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Science reporter Miles O'Brien on the Fukushima cleanup, irradiated fish and losing his arm on assignment

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In the weeks before the third anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster on March 11, 2011, PBS NewsHour sent science correspondent Miles O'Brien to Japan to report three Fukushima-related stories, then on to the Philippines for additional stories.

O’Brien had expected that the riskiest part of his trip would be his visit to the highly-contaminated Fukushima plant. But then in the Philippines, as he was loading his car, a heavy box of video gear fell on his arm. It hurt more than it should have and before he knew it … well, let’s get first to what O’Brien reported in his series for NewsHour. Which is no doubt what he’d want us to do.

We all know the story of how it began — an earthquake under the Pacific triggered a massive tsunami off the northeast coast of Japan, the tidal wave roared ashore, wiped out whole towns, killed nearly 20 thousand people, and swamped the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Within minutes, three of the plant’s reactors were on their way to catastrophic failure and a fourth was in serious trouble.

That was how it started, and three years later, the Fukushima story is still very much unfolding. And that’s what O'Brien went to Japan to report on.

O’Brien’s first NewsHour report focuses on the cleanup. On a rare visit to the Fukushima site, he found that the cleanup has really yet to begin. Instead, the plant’s operators are still in triage mode, battling a daily flood of radioactive water.

O’Brien says 100,000 gallons of groundwater a day is flowing through the three damaged, highly-radioactive cores, and in the process, becoming too contaminated to let flow into the sea.

For now, the response of the plant’s owners is to build a 250,000-gallon tank roughly every other day to hold the water. But they're not fully succeeding, O’Brien says. “And eventually, of course, they’re going to run out of space for tanks.”

“It kind of reminds me of the cartoon Fantasia,” he says, in particular the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene, where Mickey Mouse disobeys orders and causes a flood in his master’s castle, and can’t bail out the water no matter how many hundreds of buckets he’s able to deploy.

Still unanswered for now, O’Brien says, is how plant operators are going to stop the flow, clean up the water they’ve captured and make sure none of it gets into the Pacific.

The bigger question is what to do about the four damaged plants themselves. Work has begun on removing fuel rods from one unit that was offline at the time of the accident. But O’Brien says the three reactors whose cores melted down and are contaminating the cooling water are “just way too hot to get anywhere near anytime soon by human beings… So the Japanese are trying to invent robots to go in there and clean that up.”

O’Brien says the Japanese are really good at building robots, but this is a whole new challenge. “No one has built a robot that can do that kind of work,” he says. “So we really don't know how they’re going to clean it up.”

Then there’s the aftermath of the accident — in particular, the ongoing impact on marine life in the Pacific, and on the thousands of Japanese who once depended on the sea off Fukushima for food and work. That was the subject of O’Brien’s second NewsHour piece. Three years after the accident, he found fishing grounds still off limits and “a whole fleet of fishermen that are out of business.”

O’Brien sailed out with some of the only fishermen employed in the region to catch flounder — not to sell, but to be tested for radiation. He says the radiation levels in the fish they caught that day were actually within safe limits, but that “the next batch they might catch would be way above the standards.”

The most common radioactive isotope in the water off the coast of Fukushima has a half-life of 30 years. O’Brien says, “In essence, for our lifetime … I suspect there won't be any Fukushima flounder anywhere in Japan or beyond.”

There has also been concern about fish much farther beyond, including as far away as the west coast of North America, where researchers have found tuna harboring radioactive cesium from Fukushima.

But O’Brien says he found that the best scientists in the field are certain that the contaminant levels in these and any other fish far from the coast of northern Japan are way too low for just about any potential consumers to worry about.

“You might have some concern if you reached huge amounts,” O’Brien says, “but nowhere near what a normal human being would eat.”

O’Brien’s third NewsHour segment focuses on Japan’s complex post-Fukushima relationship with nuclear power and the costs and challenges of alternatives.

He says the disaster turned Japan’s prime minister at the time from a supporter of nuclear power into an opponent, who promised a sharp shift away from nuclear and toward renewable power. But the transition has so far been extremely slow, and Japan has had to turn in large part back to imported fossil fuels. And the country’s current government just announced plans to restore a significant role for nuclear energy.

So what is next, in terms of the energy needed to run Japan’s economy, is also still very much up in the air.

Which ends the story of O’Brien’s reporting on Fukushima and brings us back to the story of his arm.

That big box of TV gear that fell on his arm in the Philippines? At first O’Brien thought it had just caused a nasty bruise, but after it started to swell and hurt and cause him to begin losing feeling in his hand, he knew he had to see a doctor, fast.

What it turned out to be was a rare condition called Acute Compartment Syndrome, an increase in pressure in part of the body that can block blood flow and lead to life-threatening consequences. His doctor recommended emergency surgery and prepared him for the worst.

When he woke up, his left arm was gone to just above his elbow.

“It’s interesting [to] think about all the risks we take,” O’Brien says, barely missing a beat or changing his detached reportorial tone as he switches from talking about his Fukushima stories to talking about himself.

“I thought this trip, the big risk was going inside the Fukushima power plant, and you just never know.”

As for how he’s adjusting to his new reality?

“It's been a challenge to say the least,” he admits. “The thing that has got me through is that I've been working. My biggest fear was I wouldn't get the stories about Fukushima on the air, so I just kind of plowed back into work as quickly as I could. And that probably helped me get through at least the initial shock of the thing.”

What it wasn’t able to do was alleviate the pain, which he says has been “really excruciating at times.”

“But every day gets little bit better,” O’Brien says. “I am learning how to do most everything and eventually I'll get a prosthetic arm that will help me fly an airplane and ride a bicycle and, for that matter, shoot video. So you know, life is a series of challenges. Some you seek and some come to you, and this is one that has come to me, and I'm just doing my best to meet it and overcome it.”

If only we could all be so serene and clear-headed in the face of harrowing twists of fate.

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