dwindling food and fuel supplies. The town had no electricity and all stores were closed. Local police had taken in about 90 people and given them blankets and rice balls but there was no sign of government or military aid trucks.

In the small town of Tagajo, near the hard-hit port city of Sendai, dazed residents roamed streets cluttered with smashed cars, broken homes and twisted metal.

Supplies running low
In districts around Fukushima, survivors lined up for drinking water in town centers, filling teapots and plastic containers.

Surreal and desperate scenes were commonplace: Off Japan's northeastern coast, an oil tanker lay eerily stranded in shallow water. Inland, in Sendai, a black minivan perched perilously on a metal post.

In Tokyo, which lies about 300 miles from the epicenter and where many have long feared the prospect of another monster earthquake of the scale of one that killed about 140,000 people in 1923, residents struggled to come to terms with damage inflicted on the country and their city.

Interactive: Japan earthquake aftershocks (on this page)

Some were relieved the damage in the capital was not greater — in great part due to stringent building codes — but many remained panic-stricken about the continuing chaos.

"People make manuals for earthquakes, but when the earthquake actually happens, can you actually follow the manual?" said 60-year-old officer worker Kiyoshi Kanazawa.

"Everyone runs away when things are shaking, and they ask you to stop the gas and fire in your house, but you do not have enough space for this in your brain."

Msnbc.com staff, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Explainer: The 10 deadliest earthquakes in recorded history

  • A look at the worst earthquakes in recorded history, in loss of human life. (The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsumani that affected eastern Japan is not included because the fatalities caused, about 15,000, are fewer than those resulting from the temblors listed below.) Sources: United States Geological Survey, Encyclopedia Britannica

  • 1: Shensi, China, Jan. 23, 1556

    Magnitude about 8, about 830,000 deaths.

    This earthquake occurred in the Shaanxi province (formerly Shensi), China, about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi. More than 830,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Damage extended as far away as about 270 miles northeast of the epicenter, with reports as far as Liuyang in Hunan, more than 500 miles away. Geological effects reported with this earthquake included ground fissures, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction and landslides. Most towns in the damage area reported city walls collapsed, most to all houses collapsed and many of the towns reported ground fissures with water gushing out.

  • 2: Tangshan, China, July 27, 1976

    Chinese Earthquake
    Keystone  /  Getty Images
    1976: Workers start rebuilding work following earthquake damage in the Chinese city of Tangshan, 100 miles east of Pekin, with a wrecked train carriage behind them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
    Magnitude 7.5. Official casualty figure is 255,000 deaths. Estimated death toll as high as 655,000.

    Damage extended as far as Beijing. This is probably the greatest death toll from an earthquake in the last four centuries, and the second greatest in recorded history.

  • 3: Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 9, 1138

    Magnitude not known, about 230,000 deaths.

    Contemporary accounts said the walls of Syria’s second-largest city crumbled and rocks cascaded into the streets. Aleppo’s citadel collapsed, killing hundreds of residents. Although Aleppo was the largest community affected by the earthquake, it likely did not suffer the worst of the damage. European Crusaders had constructed a citadel at nearby Harim, which was leveled by the quake. A Muslim fort at Al-Atarib was destroyed as well, and several smaller towns and manned forts were reduced to rubble. The quake was said to have been felt as far away as Damascus, about 220 miles to the south. The Aleppo earthquake was the first of several occurring between 1138 and 1139 that devastated areas in northern Syria and western Turkey.

  • 4: Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004

    Aerial images show the extent of the devastation in Meulaboh
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    MEULABOH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29: In this handout photo taken from a print via the Indonesian Air Force, the scene of devastation in Meulaboh, the town closest to the Sunday's earthquake epicentre, is pictured from the air on December 29, 2004, Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. The western coastal town in Aceh Province, only 60 kilometres north-east of the epicentre, has been the hardest hit by sunday's underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Officials expected to find at least 10,000 killed which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population. Three-quarters of Sumatra's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out after the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. (Photo by Indonesian Air Force via Getty Images)

    Magnitude 9.1, 227,898 deaths.

    This was the third largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest since the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska temblor. In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa. (In January 2005, the death toll was 286,000. In April 2005, Indonesia reduced its estimate for the number missing by over 50,000.)

  • 5: Haiti, Jan 12, 2010

    Haitians walk through collapsed building
    Jean-philippe Ksiazek  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Haitians walk through collapsed buildings near the iron market in Port-au-Prince on January 31, 2010. Quake-hit Haiti will need at least a decade of painstaking reconstruction, aid chiefs and donor nations warned, as homeless, scarred survivors struggled today to rebuild their lives. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    Magnitude 7.0. According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed.

    According to official estimates, 300,000 were also injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least 4 people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane. Tsunami waves were also reported at Jacmel, Les Cayes, Petit Goave, Leogane, Luly and Anse a Galets.

  • 6: Damghan, Iran, Dec. 22, 856

    Magnitude not known, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake struck a 200-mile stretch of northeast Iran, with the epicenter directly below the city of Demghan, which was at that point the capital city. Most of the city was destroyed as well as the neighboring areas. Approximately 200,000 people were killed.

  • 7: Haiyuan, Ningxia , China, Dec. 16, 1920

    7.8 magnitude, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake brought total destruction to the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. Over 73,000 people were killed in Haiyuan County. A landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County. More than 30,000 people were killed in Guyuan County. Nearly all the houses collapsed in the cities of Longde and Huining. About 125 miles of surface faulting was seen from Lijunbu through Ganyanchi to Jingtai. There were large numbers of landslides and ground cracks throughout the epicentral area. Some rivers were dammed, others changed course.

  • 8: Ardabil, Iran, March. 23, 893

    Magnitude not known, about 150,000 deaths

    The memories of the massive Damghan earthquake (see above) had barely faded when only 37 years later, Iran was again hit by a huge earthquake. This time it cost 150,000 lives and destroyed the largest city in the northwestern section of the country. The area was again hit by a fatal earthquake in 1997.

  • 9: Kanto, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923

    Kanto Damage
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
    1923: High-angle view of earthquake and fire damage on Hongokucho Street and the Kanda District, taken from the Yamaguchi Bank building after the Kanto earthquake, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    7.9 magnitude, 142,800 deaths.

    This earthquake brought extreme destruction in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, both from the temblor and subsequent firestorms, which burned about 381,000 of the more than 694,000 houses that were partially or completely destroyed. Although often known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake (or the Great Tokyo Fire), the damage was most severe in Yokohama. Nearly 6 feet of permanent uplift was observed on the north shore of Sagami Bay and horizontal displacements of as much as 15 feet were measured on the Boso Peninsula.

  • 10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Oct. 5, 1948

    7.3 magnitude, 110,000 deaths.

    This quake brought extreme damage in Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) and nearby villages, where almost all the brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area in neighboring Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release from the newly independent government on Dec. 9, 1988, advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. (Turkmenistan had been part of the Soviet Union, which tended to downplay the death tolls from man-made and natural disasters.)

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