Updated: Aug. 24, 2011 added transcript
This Sunday (August 21st), Cindy brings us theoretical physicist and futurist Dr. Michio Kaku, well-known as a guest of many shows on cable television and radio. Dr. Kaku is the author of a new book that just hit the NYTimes best seller list: Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel. Cindy and this innovative working scientist discuss the recent nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan, plus other important and timely issues. Note that many of Dr. Kaku’s contributions to society are offered on his web site. I suggest you check that site out and become familiar with this fascinating gentleman.
CS: Cindy Sheehan
DMK: Dr. Michio Kaku
CS: Welcome Back to Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox. I am your host Cindy Sheehan and you’re listening at Cindysheehanssoapbox.com.
Well I just got back from my 2-week trip to Japan and it was a grueling and exhausting trip. I ended up getting a high fever and having to stay in bed for a few days. Besides all that it was a very good trip and I learned so much about what is happening there with the Fukushima reactor meltdown and the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. But also about the very committed and dedicated organizing that’s happening there to organize and revitalize a new movement against nuclear power and of course nuclear bombs. It was very inspirational for me to be in Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the days that my country dropped two weapons of mass destruction on innocent populations there and to see how the survival instinct in human beings is so great and the way people worked together and rebuilt those cities and their lives after the disaster. I think it should give the people of Fukushima a lot of inspiration and hope too that recovery from this disaster is possible.
My quest today is Dr. Michio Kaku and we are going to talk today about the viability of nuclear power and the continuation of the disastrous technology for energy creation. I am very excited to have Dr. Kaku on. To me he is like a rock star because I have been listening to his interviews for a long time and he has really made the concept of theoretical physics exciting and acceptable to a lot of people. He is a theoretical physicist, a best selling author and populizor of science. He’s the cofounder of string field theory, which is a branch of string theory, and continues Einstein’s search to unite the four fundamental forces of nature into one unified theory.
Dr. Michio Kaku has appeared on television, Discovery, BBC, ABC, The Science Channel and CNN to name a few and now Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox. He has written for popular science publications likeDiscover, Wired and the New Scientist and appeared in the documentary Me and Isaac Newton, and has hosted many of his own documentaries including the BBC’s recent series, Time. Michio’s new book, Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force fields, Teleportation and Time Travel, has already hit the New York Times best sellers list.
Dr. Mishio Kaku hosts two radio programs, heard on stations around the country. Science Fantastic is a live Radio Talk show that airs every Sunday from 5-8pm Eastern Time. And Exploration in Science, a broadcast each week on WBAI in New York City with past shows available online.
Dr. Kaku, welcome to Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox.
DMK: Well, glad to be on the show.
CS: It’s very exciting to have you on my show. It’s a little known fact that I am a theoretical physics groupie. I’d love to talk to you for hours about unified theory, wormholes, time travel, black holes and many, many other topics.
DMK: Well, that’s what I do for a living.
CS: I am having you on today about something that is very real and beyond science fiction frightening and that’s the viability of the continued use of nuclear technology for the creation of power. So a warm welcome and gratitude for being on the show today.
DMK: Okay, well glad to be on.
CS: I was just in Japan and I bring many greeting from people who said to tell you hello.
CS: While I was in Japan there was a very frightening measurement of a hotspot that detected high levels, cataclysmic levels of nuclear radiation. The earthquake happened on March 11th but it doesn’t seem like the disaster at Fukushima is getting under control. What are your projections? What are your thoughts about that (INDISTINGUISHABLE) of Japan?
DMK: Yeah, just a few weeks ago there were two hotspots at that reactor where radiation levels were about a million times above normal readings. So a worker would get a lethal dose of radiation within just a matter of seconds being exposed to that radiation. Now this of course is going to delay the clean up operation. The reactor situation is not stable at all. They hope to get it stable sometime next year at the earliest. So the reactor is still like a ticking time bomb. If you have a secondary earthquake, another pipe break, evacuation of workers the accident starts up all over again.
Now remember that three of the cores have experienced 100 percent core melts and the only reason why we didn’t have a catastrophe beyond human imagination is because one of the reactor operators flooded the reactors with sea water going against the orders of his superior. So he actually went against the orders of a superior, flooded the reactor with seawater, destroyed the reactor as a consequence but managed save the reactors from breech of containment which would have been catastrophic.
CS: On a personal level, you are a Japanese American. How does this disaster, my colleagues that I worked with over in Japan, of course they have a very personal stake in what’s happening, in holding TEPCO the Japanese energy company accountable and in holding the Japanese government accountable because of the lies. I saw you on CNN saying that the people of the world have been lied to about what has been happening in Fukushima. What are your personal thoughts about that?
DMK: You know the Japanese people have been very trusting of their government up to a point. But they were lied to so many times, for so many people it’s the last straw. They’re buying Geiger counters, they’re buying (INDISTINGUISHABLE) Counters, they’re buying radiation meters on their own. So they simply don’t trust the government anymore. Now personally I actually have relatives in Japan right now. Some of the relatives actually left Japan because of the radiation that was spread out throughout the area and they have a child that they have to worry about.
Radiation levels as you know are being picked up all over the city. Tokyo is 150 miles from the Fukushima site so radiation levels are low let’s be clear about that. However, radiation levels have been detected 200 miles away from the reactor site way past Tokyo. It’s in the fish; it’s in the vegetables, especially in the vegetation. It’s in the rainwater; it’s in the drinking water, the milk. It’s low levels but you can see it perhaps throughout the whole area and it has a direct impact on my family because I have relatives there.
CS: Well also just not very far from the meltdown, many people were able to evacuate because they have the money to do it or they were able to send their children away. The people I worked with in Japan are saying that people who don’t have the money to do that, that TEPCO and the government of Japan should be subsidizing these evacuations or to get children out of the immediate area which is not happening right now. They’re testing people like what happened after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US government and the Japanese government collaborated in testing the effects of nuclear weapons on people but they didn’t help people and that’s what the people of Japan are having a problem with right now is that they are not being helped.
DMK: That’s right. I think it’s a national scandal the fact that the government is not supplying radiation counters for children in the area. The local governments are taking the initiative. On local government in the Fukushima area has bought toximeters for children as young as kindergarten age. Can you imagine a kindergarten child going to school with a radiation badge and having to be briefed by parents on what this radiation badge does?
So again, people are taking their own initiative. They don’t trust the government anymore. By the way, as the reactor accident took place back in March we physicists in the United States have our own computer codes and we were running simulations of the accident in the United States and we clearly realized that the government was either lying or deliberately withholding information or were simply incompetent concerning their press releases.
We knew there was significant core damage even when the government was saying there was almost no damage whatsoever. We knew how significant it was because of the radiation that came out of the reactor and with our own computers we could then show that the Japanese government and TEPCO were either deceiving the people or were simply incompetent. This information is now available and again it adds to the distrust of the people towards the government and towards TEPCO. The fact that they were lied to and the fact that people put their trust in the government and the utility only now, months later to find out they were exposed to large quantities radiation when it was totally unnecessary.
The latest scandal just a few days ago was the fact that as the accident was progressing the government was withholding data and not dispersing radiation counters especially in areas where the radiation was quite high. So the people were needlessly exposed to high levels of radiation in the opening hours of the accident.
CS: Do you compare or draw parallels between what happening in Fukushima to what happened between BP and the Gulf of Mexico disaster where the people of the United States and the people of the area were also purposely, or because of stupidity, not given the correct information?
DMK: Yes, and you can also make a parallel with Katrina and what happened there. Engineers who build these reactors who build these dykes and levees simply don’t believe that the hundred-year storm will take place in their lifetime. So at Katrina in New Orleans for example the engineers realized that their levees could not withstand a hundred year storm. But their attitude was, well it is a hundred year storm it’s not going to happen in their lifetime, it’s not going to happen in their grand kids lifetime so why worry about it. Then of course the hundred-year storm hit.
Same thing with the Fukushima reactor accident. Engineers clearly realized that giant tsunamis could overwhelm their facilities. But again, it’s not going to happen in their lifetime or their grand kids lifetime so why should they worry? So then of course there we have it. And of course of you prepare for the hundred year storm it’s very expensive and nuclear power would be economically unviable if people had to prepare for the hundred year earthquake, the hundred year storm, the hundred year disaster it would make nuclear power uneconomical if they had to meet those standards.
CS: Well uneconomical for the people who profit but there’s always that risk of disaster to the people who live near the plants or people who have to suffer because of disasters like this. But you know the Japanese people. The Japanese people are famous for their stoicism, they’re not wild-eyed people who panic, contrary to the Godzilla movies. They’re very practical people but they say that the possibility of the evacuation of the entire country is something that is looming over their heads. Do you project that kind of a catastrophe or disaster where perhaps the entire country would have to evacuate?
DMK: Realize that we have five reactors in various stages of degradation in the area. The accident is not over my any means. The accident could start up all over again if there is a secondary earthquake or another pipe break. In a worse case scenario if there is a major pipe break or a second earthquake you would have to evacuate the workers. Because the pumps are not working at the site it means you have to manually insert the water over the reactors and without the workers it would be in free fall. At that point with an evacuation of all the workers water levels would begin to drop, the reactors would begin to melt again and we would have breech of containment. That is release of uncontrolled amounts of radiation into the environment and that is a catastrophe beyond comprehension.
Realize that at Chernobyl, 25 years ago, we only had one reactor and only 25 percent of the core vaporized and was sent into the air. Here we have three reactors with 100 percent core melt, various stages of melting through the containment structure and if it were to start again it could be much worse than Chernobyl, many times worse than Chernobyl. Realize that even at Chernobyl it took 600 thousand workers. Let me repeat that number again, 600 thousand workers over a half a million workers to finally bring that reactor in to a semi state of stability. The accident at Chernobyl is not over by the way. The reactor continues to melt, the core continues to melt into the ground at Chernobyl but it took over a half million workers. Many workers only going in a few minutes at a time because of the high levels of radiation. Everyone got a badge and a metal from Gorbachev. But this is certainly no way to build a nuclear power plant. In Japan we have 3 reactors in very bad shape and it’s not stable because the pumps are not working yet and it means that the accident could start up all over again.
CS: What is the solution Dr. Kaku? It just seems so incomprehensible this whole disaster. Are you familiar with the Japanese word karoshi? (Dr. Kaku didn’t answer, but karoshi is the Japanese term for dropping dead of overwork—Cindy)
DMK: Yeah, let me say that right now Unit 1 is being encased in plastic like saran wrap in order to at least contain some the radiation that continues to be emitted from Unit 1 because of a partial breech of containment. Now Hewlitt corporation has estimated that 10 years will be required for the clean up. Nobody believes that number because it took 25 years at Chernobyl and that accident is still not over. It took 14 years for Three Mile Island to be brought under control. The Hitachi corporation made an estimate of 30 years to finally clean up the 3 reactor accidents.
But privately in the United States many engineers are saying 50 to 100 years. 50 to 100 years to finally clean up these accidents. First they have to put a TV camera into the core to photograph the extent of the melting. Then you insert hacksaws to cut up the core into pieces. Then you have to extract each piece from the reactor. All of this done under water because it’s too radioactive to be exposed to the air. As you can imagine this will take decades to bring under control.
CS: Oh wow. Lets come back to the United States now because we have 23 reactors in the US that have the same core as Fukushima.
DMK: Yeah, the General Electric Mark 1 water reactors.
CS: So we’ve seen that there were some dangerous situations with floods and fires of our nuclear reactors. You know reactors are not safe from earthquakes, fires or floods. I also just read that our Sun is going into a Solar flare cycle and one of these major solar flare events could disrupt energy creation for years. Are massive solar flares a concern at nuclear power plants?
DMK: Every 11 years the North Pole and the South Pole of the Sun flip releasing a burst of radiation called the solar cycle. We’re very young in the energy age therefore we have not experienced a direct hit from a solar flare. Just last week, by the way, we had a near miss. However the sunspot is like a rifle, it shoots radiation in to space. Fortunately we have dodged the bullet many times. However one of these days we are going to get hit by one of these bursts of radiation coming from the sunspots and it could be a duplicate of what happened in 1859. In 1859 we had the worlds record for a solar flare that hit the earth. All meters went off scale; telegraph wires spontaneously sprung into life again because of all the electrical activity. Telegraph workers were shocked by the electrical activity coursing in the telegraph wires. The Northern lights, which you normally see in Norway or Sweden, the Northern lights, were seen as far south as Cuba. You could read the newspaper at night in Cuba in 1859 during the Carrington Event.
Now of course the Carrington Event is a very rare event, a once in a century kind of event. But if it were to happen it could wipe out the power on a nuclear power plant. In fact we think that across North America power plants will be disabled. Satellites carrying GSP, the Internet, and weather reports could also be disabled and we could have massive blackouts not just in one city but perhaps several thousand cities in areas hit by the solar flare. The American Physical Society of which I am a member released a report just a few months ago stating that property damage in a repeat of the 1859 accident could be 2 trillion dollars. That’s trillion with a T not a B. That would be enough to paralyze the global economy if we were to have another such event.
CS: What is the danger to the nuclear reactors if their power source is disabled. Is that a potential for so many meltdowns around the world or the areas that were affected?
DMK: The danger you would have is short circuits of the power supplies. So you would have a loss of power. That’s what happened in Fukushima in the opening minutes of the accident. Unfortunately they put the generators in the basement of the reactor so when the title wave hit they lost power almost immediately except for batteries in the opening minutes of the accident. Here if we have a solar flare out of control like what happened in the Carrington Event then conceivably you would have multiple power failures at many nuclear plants. Therefore there would be no water being pumped through the circuits meaning the water levels would begin to drop just like what happened at Fukushima. So Fukushima, remember the entire accident revolved around the loss of power due to the short circuiting of the pumps in the opening minutes of the tsunami, and a similar situation could occur of the Sun were to short circuit our power supplies around the 100 or so power plants in the United States.
CS: Are there safeguards in place? Are there generators that would go into effect if that were to happen?
DMK: Well the American Physical Society, the largest organization of Physicists in the United States urged congress to spend just a few hundred million dollars to reinforce power plants, create redundant systems, create shielding, shield our satellites in outer space and build the kind of redundant infrastructure that can handle such an emergency. Congress gave us nothing. So at the present time we are vulnerable to such an incident even though such an incident is quite rare it is conceivable that you could have simultaneous blackouts at hundreds of nuclear power plants on the earth.
CS: But like you said we had one in 1859 and it was a case of a hundred year event their just hoping that something won’t happen while they are alive or while their children or grand children are alive.
DMK: Right. And maybe the United States can take a cue from what’s happening in Europe. The Germans have pretty much thrown in the towel after initially backing nuclear power. The government has decided now to phase out all nuclear power plants in Germany. Switzerland has decided to follow suit and follow the example of the Germans. Italy right now is teetering on the brink of following Germany’s example. And right now in the United States Barack Obama is going to have to decide what to do with the revival of nuclear power within the United States.
CS: Like in Japan, we need to revive our anti-nuclear power movement, which had a lot of success here in the United States, and I think this is a time when we can do it.
DMK: Also remember that Barack Obama has shut down the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository. This means at the present time there is no federal waste dump to put high-level nuclear waste from over 100 commercial reactors and also military reactors. So we are suffering from a case of nuclear constipation form nuclear waste that is backing up at every single nuclear site in the United States. And we’re storing it, storing it on site, which I think is a very dangerous procedure. This means that nuclear power cannot move forward until we have some resolution to the nuclear waste issue.
CS: What if your opinion about the Sun obviously has an unlimited potential to be harnessed then use that energy for our increasing power needs. What do you think is the viability of that technology?
DMK: As you mentioned, the Sun is going to shine for another five billion years till it finally uses up it’s hydrogen fuel and of course the Earth only uses a fraction of the sunlight that hits it from the Sun. Right now solar costs are still more expensive than fuel fossil costs. But fossil fuels are limited in quantity and quite erratic in price. Prices are rising while the cost of solar keeps dropping every year. At some point the two curves will cross and at the point renewable solar, hydrogen and wind technology will become just as competitive in the market place as nuclear.
Remember now to build a nuclear power plant takes at least 10 years. So this means you have to look at the economics not today, but the economics 10 years from now. And the economics 10 years from now for solar, hydro, geothermal, wind power is quite attractive. For example, people are buying up solar rights to the Sahara Desert now in order to build plants sometime on the future when prices go down for Europe. So some European investors are saying the even though today it’s not economical to solarize the Sahara Desert in the future it will be. And in the future they want to make sure they have the rights to capture sunlight in the Sahara Desert.
So I think that is what we are going to see. We are going to see markets forces kick in because people will realize 10 years from now solar power is extremely competitive with fossil fuel in all aspects and somebody’s going to make a lot of money because at that point renewable technology will be every bit as competitive as fossil fuels.
CS: We just have a few minutes left Dr. Kaku and again I really appreciate you coming on Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox. You know I am known for my anti-war activism and I think advocating for peace and advocating for renewable, sustainable energy, which I don’t think nuclear energy is, is something that is very important. One of my heroes is Dr. Albert Einstein and I know you continue his work trying to find a unified theory. But Dr. Einstein also became increasingly a pacifist and he had a lot of pacifist rhetoric towards the end of his life and I’d like you to comment on that.
DMK: Well, I wrote a biography about Albert Einstein and, first of all, you have to realize when he was a teenager he was a draft resistor. Refused to be drafted into the Germany Army. So he was a man, even as a teenager, who put some of his political philosophy into play during World War 1. He was one of very few intellectuals to sign a manifesto against German entry into WWI. There were 100 German intellectuals who signed a manifesto for German entry–there were only three intellectuals including Einstein who signed the manifesto against WWI. During WWII he began to modify his position a bit and say that the German Army should be opposed, you simply can do nothing and allow this racist totalitarian entity to start to take over the world. Then right after the bombing of Hiroshima he founded the first anti-nuclear organization. It was called the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists and it was the very first anti-nuclear organization formed right after the bombing of Hiroshima by Albert Einstein.
CS: I actually have a pencil drawing I am looking at right now on my wall. He is my all time hero and so are you Dr. Kaku. Can you tell my listeners your website so they can get more information?
DMK: Yeah, if you want more information about my book and things like that you can go to mkaku.org
CS: And you have quite a web presence and you must be the busiest man in theoretical physics right now.
DMK: Well I work on something called string theory and we think that is the unified field theory. We think we actually do have in our possession the theory that eluded Einstein for the last 30 years of his life and we’re going to begin to test it with the large Hadron collider outside Geneva Switzerland. So we’re actually in the position to test the periphery of the theory using the results from a giant atom smasher right outside of Geneva Switzerland, which is quite amazing when you think about it.
CS: Well it’s brilliant and that would be quite an accomplishment to do this, it’s amazing to me as a as I said a theoretical physics groupie that as I am–I am a baby in my knowledge compared to you but to me it is all very exciting and very interesting.
DMK: My favorite Einstein quotes is that “if a theory can not be explained to a child then the theory is probably useless.” So all great theories, the theories of Newton, Einstein, all these great theories in principle can be explained to a child.
CS: Well and I think that’s your brilliance. You have been able to make this knowledge accessible to people and understandable to people and not so dry and boring but very exciting for us to be able to explore our universe and things that have either been mystical or very confusing and not easy to understand for most people.
DMK: Hopefully in my I work I try to explain the excitement that we feel converging on this great theories that will one day answer these enormously important questions that even bedeviled Einstein. Is time travel possible? Are there other dimensions? Are there gateways to other universes? These are questions that Einstein actually wrote about and these are actually questions in principle that we can solve using string theory. So I think that we are in a great position now.
CS: Also, like you said, to popularize it. You’re the populizer of science and to make it understandable to lay people.
Thank you so much again Dr. Kaku for being on Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox.
DMK: Okay, well my pleasure.
CS: We’ll continue to follow you.
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