Andrea Mitchell   |  March 16, 2011

Race to cool plant’s nuclear reactors

New satellite photos of Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant shows serious damage at three of the four reactors there. ISIS President David Albright discusses the latest from Fukushima and if scientists have enough information to evaluate the radiation risk.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> and now to the fukushima nuclear plant in northeastern japan. new satellite photos show extensive damage at three of four reactors there. here's what we know. reactor one exploded saturday, destroying the outer building but leaving the core intact. number two exploded yesterday, damaging steel walls containing the reactor core . an explosion in number three also damaged the containment building . potentially radioactive steam is venting from both of those reactors. and a fire broke out at reactor four today. the worry there is that the spent fuel rods being stored above the core will overheat. with me now, david albright , president of isis which specializes in global nuclear activity. david, it's great to have you. thanks so much for joining us. what is your biggest concern today?

>> well, i think the biggest concern has to be getting some of these troubling issues about having enough water, settling those. they had to cancel their effort to try to put water into the spent fuel ponds. they have now said they're worried about the overheating of spent fuel at both reactor three and four. and it's very dangerous if the spent fuel is exposed. they've said some of it has been exposed already. and what you risk by exposing the spent fuel is more major releases of radiation. it's not meant to be outside of water. and it does not -- it can decompose. in fact, it can burn. and so you have to be very vigorous in trying to stop the heating of the spent fuel . the japanese officials, i guess yesterday their time, raised the ? issue of there's a low probability event, but who would have thought it's even possible, what's called a criticality accident in a spent fuel pond, where the chain reaction , kind of the nuclear reaction , could start again. and so they're also rushing to try to put in neutron absorbers that can stop that from happening. and so they're trying to get boron into these spent fuel ponds at the same time they're trying to get water that would cool it. i think the spent fuel ponds are the most urgent. but we've been surprised, and so you have to worry, have containments been breached in two of the reactors? will more radioactive contamination come out? will there be a meltdown? there's a lot to worry about, unfortunately.

>> there is a lot to worry about. and what does it tell you that they had to briefly evacuate the 50 workers who were there, that the efforts to dump more water on, they had to pull back those choppers because of concerns about radiation risks, that even the u.s. military is now being told to stay 50 miles away . again and again, it seems like the news keeps getting worse.

>> well, that's right. and so right around the reactors, particularly at the spent fuel ponds aren't filled with water, the spent fuel becomes a very large radiation source. and then you have radiation coming out of the reactors. and so it's a very dangerous environment for workers. and evidently it reached a point where they had to leave the site for an hour. and the japanese haven't -- although they gave a reading at the site boundary where the public could be, although thank god they're evacuated, but they are -- in one half hour, if you stood there, you would get as much radiation as you'd get in a whole year from what we call background radiation . so it's a very high dose rate. on the site, i assume they're lethal. and that's why they had to evacuate during this very intense period.

>> and david, you have indicated you believe that we will pick up levels of radiation here in the u.s. soon. but those would not be dangerous levels, correct?

>> ?no, no. and i want to be clear. there's gas that comes out of this reactor. some things could get lofted. i think we'll detect radiation in small amounts. we should not be worried about it at all. i was a little worried when i said that this morning, i wasn't really meant to analyze the situation. we deal in the nuclear area and the capabilities to detect minute amounts of radiation are tremendous. and so i assume we will detect some, but it's not to be worried about. and president obama was right that we don't face a risk at this point in time from that -- from those reactors.