This Week: How Bad Is Japan's Nuclear Crisis?

It's not reassuring to hear that the Japanese won't allow U.S. experts to have access to their failed nuclear plants, or that U.S. authorities think Japanese officials are downplaying the extent of the crisis. Of course, they already have a

It's not reassuring to hear that the Japanese won't allow U.S. experts to have access to their failed nuclear plants, or that U.S. authorities think Japanese officials are downplaying the extent of the crisis. Of course, they already have a history of covering up problems in their nuclear power industry:

AMANPOUR: Joining me now to discuss all of this is, nuclear expert Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund and ABC's Jake Tapper and Martha Raddatz.

Let me start with you first, Mr. Cirincione. How bad is this nuclear meltdown, for want of a better word, and the fears that there may be another explosion here at one of the reactors?

CIRINCIONE: This is already one of the worst nuclear accidents in history if it stops right now. And we're dealing with multiple meltdown possibilities at reactor number one, at reactor number two at the Daiichi site. There's also concern about reactors at the Daini site.

There were actually incidents at other nuclear facilities in Japan that would have been significant incidents by themselves, but they're caught in the wake of these major crises at these nuclear reactors that possibly will melt down in the next couple of days.

AMANPOUR: Jake, how worried is the U.S. administration that this could reach the United States?

TAPPER: As of now, the concerns are minor that this will reach even Guam or the Marianas Islands or Hawaii, the gulf -- or the shores off of Alaska or the West Coast. There's very minor concern, because there has not been a major release as of now, but administration officials are, of course, concerned in general about the potential for the spreading of radioactive material. And that's why they've sent a whole -- a number of experts to the region to monitor the situation, to help the Japanese, of course, but also to get our own information firsthand.

AMANPOUR: And, Martha, talking about information, there's been this feeling that perhaps the Japanese government has been playing it down, even though they've been on television almost every hour, giving briefings. Take us back to Friday and how this all played out.

RADDATZ: Well, Christiane, literally right after the earthquake and the tsunami, I was talking to U.S. officials. And they were saying the Japanese are playing this down. They are very, very nervous about what's happening at the nuclear plant, but they weren't really talking to U.S. officials. It was sort of one-way communication. The U.S. was offering help. They were offering immediate help to get nuclear teams in there, and the Japanese were resisting that.

So that was a real frustration in the beginning. I think that frustration remains somewhat, because they have a lot of people who can go in and help immediately.

Obviously, this facility could not withstand that earthquake. So you have to wonder, going forward, are they really ready for what may happen next?

AMANPOUR: Now, Mr. Cirincione, we know that at least three people have been treated for radiation sickness inside the plant, according to the government. Can you explain how these fail-safe measures actually failed? What happened that did not make sure that this nuclear reactor, this facility shut down safely?

CIRINCIONE: Sure. Nuclear reactors are built to withstand crises, and even multiple crises. But it's very hard to build a facility that can withstand this.

This was a one-two punch. First, the earthquake knocked out the electrical supply to these reactors, and then the tsunami came in and knocked out the backup electrical supply. So for the last few days, they've been running on battery power, rushing to re-establish electric power to the plants, to the pumps that keep the water around the core and keep it cool.

As those pumps lost the ability to do that, the core was exposed. We have at least half the core exposed at reactor number one at Daiichi.

This led to the radiation exposure. No amount of radiation exposure is good for those workers scrambling to get these reactors under control. It could be fatal.

AMANPOUR: And, Jake, they've already said that they've filled those damaged reactors with saltwater, which basically means they've given up on them, they're not going to work anymore. How much confidence does the United States have in its counterparts here in the nuclear facilities, in the nuclear agencies?

TAPPER: Well, if this crisis had happened here in the U.S., the U.S. government would be turning to Japan for help. These are the top people in the field.

That said, these are government officials. And it has been pointed out, it's not always true that the first things you're hearing from government officials are the accurate information. It's often optimistic. They don't want to have a panic.

And so the administration is confident, but I think they have their eyes wide open that not all the information they're getting might be -- the worst-case scenario might always be the best-case scenario.

AMANPOUR: And, Martha, we know that these kinds of things always affect the idea of using nuclear power for energy. What effect do you think this will have on many people's desire to actually increase the use of nuclear power?

RADDATZ: I think it will have a huge effect. And that's sort of something that you haven't heard very much talked about yet. We're dealing with the crisis now.

But I spoke to a senior administration official last night. And they said that's one of the major concerns, how this will affect nuclear power in the future.

I think there were already demonstrations in Germany. I think you'll see here in the U.S., we will surely take a look at our nuclear facilities and have Japan as a -- as a bad model there in what can happen that you haven't planned for.

AMANPOUR: Martha Raddatz, Jake Tapper, and Joe Cirincione, thank you all so much for joining me.

Still, there are people out there with knowledge of the industry who see this as more of a PR problem than an actual risk to humans. Here's hoping they're right.

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