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Japan: Worst Nuclear Disaster Since Chernobyl; Second Fire in Reactor Number Four

Aired March 15, 2011 - 23:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: As we continue the breaking news live from Japan with what is now believed to be the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

We now have a situation today where there was a second fire in Reactor Number Four. You'll remember there was a fire in Reactor Number Four yesterday. That's a reactor that contains spent fuel rods. That is an extremely serious situation. We're trying to find out the latest on the ground with that -- that second fire that had broken out today in Reactor Number Four.

There are six reactors at this one plant, the Fukushima Daiichi Plant. Each of the reactors has some sort of problem. Reactors One, Two and Three have had problems with containment vessels and fears of partial meltdowns in those -- in some of those reactors. Reactors Four, Five and Six contain spent fuel rods, and now there are serious concerns about the safety of those reactors.

We're going to have all the details on that tonight. We have new video at this hour from NHK.

It's kind of difficult to see what you're looking at, but basically it's a long-distance shot of Reactor Number Four in which you see some smoke from Reactor Number Four. We assume that's from the fire, although we frankly simply do not know. The second fire is in the damaged -- as I said the damaged Reactor Number Four.

Inside the plant, right now, a dramatic situation developed. About 50 workers -- they have evacuated several hundred of the plant workers; that had happened yesterday.

And right now, there's a core group of about 50 workers who are not leaving. They're trying to prevent a greater disaster. They are right now being exposed to potentially lethal doses of radiation. They could end up paying with their lives.

A guest you're going to meet shortly says we could know by tomorrow whether or not they are succeeding.

They have to succeed, or else this thing is going to get a lot worse. Radiation fears sweeping Japan. Many people here very concerned. More than 200,000 have been evacuated. Some people bordering the evacuation zone being tested for exposure.

There's reports that Japan's prime minister is furious at the power company which owns the plant, that they have not been forthcoming enough with information and with news.

We're going to -- so you have these twin emergencies. You have the nuclear crisis. There's also the emergency response. Obviously the death toll continues to rise. Shortages, we have logistical problems all throughout the northeast. People are simply and the system is simply overwhelmed at this point.

We have new video also which shows the moment that the tsunami hit. It's extraordinary video. I want to show you -- take a look at this right now.




COOPER: It is simply hard to believe what these towns, what these people have been through.

And as I said, the system right now is overwhelmed. There's a shortage of food. There's a shortage of water in a lot of the hardest-hit areas. It is a very difficult situation for many of the survivors who are in shelters right now, very crowded shelters and -- and -- and as I said, there's a lot of people in need at this hour.

We're going to talk about that all in the hour ahead. The death toll now has risen to some 3,600 people. More than 7,000 are still missing. Exact numbers of fatalities of course at this point are -- are not known.

Let's focus right now, though, on the nuclear situation, the nuclear emergencies, particularly at this -- at this Fukushima Daiichi plant, where there are six reactors, each of the reactors with its own separate problems.

I want to bring in Jim Walsh. He's a CNN contributor. He's with the Massachusetts -- with MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And I also want to bring in our own Tom Foreman, who has been looking into the spent fuel rods.

Jim, first of all, let's talk about Reactor Number Two -- or -- sorry -- Reactor Number Four. A second fire today in Reactor Number Four; what does that mean; how serious is it?

JIM WALSH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Oh, I think it's serious. To have one fire is serious. To have one fire when you already have problems at three other plants is very serious.

But when you have a repeat fire at the same place, you know, the first time, maybe that's bad luck. The second time, you've got to ask yourself, is something going on here? Is something going on that we better solve or we're going to see another fire tomorrow or a fire at Unit Five or a fire at Unit Six? And each time there's one of these fires, the danger to those spent fuel pods increases, increases that -- because they are not contained. They're -- unlike the reactors at One, Two and Three there is no big concrete shielding for them. And if they are compromised, they would be very serious indeed.

COOPER: Right.

Let's explain each of these different reactors. This is a really confusing situation. And I think it's important to point out what we know and also what we don't know. And there's a lot of information we don't know.

And as we said, the -- the Japanese prime minister is said to be furious with the company that runs the -- the plant, because frankly they have not been, he believes, as forthcoming with information and -- and with bad news.

Reactors One, Two, Three, what is it -- those reactors actually have fuel rods in them. What is the greatest concern with Reactors One, Two and Three right now?

WALSH: Right. So there are two completely separate problems. Unfortunately, they're all problems happening at the same time. So we have Reactors One, Two and Three. We have a reactor that has fuel inside the reactor, and there's concern that there is a partial meltdown at each of these three reactors.

And so the question is, will the containment vessels, will the three feet of concrete and reinforced steel hold that together, so that that -- those melts -- partial meltdowns do not reach the environment? And that's what people are concerned about, especially for Reactor Number Two.

Last night there was an explosion inside the reactor and you had the government and the IAEA speculate that the containment vessel, the last line of defense, had been damaged, possibly compromised. We don't know that for sure. But that's what people are concerned about, that the -- that those -- that if there's a partial meltdown, it would leak out into the environment.

Now you have a different set of reactors, Four, Five and Six. Those reactors are not running. They're in cold shutdown. There's no fear that there would be a meltdown there of the reactor core.

Instead, there is a separate concern. And that is that the waste -- remember, Anderson, when these reactors -- they burn the fuel and then you have waste and you have to put that waste somewhere.

Well, unfortunately, the decision was made --


COOPER: Right.

WALSH: -- we're going to store that waste right next to the reactor. And they're vulnerable in a different sort of way.

COOPER: Right.

And I should just clarify NHK is saying they're not sure the image that they -- they just put out, that distant image taken from a helicopter, they're not sure if the smoke is coming from Reactor Three or Reactor Four.

If it was Reactor Four, it could possibly have been from -- from the fire that broke out today, the second fire. If it's Reactor Three, we're not sure what that would be from at this point.

I want to bring in though Tom Foreman.

Tom, you have been looking into this -- this issue in Reactors Four, Five and Six. The spent fuel pods, basically formally fuel rods that no longer have enough to actually produce energy, but are -- are obviously still very radioactive, they're normally kept under about 20 to 30 feet of water. Tell us about -- about these fuel pods.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, you and Jim have hit it right on the head here.

Here's One, Two and Three over here. The worry is here do you have a meltdown, especially this one. Number Three has got plutonium in it.

But let's fly in here and take a look at this one. The fuel rods that Jim was just talking about are kept up here in water, like this.

These are the spent fuel rods. There are none in the active part. If you did have active ones, they would be in here and this would be considered hotter radiologically than this.

And just as Jim mentioned a minute ago, look at this; this is what matters. This is the concrete containment area. And you can see that the spent rods are outside of it.

That's important, because even though they have been used up, if -- as some scientists, including one with the Institute for Policy Studies I talked with today -- if this is what has happened, if they have lost water and these have become exposed this way, Anderson, this alone, I was told, could emit enough -- enough radioactivity in the immediate area to create a fatal bubble for about 50 yards all the way around.

If you were anywhere in this area, you could be experiencing very quick hair loss, damage to your organs, really fatal consequences being that close. This is one of the concerns for anybody trying to work there.

But even if they're not completely uncovered, if this is the source of the fire, the other thing that you're having here is this question of smoke. If that smoke we saw a minute ago is coming from a fire in here, then that smoke alone is carrying cesium-137, or it should be. And that is the very thing that spread after Chernobyl. It moves out very far and wide. It lasts for quite some time.

Another bit point of reference here, there is the building. If we widen out, there is the evacuation zone. That's where Tokyo is.

The question about cesium-137, Anderson, is it's very aggressive. It stays out there, and it acts like potassium, which means it gets into the food chain, into our grains, into our meats, into our fruits and vegetables.

And from there, it gets into us. That's why there's so much concern about those spent fuel rods and whether or not they are burning. If the zirconium shell on that is burning and it's throwing cesium into the air, that's the very, very real fear here.

So far the readings further out are not indicating that kind of danger to people. But some of those readings quite close are showing a lot of this. So let's see what happens.

COOPER: Yes. And I can tell you a lot of us have started to get these -- these measuring devices which actually read radiation. People are starting to wear these around here.

Tom thanks very much for that.

I want to bring -- Dr. Sanjay Gupta is going to come in, in just a moment. But first I just want to -- and also we're going to have more with Jim Walsh and we're going to talk to Chad Myers about the wind conditions, because it is critical what way the wind is blowing.

Last I heard the wind was blowing down from the north. We are north of where this plant is, and that's the -- the reason we're here frankly. But -- but again, it's all about wind conditions. Anything that is released, any radioactive material that is released, which way will it blow? That's something that people here in Japan are watching very, very closely.

So we're going to have an update on wind conditions in a moment.

But I just want to give you kind of a sense of the timeline. You know, I know you've heard a lot of different stuff from these -- from these various reactors over the last five days of this disaster. I just want to look back at the last five days and kind of bring us up to speed on where we are right now.

Let's take a look.


COOPER (voice-over): At 2:46 p.m., the massive 9.0 earthquake strikes off Japan's coastline, unleashing a tsunami that swallowed everything in its path.

Four of Japan's 17 nuclear power plants automatically shut down, standard procedure following an earthquake. Multiple generators kick in to keep the reactors cool and safe -- or at least that is what is supposed to occur.

Nearly eight hours after the quake, reports that the cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant located near one of the hardest-hit areas is not working. Those living within a mile-and-a- half of the plant are ordered to evacuate.

2:00 a.m. Saturday morning, radiation levels in the plant are said to be rising. By sunrise Saturday morning, there's confirmation the tsunami wiped out the plant's generators, causing cooling systems to fail. A nuclear emergency is declared.

Later that afternoon, hydrogen build-up within reactor one sparks an explosion that causes the roof to collapse and injures four workers. With safety concerns escalating, the evacuation zone is extended to roughly 12-and-a-half miles.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We evacuated immediately after the explosion. We were scared then. All the people in my community fled away.

COOPER: Meanwhile, workers scramble to cool the reactor, using seawater in a last-ditch effort to prevent a meltdown.

Sunday morning, Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, says integrity of the containment vessel of Reactor One has not been compromised, yet three people test positive for radiation exposure in the region around the plant.

Monday afternoon, a second explosion -- Reactor Three's roof and walls give way, injuring six people. But once again, officials say no significant radiation was leaked. In towns nearby, fear takes hold.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I'm deeply depressed. Soon, I want to know exactly what's going on at the nuclear plant. I'm scared.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I'm scared because I can see the radiation.

COOPER: Monday night, more bad news. Reactor Two's cooling system has also failed. With just a few dozen workers remaining, they resort to seawater yet again.

On Tuesday, the crisis continues to escalate when an explosion ignites a fire in Reactor Two, raising concerns of a partial meltdown. Then a fire breaks out in Reactor Four's cooling pod which stores spent fuel rods outside the reactor. The result: according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the emission of dangerously high levels of radiation in the air, 167 times higher than the yearly dose for one person.

Officials assure the public that the levels quickly dropped and the Prime Minister asks for people to remain calm, but admits a very high risk remains.

In an attempt to minimize risk, the United States Navy repositioned ships offshore and Japanese officials issue a no-fly zone around the plant. But there appears to be no relief in sight.

By sunrise Wednesday, another fire breaks out and there were malfunctions with the cooling systems of two other reactors.


COOPER: All right, we're going to talk more with Jim and Sanjay in just a moment, also with Chad Myers about the wind conditions, because again that is critical. Any releases that are -- is occurring, where is it going to be taken? How far an area is going to be affected and how many people are going to be affected?

We'll talk about that in a moment.


COOPER: And welcome back to the continuing breaking story.

Jim and Sanjay, we -- Jim, I don't know if you have heard this. I have just gotten word that there has just been a press conference in which they have said -- and I want to confirm this, and I'm being cautious about what I'm saying, but -- but that they have said that the -- the workers have suspended operations and have evacuated.

Now, I -- I'm trying to get clarification whether that is the 50 workers that we were just talking about and the need for them not to -- to stop operations. And, again, we're working right now to try to get clarification. But if -- if it is, in fact, those 50 workers who have suspended operations, that would -- that would be extraordinary, Jim.

WALSH: I would be stunned, and that would be a very bad sign. First of all, it would be a sign that they have lost control.


COOPER: I -- I -- I find that hard to believe, frankly.

WALSH: I -- I find it hard to believe, and let me say why. Because then who is going to manage the -- the problems at Reactors One, Two and Three and who is going to prevent those spent fuel pods from catching fire or putting those fires out?

I mean, essentially, you're saying, ok, we've got six reactors in trouble you know and we're just going to see where this goes. I just -- I would be shocked.

COOPER: Right.

WALSH: I would be shocked.

COOPER: So let's -- let's table this for now, just until we get some sort of independent confirmation or clarification or re-translation. I just want to make sure, because it could be -- I mean it's possible they were talking about the 750 workers or 800 workers who have already been evacuated.

But -- but again, Jim, in terms of when -- when we talk about these spent fuel pods, they're not stored in anywhere near the conditions that the fuel rods that are active are stored. They're actually stored under like 30 feet of water or something on top of the reactors.

Why -- why are they storing fuel pods, spent fuel pods on top of reactors?

WALSH: Well, first of all, they don't do that anymore. But when they built this plant in 1971, in 1974, and the 1970s, they had a different conception of what was going to happen. In any modern plant these days, they have temporary storage of fuel rods until they're cooled down enough to ship them to be either disposed or recycled. But they do it underground. And they do it in a more secure environment.

But the 1970s, 50 years ago, that wasn't the thinking and they put it in the upper floor of the building. And we already saw what happened earlier in the week when we had hydrogen explosions in the upper floors of the building.

So obviously this was not a good idea.

And even what's more -- more concerning, and you have put your finger on it, Anderson, is that Chernobyl did not have a containment vessel. So when things went bad, that material went up into the air. If things go bad with the spent fuel, there is no containment vessel. And so, if they catch fire or they start to melt, there is nothing to prevent that from either going into the air or leaking down into the environment.

COOPER: And -- and again, that's where the -- the wind direction really comes into play and becomes so important.

I want to bring in Chad Myers, who is monitoring those conditions.

Chad, first of all, where is the -- where is the wind blowing now and also where has it been blowing over the last 24-hour period? Because we were told yesterday those spent fuel pods, some of them were exposed for some --



COOPER: -- two-and-a-half-hours and -- and there was a release. So what about the conditions yesterday?

MYERS: There certainly was a release yesterday. There certainly was an east wind yesterday that would have brought the radiation back over the island nation of Japan.

What's happened tonight is a big cold front has worked through and these are just like cold fronts that we have in America. The wind has shifted completely offshore, taking all of that radiation with it. I know some radiation spreads out in all directions, but really the main -- the main stuff we're worried about for safety of people's health will be carried by the wind. And that wind is shifting offshore. I have a couple of things to show you here that have happened just over the past couple of hours. We have run a model here at CNN. It's not a radiation model. But if you took a balloon that didn't have helium in it, just took a balloon and let it go, you see where would this balloon fly over the next few days?

It would -- all those models, no matter what level you release that balloon, 100 feet, 200 feet or 500 feet, it would all blow offshore, away from the land and away from the people.

That's not going to be the case by Saturday. This all will change again when a low pressure will bring more winds from the east and from the southeast. This entire pattern will change. And weather patterns change all the time. This is not a big breaking news event that we're going to have the weather patterns change.

But from Fujiyama right here, right there, that is the center. We cannot get a wind any more than north or south -- from the south, from the north, and from the east is all good. But anything here that would blow from northeast, southeast, that would all be bad; that would all bring heavy radiation to millions of people.

This is a very highly populated, densely populated country.

COOPER: All right.

Sanjay, for a lot of people in the immediate evacuation zone and even in the areas not an evacuation zone, at this point, there was a 30- kilometer area that they said yesterday --


COOPER: -- they wanted people to -- because basically shelter in place, to stay in their homes, to shut off ventilation, not have any air conditioning or anything that was ventilating outside air in.

GUPTA: That's right.

COOPER: What -- does that actually work?


GUPTA: Yes, it really can. And notwithstanding this potential new information, if -- if the levels don't go any higher than the highest readings we have seen -- again, this 400 millisievert number -- people will come to understand the significance of that.

You know that starts to disperse as you get outside the gates of the reactor, as you get further and further away from it -- 20 kilometers is the evacuation zone, another 10 kilometers after that.

Essentially, people are shielding themselves. They're -- they're inside their home. They're turning off ventilation from the outside, so they're shielding themselves from that -- that -- those -- those gamma rays, that gamma radiation that we're talking about here.

COOPER: They're also telling people not to -- I mean, to wear long sleeves, to not to try to have too much skin exposed.

GUPTA: Right. I mean, there's certain that some of this can actually penetrate the skin. And it's almost simplistic as it sounds to cover your skin in that way can be helpful and then to either wash those clothes or even dispose of them afterwards, all of that can be helpful. But you know, reducing the time of exposure.

So time, reducing the distance or increasing the distance rather, so you're further away from the exposure source distance and then shielding in all these different ways -- obviously, we're carrying these dosimeters (ph), gives you a little bit more guidance on all that.

But that -- that's the basic precautionary measures here.

COOPER: Jim, it seems very basic, but -- but I guess, I mean, even little things like being inside or being in a vehicle, ideally being in a tall building can make a big difference.

WALSH: Oh absolutely. And we -- you know we've worked and talked, Anderson, here about what happens if there's a radiological attack, a terrorist attack in which radiological materials are dispersed. The most common suggestion is shelter in place. You know, you have your own containment vessel. Your house is made of concrete or wood or whatever. That's protecting you. So you stay inside.

You know, you drink bottled water. You tape the windows, just like we talked about here in the United States. That's what they should be doing now in preparation for exposures that might come later.

COOPER: Drew Griffin from CNN's special investigations unit also joins us.

Drew, you've been looking into the record of this company and also the Japanese government, frankly, on nuclear issues, but this company that runs the plant. I mean, have they been forthright in the past?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT CORRESPONDENT: Not at all. And in fact, we're seeing that even in this instant. We're hearing from Japan today some reporting that the Japanese prime minister was heard using profanity in a call with TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company officials, complaining that it took this company an hour to notify the government of that first explosion.

And that, I must say, has been one of the biggest concern of critics and watchdog groups. This company has a pattern of delayed reporting, downplaying the problems that they're having, and in some cases, outright lying about what has happened.

That sounds rather strong. But Anderson, the company was rocked in 2002. That the president, the chairman, three other executives all resigned in this scandal involving lying about safety inspections and -- and fudging records and repair records. Some of those repair records, I might say, right there at the Daiichi plant, which were faked to show that it was safer and there were not these flaws there in the system. The company promised to do better, said these dishonest practices wouldn't continue. But in an earthquake in 2007 at another one of TEPCO's plants, there was a -- a small fire at the time, we thought. They said it was a possible fire involving some kind of electric transformer. Well, it turns out that fire burned for two hours. Three hundred gallons of radioactive water leaked into the sea. All of that came out afterwards.

The company again has said it was sorry and that it would do better. And at that time, Anderson, I want to tell you, the company promised -- this is in 2007 -- that it was going to enhance in-house fire- fighting systems.

One of the problems they said, which is why that fire burned for so long, was during the earthquake they couldn't get on the phone with the fire department, because the lines were congested. I mean, can you imagine that at a nuclear plant, they couldn't call the fire department for two hours?

I think that's why Jim -- Jim Walsh is saying, you know, it's time to bring in maybe some of the big boys. I hate to say it. But some big boys who can handle these kinds of crisis, because TEPCO has proven itself inept in the past and many critics fear that there's a lot of that going on now and many of it, which we don't know about.


We -- we are monitoring a press conference. Who's giving the press conference exactly? CNN out of New York and -- and also Tokyo right now monitoring very closely a press conference from Japan's chief cabinet secretary, and that's where this information was said, that -- that operations have suspended.

Again, it's -- it's pretty stunning news if this is, in fact, the case. So again, we're trying to be very cautious in saying we have not independently confirmed this. We're trying to get some clarification, if that means that the 50 workers who, at great personal risk, have been working around the clock, have actually suspended operations.

Again, Jim, it's -- it's hard to fathom if -- if that is, in fact, the case.

We're going to take a quick break. But before we do, Jim, just to -- to kind of summarize here, what we're looking at, we have six reactors here. Reactors One, Two and Three we're looking at Three-Mile Island type situations with them.

Reactors Four, Five and Six with these spent fuel pods, what is the worst-case scenario there? Is that -- that more of a Chernobyl situation, where -- where because there's not container vessels around them, there would be more of a direct release?

WALSH: Yes, yes. Chernobyl is not an exact analogy, Anderson, because Chernobyl did have explosions that helped carry that material up. But essentially, you are correct. It is like Chernobyl in that there is no containment vessel and if this material were to catch fire, it would go into the environment. Or if it began to melt like we've been talking about in the other reactors, this material could melt and then descend into the environment. Because again, no containment vessel.

So these are major risks and we were warned about them yesterday. The IAEA said there may be problems at reactors four, five and six, and it seems to me, you know, if you have six reactors in one place that are each having problems and different problems, then you need to bring a lot of resources to bear.

COOPER: There had been talk about bringing helicopters to dump water to try to keep the fuel pods covered in water and, obviously, fight the fires, as well. If it is in fact those 50 workers have left that would, I assume, be one of the few ways, then, for them to continue to try to do something in terms of keeping these things under water.

WALSH: Yes, I guess. I'm going to remain -- I'm probably going to be wrong about this, you know, but that's live TV. I can't believe that they would withdraw the workers. I just find that hard to believe if that were the case.


COOPER: I find it hard to believe. I agree.

We'll take a break. We'll try to figure it out.



We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


COOPER: So, again, the breaking news: Japanese officials at a press conference saying that workers at the plants are unable to continue operations due to radiation risks. I'm here with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and also from MIT, Jim Walsh.

Jim, again, if this is the final 50 workers who were the only workers left at -- at the Fukushima Daiichi plant after several hundred had been evacuated days ago, this is extraordinarily alarming news.

WALSH: Well, it means two things. It means that it is a highly, highly radioactive area, and they're withdrawing the 50 people because it's gotten so bad.

And secondly, it means there's no one to mind the store. There's no one to keep Reactor Two -- water flowing into Reactor Two so it doesn't have a meltdown or another compromise. No one to keep pumping water into Reactors One and Three; no one to manage potential fires when we don't know the cause of the first two fires at reactor four; no one around to keep an eye on Reactors Five and Six to make sure that doesn't happen either.

Now, maybe they'll suspend temporarily and come back and regroup and come back. Or maybe they're rotating teams, or maybe something else is going on here. But if that is the case, then it means things have gotten very serious from a health standpoint.

And number 2, you know, where does this story go? I mean, who knows what's going to happen next if that's the case.

COOPER: What is it at this point that we don't know? I mean, what are the key things you need to know, you would like to know that we don't know?

WALSH: Well, I want to know what -- I would like to know more about the workers. I also want to know the composition of the -- more about the radiation that's being emitted. What are the radio isotopes represented in those air samples? That would tell you a little bit about what's happening at the spent fuel pod and at the reactor.

If you could get sort of the chemical profile of what's being emitted. And then you'd want data on about how -- you know, how high and that radiation is, and whether it's been going up and down or whether it's going straight up.

We need more facts here. We want to know did that fire at Reactor No. 4, did that involve the spent fuel pod itself, or was it close to the spent fuel pod? Did the pod itself actually catch on fire in some way? So those are the key things you'd want to know going forward.

GUPTA: The other thing I think is important, we might get clues from whether or not there are new advisories for people in the surrounding areas, because we've been hearing the same advisory now for a couple of days, 20-kilometer evacuation zone, beyond that for 10 more kilometers. Stay inside, close the windows, all of that.

If we start to hear that the advisories are changing, if they start to tell people to take potassium iodine pills now, that may be the first sign, in fact, that they are worried, significantly worried that the radiation levels are going to go up and that the radiation is going to start moving around those plants, further and further out.

So whether or not we get the answer to some of Jim's questions about what the nature is of these particular -- this radiation or the levels, we may get some clues early on in terms of the advisories.

COOPER: Right. We have been told that Japanese officials have iodine pills for people in the evacuation zone, some 200,000 or so, 250,000 people who had already been evacuated. They had pills in those areas and would be handing them out. We don't know if they actually have been handed out at this point or what the mechanism is for handing them out.

GUPTA: That's right. The timing is critical with this sort of thing. And what people typically say is you want to give it when you're pretty sure someone is going to be exposed. You don't want to give it ahead of time, because it may lose its effectiveness in terms of how well it can protect somebody. So if we suddenly hear that the iodine pills are now being distributed, people are being told to take them to protect their thyroid gland against thyroid cancer, then you know, that probably signals an increased level of concern in terms of the radiation levels.

COOPER: Jim, because there is, frankly, so much not known about the details of, really, what the emergency is in these multiple reactors, and we're talking about six reactors here, it's very hard to ascertain whether this -- the evacuation zone that they have established is really -- I mean, is it -- if it's arbitrary or if it's -- if it's, you know, too small or not.

It's a very fluid situation, and it's frustrating because we don't really know the full true story of what's going on inside those reactors to know how many people may be in danger.

WALSH: I think that's absolutely right. I think beyond that, we are in unchartered territory. This is what happens when you put six reactors in close proximity to each other. You know, if it was one reactor, you know, we have pretty good models for that. But we have things happening.

Again, I cannot believe that I'm saying one, two, three, four, five, six reactors that may have problems simultaneously all in the same place. So, you know, we don't have any model for that.

And so part of it is we're in new, unchartered territory. And part of it is, for what we do know, we're not being told what's going on. And that makes it very hard for outside analysts to be able to make informed judgments about the nature of the dangers.

But you know, Anderson, it also may be the case that they don't know, that they may not know themselves.

COOPER: Well, which is worrying -- even more worrying.

We are just seeing some pictures there for a second from NHK, live pictures of the plant. We're going to take a quick break.

Again, the breaking news, the very disturbing news: Japanese officials today, just moments ago, saying that workers have suspended emergency operations at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in -- because the radiation levels are, frankly, too high.

Were -- it has been a -- it has been 50 workers up until now who had been, at great risk to themselves, trying to fight these fires, trying to assess the situation, trying to -- to repair the damage that's been done. If they, in fact, have withdrawn, at this point there is no one trying to -- to, well, trying to solve the problem immediately.

We'll be right back. Our coverage continues.


COOPER: Welcome back to our continuing coverage. It's starting to snow here in Akita. I'm here with Soledad O'Brien and also Gary Tuchman, who's in a town called Hachi --


COOPER: Hachinohe at an evacuation shelter, where a number of homeless people have been staying.

Gary, for them what are the conditions like?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The conditions are very tough, Anderson. This is the Pacific Coast, the very northern part of the tsunami zone. Hundreds of homeless people here who lost their homes to the tsunami and to the earthquake. And thousands of people in shelters, 69 shelters set up by this city, and the families, they're wonderful people. (INAUDIBLE)

This is little Yuki. Yuki's only two and a half years old. He'll hear from his parents as he grows older. This is the whole generation, a grandmother, and the parents, and little cousins. They all lived in the same house together. Their house was damaged from the earthquake, not from the tsunami.

But many other people are here lost their houses to the tsunami. They said it was absolutely terrible. And they said that they also heard this particular shelter we're at right now is scheduled to close at the end of the week, and Anderson, they don't know where they're going to go after this.

COOPER: And Soledad, for evacuees, I mean, there's the nuclear issue, but really, for -- for people who are homeless right now and dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami, that's -- that's the main focus.

O'BRIEN: Yes. They're really focused on trying to find fuel, trying to find water, trying to find food. And a similar thing to what Gary said. People were asking us in Kesennuma, so what are you hearing? What do you know? What should we do next? There didn't seem to be, certainly there in the city of about 70,000 people, a clear plan.

Now that you've lost your home, and there's no heat, and it's really cold, it's snowing here now. What's the next step?

It's very interesting to watch people seeming to be very, certainly, calm. And I think Japanese people have a reputation of being very just calm and centered, but at the same time the questions that I was being asked, I thought, started to indicate people were really worries about what the next steps are going to be.

COOPER: Yes. There's definitely a growing anxiety. One, a sort of a credibility gap over the nuclear issue and the public statements that are being made about that; but also an anxiety about food and water and the realization of this is going to take weeks and weeks and months and months in order to even just clear out a lot of the debris that we're seeing, because the debris fields, Gary, in these areas are so deep it's going to require a lot of equipment before we even know the full toll, the full death toll.

TUCHMAN: Not only that, Anderson, but here, we're in the middle right now of a tremendous snowstorm. It's a near blizzard. There's about 12 or 13 inches of snow on the ground. It's very cold; it's very windy. They can't do any work out here right now.

So these people, they can go outside and go to their home and see what's going on. They clearly want to leave right now, because the conditions are so inclement.

O'BRIEN: It was interesting to see boatloads of people trying to get out on these ferries that just started running where we were yesterday. And same thing: it's so brutally cold, and people don't have jackets. They have no real clothes on. They've got blankets. They're in a very tough spot.

COOPER: Yes. Again, the breaking news that we're continuing to follow is the word from Japanese officials that workers have had to stop operations at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, because radiation levels are so extreme there. They've actually withdrawn those workers.

All along we've been talking about these 50 workers who were the core group, working at great risk to themselves over the last couple of days to try to do what they can to fix the situation. It's not clear if that means that all workers are gone from the plant, but it's certainly workers who are fighting these fires have been withdrawn.

Here's the actual statement made just moments ago.


YUKIO EDANO, JAPANESE CHIEF CABINET SECRETARY (through translator): All the workers there have suspended their operations, even the minimum ones. And so we have asked them to evacuate in a safe area, and they are -- they have evacuated in a safe area. And for the detail, I will tell later on.


COOPER: We continue, obviously, to monitor that press conference, and we'll bring you any information as warranted. Jim Walsh, though, as you hear that, again, what do you make of this?

WALSH: I hope I'm misinterpreting what he's saying. I hope that, when he comes out with details a little later, whenever that is, they're going to say, "We meant some of the workers," or "We're taking those workers out so we can put other workers in," or that the international community is stepping in.

But I hope he's not saying, "We're just walking off here, abandoning the six plants, and whatever happens is going to happen." I hope that's not where we're at, because then we enter a whole new chapter on this story, a completely different chapter.

COOPER: There does seem to be this growing kind of credibility gap and concern that people have that their government, that in particular this private company which runs the plant, has not been forthcoming with information. O'BRIEN: Yes, and it's interesting, because, of course, I think there's a tremendous reputation with the Japanese of really sort of following along with what the government officials have said. You know, people who talked to us earlier about how, well, you know, they had a great sense of credibility in their government and any information they were getting.

And certainly, over the last couple of days, people we spoke to seemed much more confused, like "I'm not sure now what to believe." Although I noticed more people were much more panicky about the day-to-day issues of food and water and just being cold in blankets and how to get to the next day and thinking in terms of the nuclear issue, in terms of something that was almost out of their control. And they were just going to wait to hear what would happen.

COOPER: Gary, where you are, are people focused on the nuclear issue at all?

TUCHMAN: That's really interesting, Anderson. I was just talking to an elderly couple who lost their home. They just found out yesterday their daughter was alive after three days. I know they're very happy about that.

But they said the biggest thing on their mind right now is the situation with the nuclear plant.

I specifically asked this woman, because she was born right after World War II, how does this compare to your memories as a child of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And this is really interesting. She told that this is worse than Hiroshima, because Hiroshima was the past, and this could be their future.

O'BRIEN: There's an Internet cafe not very far from here, 24 hours. And as we were walking through there yesterday, you could see people, you know, on the way up to this Internet cafe, all gathered around a television set, watching very clearly while they were showing the various reactors and TVs were all on. A big group of people just sitting there hour after hour, being updated -- so clearly very concerned.

Again -- and there was no sense of panic in the room. People weren't shouting. They were just sitting very calmly, trying to take in the information that was coming out definitely (ph) on that Japanese TV.

COOPER: Jim, in terms of -- you know, there was a French official who had put this on a scale of 1 to 7, which is how nuclear emergencies, I guess, are judged. Put this at a 6, 7 being a Chernobyl-like incident. Does that sound accurate to you?

WALSH: I think it does sound accurate. You know, I think this is more serious than Three-Mile Island was. Three-Mile Island was a partial meltdown, but it was contained. And they got control of it in fairly short order.

This isn't Chernobyl yet, because we don't have the release of radioactivity into the atmosphere and around the globe in the volume that we saw from Chernobyl. So we're somewhere in between. But you know, the question is, are we moving closer to Chernobyl or are we moving down the ladder? And the news tonight makes one -- makes me a little more nervous that circumstances are being set up to moving closer to 7 than to 5.

COOPER: Again, you know, I don't want to prejudge this, but -- but this is not good news.


COOPER: That's it for 360. "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT" starts now. I'll see you tomorrow.