Japan Nuke Plant Fears: How Dire Is the Threat?

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," March 14, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: This is a "Fox News Alert." A spokesman in Japan just says -- just announced radiation from a damaged nuclear plant is high enough in nearby areas to damage health. Now, that, of course, is disappointing news, and there's more disappointing, bleak news as Japan's nuclear crisis seems to be escalating. There's been another explosion just a short time ago, a huge explosion at Fukushima nuclear plant. Engineers are desperately working to try to prevent a huge nuclear accident. Which raises the question, what about us? Could a nuclear meltdown happen here in the United States?

Former deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration Will Tobey joins us. He was involved in building the largest nuclear construction project here in the United States.

Will, before I ask you about here in the United States, there's also news. Officials say that a fire is burning at Number 4 nuclear reactor at Fukushima Number 1 power plant. I'm not sure exactly what that means. Does that mean anything to you? I mean, should we be alarmed that now there's a fire burning?

WILL TOBEY, HARVARD BELFER CENTER: It's really hard to say. My understanding was that only three of the plants, the nuclear reactors were in operation, the three that you've been talking about most of this evening.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, now let's turn to the United States. We just spoke to an expert who said -- we were talking about Oregon, Washington area. So how safe are our nuclear power plants in this country?

TOBEY: Well, clearly, an accident of this magnitude is going to cause and should cause some rethinking all around the world. I would say that we need to do three things. First of all, we need to make sure that the probabilities of the various risks that we identify are analyzed properly. I think, in this case, for example, one problem might have been that the risk of loss of primary cooling was assessed to be low because the odds of losing power, external power, were relatively low and that that could be ameliorated by a back-up system.

The problem is that any event that's large enough to threaten the primary system could cause a problem with the back-up system, and that's exactly what's happened here. So what looked like a combined probability that would be very low was actually the same as the probability of any one event. So the first thing we need to do is analyze the situation properly.

Second, I think we need to think more carefully about new ways to mitigate the risks. We should look at back-up systems that rely on different principles of operation than the primary systems. So in this case, there were pumps that depended upon electricity to cool the reactor. It's possible to design cooling systems that might operate passively, using gravity or other -- some such other methods.

And then third, I would urge that we not ignore the terrorism threat. Frankly, this is -- this incident has underscored the consequences of loss of cooling at reactors. Some 400 such reactors are in operation around the world. My guess is there are those who will try and take advantage of such a situation.

VAN SUSTEREN: Based on what we're hearing happening in Japan -- and I realize you're not there to investigate or inspect. But tell me, what is the worst-case scenario, based on what we know tonight, and work me backwards. I don't know how alarmed we should all be.

TOBEY: Well, the worst-case scenario would be breach of containment. And of course, that's really only happened once in the world, at the Chernobyl plant, where there was no containment vessel. And there was a fire and an explosion, and it spread graphite, which moderated the reactor, in a wide area, blew it up, and the particles spread throughout Europe and in some cases even beyond.

In this case, there is much better containment, and so far, the pressure vessel has held. And that's good news.

VAN SUSTEREN: If it doesn't hold, what happens?

TOBEY: Well, much depends on exactly how it fails, if it were to fail. It could fail in a way that would crack it slightly, and the release would be small and more easily contained. It seems, at this point anyway, unlikely that we could see anywhere near the type of failure that occurred at Chernobyl, where, again, there was an explosion and fire in the graphite that was moderating the reactor. This reactor does not rely on such a moderating device.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you have some comfort with the information that's coming out of Japan, you think it sounds pretty reliable and reasonable, or do you have lots of questions and think that maybe they're holding back on what they're telling?

TOBEY: I have no reason to believe that they're holding back. I'm sure it's a situation where they have a great deal of uncertainty. I've heard announcements that seemed to indicate that uncertainty.

VAN SUSTEREN: And in terms of -- I guess that you say we have to look at our redundancy and what we do with our plants here. I guess that we need to do that rather -- forthwith. We don't know when something could hit us.

TOBEY: Well, I think, yes, over the next year, we should take steps to examine these things closely, as well as the siting of nuclear power plants, which may also have been an issue here.

VAN SUSTEREN: Will, thank you, sir.

TOBEY: Thank you.