Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Energy Secretary Steven Chu: Japan crisis could end up more serious than Three Mile Island

Energy Secretary Steven Chu told members of Congress Wednesday that the rapidly unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan may be more serious than the situation faced by U.S. officials during the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979.

But "we don't really know in detail what's happening" in Japan, he cautioned. "We hear conflicting reports."

"What I remember is that within a 20-mile or so radius (of Three Mile Island) that the average exposure of people closest was a very small fraction of background radiation," he said, noting that his knowledge of the incident came from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report. He said the exposure could have been "of scale 1% or less."

Later, speaking to reporters, Chu noted that "I don't know when the dust settles where we will be," but early reports indicated that the incident in Japan could be "very significant, perhaps beyond Three Mile."

Japanese authorities have indicated that radiation readings taken near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant's crippled reactors have spiked briefly at various times, temporarily reaching levels that are known to pose a risk to human health.

But Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters Wednesday afternoon that radiation levels "do not pose a direct threat to the human body" between 12 to 18 miles from the plant.

Chu said he thinks there has been a "partial meltdown" of radioactive core material in at least one of the reactors, though he stressed that doesn't mean the containment vessels surrounding the reactors will totally fail. (read more)