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Expert: Radioactive rain could be in Japan's forecast

An expert breaks down what could be next for Japan, and what the U.S. can do to learn from the disaster

Rain and snow in the forecast could push radioactivity into populated areas of Japan, one expert said, emphasizing that the U.S. needs to re-evaluate its own safety after nuclear meltdowns in Japan.

Najmedin Meshkati, engineering advisor to Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, specializes in nuclear investigations and said one of the scariest things that could happen next could be triggered by normal weather conditions.

He said rain and snow can push huge amounts of radioactivity down to more-populated areas.

“If it rains [or] snows, then [the radioactivity] could go into the soil and could cause problems,” he said.

He said the current evacuations in the area may not be enough, given the speed and distance clouds often move.

“They announced a 12-mile exclusion zone around the reactor. … They evacuated 120,000 to 200,000 people,” he said. “The others they asked to stay indoor because of the falling fallout.

But Meshkati said, even as disaster crews continue to contain exploding nuclear sites in Japan, the country’s nuclear technology isn’t to blame — just its backup plan.

The reactor itself and the piping — they didn’t burst or something,” he said. “Which means that the workmanship and the construction was beautiful.”

“The problem that we had over there is the emergency diesel generators were swamped [by] the tsunami,” he said.

In nuclear sites, Meshkati said the nuclear core is contained by an elaborate water cooling systems and walls.

He said the problem was not the nuclear technology, but the power failures outside of the plant.

“When the earthquake happened, these reactors shut down, which is great,” he said. “But you still need to have [water] circulation because there is heat.”

Diesel generators and batteries then kick in. But in this case, the diesel systems were flooded with water from the tsunami so the batteries immediately began being used.

He said the batteries can only last for a short period of time since they’re meant as an secondary backup, and when the batteries ran out, the water circulation systems stopped and the hot, radioactive cores could not be cooled and subsequently caught fire and exploded.

Meshkati, a member of a committee investigating last spring’s BP oil disaster, said protecting each layer of defenses is crucial, and that the U.S. needs to rethink its own processes.

“We really need to think differently,” he said. “Its important to re-evaluate our assumptions.”

Currently, most nuclear sites in the U.S. store used fuel cores on-site in the nuclear plants. Meshkati said this is largely the result of political maneuvering, as state-of-the-art nuclear storage sites have been built in the Nevada mountains. He said, because states don’t like to store such potentially harmful material, even if it’s thousands of feet underground, politicians don’t like to support the transportation of radioactive materials.

“We need to design our systems to try to address some of these plausible improbabilities,” he said, citing Aristotle’s famous remark.

“I hope as a result of what’s happening in japan, that our politicians really rethink their [views],” he said. “It helps us and motivates us to think about [it].”

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