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Japan Faces Biggest Catastrophe Since Dawn of Nuclear Age

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Japan remains in a state of emergency days after a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the country. An estimated 10,000 people have died, and Japan is facing the worst nuclear crisis since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Monday, a second explosion hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and a third reactor lost its cooling system, raising fears of a meltdown. Radiation levels have been detected as far as 100 miles away. Dozens of people have tested positive for radiation exposure, and hundreds of thousands of have been evacuated, with the number expected to rise.

For more on this disaster, Democracy Now! interviews several guests on is March 14 special report on the growing nuclear crisis.

Harvey Wasserman is a longtime anti-nuclear activist and the editor of NukeFree.org. He is a senior adviser to GreenPeace USA and is the author of the book, "Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth."

"We only know that the worst case scenario is very much a possibility," Wasserman says.

Wasserman says: "Now, this exposure of fuel is about as bad as it gets. It means that these fuel rods, superheated fuel rods, could melt if they are exposed to water, which they're trying to pour water in there. It could create radioactive steam, conceivably blow off the containment and result in another Chernobyl and a horrific, horrendous release of radiation that could, and in fact would, come to the United States within a week or so, as the Chernobyl radiation came to California within 10 days. This is about as bad as it gets. And we are not 100 percent sure we're getting fully accurate information. ... There are 10 reactors at the Fukushima site--two separate sites, one with six reactors and one with four. And the fact that a U.S. aircraft carrier has detected significant radiation 60 miles away is very much a dangerous sign. It means that radiation releases are ongoing and probably will only get worse."

You have to remember that the Japanese industry is highly advanced. Both Westinghouse and General Electric, the two major purveyors of nuclear plants in the United States, are now owned by Japanese companies. This is not the Soviet Union. This is a highly advanced country that cannot cope with nuclear power plants that have been--sustained damage that was predicted. We predicted that these nuclear plants would be hit by earthquakes and by tsunamis, and the Japanese government and the nuclear industry laughed it off, just as Mr. [Fertel] has done yesterday. Every nuclear plant in the United States is susceptible to this kind of damage and this kind of disaster, and it's time that they be shut, in any kind of prudent mindset that will protect the people of this country and our economy, by the way, as we're going to see what's happening to the Japanese economy.

Yurika Ayukawa, professor of Climate, Energy, and Environment at Chiba University of Commerce in Japan, spoke to Democracy Now! by telephone. She is formerly with the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center.

Ayukawa says: "What the government and the Tokyo Electric is saying ... they are trying to downgrade the critical situation and make the people don't get worried or--so, we are totally not sure. There's no transparency about the information that they are saying. They don't give enough--what--actually, maybe they don't actually know precisely what to say, but nothing concrete is being announced. So, we don't know what is really going on. So, there's no transparency in what they're speaking. I wish you could make it a big story that could appear in the Japanese newspapers, because all the Japanese people are thinking, all the government is thinking, is only about Japan. They are not thinking what kind of effects it will bring to other countries. And I just read that the French embassy is making the French people living in Japan to leave the country. So, it's really--that kind of thing should make news in Japan, but it's not."

Also interviewed is Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear industry executive for many years before blowing the whistle on the company he worked for in 1990, when he found inappropriately stored radioactive material. He is now chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates. He discusses the state of U.S. nuclear facilities, including Vermont Yankee.

Gundersen says:"The plant in Japan was 40 years old in March. The plant in Vermont is 39 years old in March. So they're about a year apart. Same vendor, same conceptual design. Actually, the plant in Japan was built to withstand--was better built, was stronger built, because of earthquake resistance in Japan. So the American reactor is in fact weaker than the Japanese reactor. But conceptually, there's 23 of them, including the one here in Vermont, but also Pilgrim right next to Boston, and also Oyster Creek, which is in New Jersey, that are old plants of the same vintage."

Kevin Kamps is a specialist in nuclear waste at the nuclear watchdog, Beyond Nuclear. Last year he was in Japan assessing the state of its nuclear facilities.

Kamps says: "The cores of at least three reactors now at Fukushima Daiichi are uncovered from water, and so, therefore, a meltdown is likely underway at three reactors. Something that has not gotten much mention yet are the pools of high-level radioactive waste at these very same reactors, which also need cooling. They need electricity to cool, to circulate the water with circulation pumps. And each of the--well, two of these three reactors have suffered explosions, as your guests may have seen online in videos. And the pools that hold the high-level radioactive waste are located above, just slightly above, and to the right of the reactors. So, our hope and our prayer at this point is that not only the reactor itself, the containment around the reactor, but also the pools, which contain massive amounts of radioactivity, have somehow remained intact. That's what the officials are saying. ... we don't know whether to believe them or not."

For the complete transcripts of these interviews and for additional coverage of the disaster in Japan, click here. Join us on Facebook.