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JOHN KING, USA

New Fire at Japanese Nuclear Power Plant

Aired March 15, 2011 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, HOST: Good evening, everyone. More dramatic and more troubling breaking news from Japan. Another fire and another huge radiation risk in a troubled Japanese nuclear complex where all six reactors are now in varying degrees the distress.

Let's bring up the complex. The latest challenge at the Fukushima Daiichi site, a fire in the number four reactor. That's right down here, in the area just near the roof where highly radioactive spent fuel rods are stored. This turned for the worse in reactor four after a day in which there was some evidence Japan might finally make small progress as it struggles with the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

Until now, the most severe worry was here, the threat of a full meltdown in reactor number two. Officials report some progress there today, although there remain some significant questions about the integrity about that reactor's containment area.

At the moment it's down here at reactor four where new alarms are raised tonight. The new fire and latest release of nuclear reactive materials released a short while ago.

The problem with the audio on that, but let's assess the risk with Arnie Gunderson. He's a nuclear safety advocate who consulted the Vermont state government about the Vermont Yankee nuclear plan. Mr. Gunderson is joining us on the telephone. Sir, based on what you have herd, this is reactor number four. Authorities say there's another fire in the same area of the building where we know. I want to get your first thought on where the spent fuel rods are stored. What does that tell you?

ARNIE GUNDERSON, NUCLEAR SAFETY ADVOCATE, (via telephone): I designed spent fuel rods for containment so I know a lot about this. I also have learned from my sources that the radiation levels in the fourth reactor are so high that they have had to evacuate the personnel from there.

What that indicates is that the fuel pool is running out of order. It's sort of like leaving a pot on the stove and the nuclear fuel is physically hot and it will boil off the water. And if the personnel are not there to keep it refilled, it doesn't surprise me that radiation levels are increasing dramatically.

KING: And so I want to go through this based on that pretty sober if not alarming presentation you just made. I can show viewers this is an animation of what this looks like. These reactors are stored here. As you describe it, they are highly radioactive. You keep them in cool water, the goal being for years and years and years you need to keep them cool because of the danger.

Sir, if that water is leaking out and they are partially or fully exposed and if the integrity of the structure they are in could also be compromised because of the quake and the tsunami, what are we talking about in terms of the increase in the radioactivity in that area?

GUNDERSON: The problem in unit four could be worse than in unit two. There's no containment along the fuel pool in these containments. So it's essentially just open to a steel structure that is prone to leak. So a fuel pool that drains will catch fire. The clad will begin to burn and that will liberate all of the radiation in those nuclear fuel rods. In essence it's probably worse than the problem that's occurring at unit two because there's at least part of the containment that's still intact on unit two.

KING: So this is not your part of the business. We're going to carry on this conversation in a few moments. I want to get live to our correspondents in just a second to get their take on what's happening.

But I want to ask you a question based on your experience involved in the design. You have the current evacuation ring. Here's the orange line. This is over 12 miles, 20 kilometers. Then the stay-indoors line is this outer yellow line. People live in this ring out here. It's water out here. People live in this ring here and have been told to stay indoors and close their windows and not turn on air conditioning and do laundry inside and are essentially quarantined in their house. It's about 18.6 miles. About 100,000 people live in this slope.

Based on what you hear about the new fire and what you know about reactors and five days out all six of these reactors are in varying degrees of distress, if you were the Japanese government would you allow people to be this close?

GUNDERSON: I think I would do the same thing they did at Three Mile Island and say pregnant women and young children should leave. It's not a matter of staying indoors. Young children have rapidly developing bodies and are more prone to radiation, and of course a fetus is the most prove of all. So my advice would be within that zone pregnant women and children should leave.

KING: We'll get back to Mr. Gunderson in just a moment as we learn about the new fire at reactor number four and the other reactors still in distress. We'll continue that conversation.

But also dramatic new images of tsunami's power and with the escalating toll of death and destruction. As Wednesday morning dawns in Asia, the official death toll 3,373, but we're certain that number will keep climbing. Nearly a half million still confined to emergency shelters. Let's check in live with CNN's Anderson Cooper. He's on the phone now from northern Japan. Anderson, you have a search and recovery effort on day five. That's getting more desperate to save people, although they are saving some. Then you have the recovery, and on top of this you have more alarms from this troubled nuclear complex. Describe what it's like on the ground.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR (via telephone): It's worrying. I think there's a lot of concern that people have here. Just in talking to people, there's multiple concerns obviously. I mean, there's the nuclear issue which everybody is concern about and everyone in this country is watching very closely. That's obviously also hampering relief efforts. There's concern about the safety of emergency workers.

Certainly in the plant area but even radiating out from that area in miles around, There's obviously U.S. military is continuing to do operations and Navy says their operations will go unhampered although they rerouted some vessels so they are not docking where they had planned to.

But you have an increasingly desperate situation on the ground for people in the tsunami hit areas where you have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who are now homeless, living in shelters. There's an increasing short supply of food and water for people. It's not -- in some towns we're getting reports that that it is a desperate situation where people are actually forging through debris looking for food that they may be able to find.

In some of the larger cities you don't hear that but there are long lines for water. The water runs out. I was at a water distribution yesterday where the water ran out.

You know, tensions are definitely rising and people are certainly concerned whether or not the government has their hands around the nuclear situation, which clearly they don't at this point and are just doing the best they can, but also whether or not they really have their hands around the recovery effort.

It's very slow going. The prime minister said they are going to put more focus on helping those who have survived rather than searching for those who may still be under the debris. At this point debris fields are so thick you can't find -- I walked in these debris fields. They are 10, 15 feet deep in some cases. And you have no idea what's beneath you, whether there is a car beneath you or people beneath you.

And so until you get heavy equipment in here, it's going to be very hard. This debris field is so thick in some cases as that tsunami -- when you see pictures of the tsunami just carrying all of that debris when the water left it just dumped that debris. So you have very difficult situation for anyone who is searching for the missing. It's a very fluid situation. There's a lot of concerns on the ground.

KING: You sadly mention those debris fields and you know from past crises. As you get to day five and beyond there are victims buried under there and decomposing of the bodies adds to the public health risk.

You are north of this ring where people have been told don't go outside. But obviously as nuclear crisis continues, I assume anxieties are rising. You mentioned breakdowns in the supply network, breakdowns in the recovery network. There's a lot of criticism. I wonder what you hear from people on the ground about the communication from their own government and about the risks and what's happening at these nuclear plants.

COOPER: I think there are concerns that what people are being told is not necessarily what is occurring, particularly related to the nuclear issue. There is, I think, a growing credibility gap and a creeping concern that all of the information is not being given out.

I can tell you from being on the ground here, you hear conflicting reports. You hear sometimes contradictory statements. As your expert said just a few moments ago, this many days into it they are still dealing with all of the stuff, and they clearly do not have their hands around this.

And I think a lot of people in this country are thinking about and praying for those 50 or so workers who remain in that plant. God only knows what it is like for them. But I think there's real concern about what the information people are getting and how accurate it is.

You know, and bottom line is we don't know the situation. There's no -- a lot of it depends on the prevailing winds and where the winds happen to blow and where you happen to be in relation to that. So as someone who is searching for information just like everybody else on the ground here, you know, and everybody wants the latest information on what is safe, there may not be an answer to that question about where exactly is safe because a lot of it does depend on the wind and the details of exactly what's happening. I'm not sure we know the full story of what's really gone on.

KING: I'm not sure we're close to knowing what's going on. Anderson Cooper on the ground in northern Japan. Much more ahead on "AC 360" tonight. Thank you, Anderson.

And as we continue to remind you, breaking news, another fire at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Reactor number four, the second fire at that plant. I want to bring this down to show you another image of the plant itself. All six reactors at this complex now in varying degrees of distress.

As Anderson noted, we're not sure sometimes about the information we're getting from the government. It's important to note because Japanese culture is built on politeness and respect. So it was not unnoticed in the country today when Japan's prime minister complained that the operator of the Fukushima nuclear complex was not sharing information quickly enough.

The government set up a new joint command center was set up with the utility, but there are so many unanswered questions. We also know there are nuclear materials said to be at risk overheating, getting hotter in reactor number three.

As of yesterday they were worried about not only a possible full meltdown but a containment issue, a security issue inside the secure shell in reactor number two. Reactor number one, five, and six also not out of the woods yet.

What we do know is that about two dozen people so far have received treatment for what the government calls minor radiation exposure. What we don't know is how much more radiation is being released as we speak and will be released in the coming days, weeks, and perhaps months as officials try to stabilize this situation. A bit earlier I talked to our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta about the risks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: There are measurements of these radiation leaks and one of the numbers, numbers are important here, was 400 millisieverts. The reason that number is important is because it tells you how much radiation and also the likelihood that people are going to have any health problems as a result.

Just walking around doing the job that you do, you get some just from background radiation, a chest x-ray, a few more, a CAT scan you get a couple hundred millisieverts. This is 400, and it's being dispersed. Not worried about that high level that came back today.

The big question to your point is there's anxiety about what is known but even more anxiety about what is not known as of yet. Are these radiation levels going to continue to go up and spread further? What's the wind going to do with that radiation in particular? So that's what people are sort of holding their breath for.

KING: Holding their breath for. Let me ask you a question as a doctor and parent. If you lived within 50 miles of that complex trying to cool the rods and it's uncertain as to whether or not they will be successful, would you stay in that area?

GUPTA: Probably not if I could avoid it. It's a difficult thing because on one hand you don't want to overreact. On the other hand there is a fair amount of uncertainty here.

I wish, John, that there had been a lot more information forthcoming earlier on. There was almost a sense in the beginning that come on, folks, there's nothing to see here. Keep moving. And then as more information came at you, you realized there were three fires and explosions and radiation being vented and then the fire around the spent fuel rods that created radiation levels today.

One thing I want to point out is there's a thing called a personalized device that you can carry around. It gives you an idea of cumulative radiation levels, but it also has an alarm on here. So if I came in contact with radiation levels that were too high, it would alarm and I would react to that and try to decrease the time of my exposure to that radiation and increase distance and shield myself by getting into a building.

You are right, John, especially as a parent because kids are more vulnerable to this. If I could, I would get further away from that.

KING: And we have heard these iodine pills are a commodity and in some places a scarce commodity. How helpful can they be?

GUPTA: They can be helpful. If you look at Chernobyl, Ukraine, 25 years ago, one of the big concerns afterward, I mean within decades afterward was thyroid cancer. Think of it like this. Some of these radioactive particles could in fact be radioactive iodine. If they go into your body, one of the places they love to go is your thyroid gland.

So taking potassium iodine in the face of one of these exposures saturates your thyroid gland with a stable salt and prevents that radioactive iodine from getting in. It can be effective.

The key is to know when to take it. Not everyone should take it preventively. It should be taken in the face of some sort of exposure so that you can really diminish the impact. The commodity aspect has people going out to buy it and it's a little bit of that same anxiety and panic. No one recommended that yet here but I think people are hearing bits of information and trying to do what they think is best to protect themselves.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: We'll check back in with Dr. Gupta later as well. And ahead tonight, dramatic images of the tsunami and one American's 20 plus hour ordeal to find his girlfriend once the waters calmed.

Another audio problem there. Next, inside the Fukushima Daiichi complex with a nuclear expert who knows how this type of reactor works and the risks when the cooling systems collapse.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: More troubling breaking news out of Japan tonight. At this nuclear complex where all six reactors are in distress, tonight a new fire reported at reactor number four in an area where the spent fuel rods are kept. Those are huge used fuel rods still highly radioactive.

With us once again to assess this is Arnie Gunderson who consults with Vermont state government. You told us how familiar you are with the spent fuel rods. I want your assessment again for viewers we were told there was a fire there in the same area. Fire detected tonight. Someone saw flames. They believe it burned, and after about 30 minutes they could no longer see any more flames. Obviously there's a cooling issue there. What are the risks and what needs to be done urgently?

GUNDERSON: The urgent thing is you have to keep water going into that nuclear fuel pool. It's not being cooled. They are just pumping saltwater in and it's boiling off, almost like a pot on the stove. It will keep boiling off.

But you have to make up for what's boiling off. If the water drops and fuel becomes exposed, one, it causes a very high gamma ray exposure on site. We almost had this here in the United States at Dresden one back in the '90s where a fuel pool began to drain. And a calculation showed if that happened the entire site would have been uninhabitable.

So it's critical the water stay in that pool just for the sake of gamma rays that are shooting out of the fuel line site. Worse than that is the chance the fuel will catch fire because it's hot and the zircaloy which it's made of can combust.

The way this reactor is designed, these mark one reactors, they don't have a container around the spent fuel pole. So it's a real concern. The fire could liberate as much radio activity or even more than the accidents that are occurring at unit one, two, and three.

KING: Let's come back to that point, because we have six units in distress. And in three of them the issue is spent fuel rods which are not protected. They're not inside a secure containment shell. If you have one where you have a fire and two others with this issue, number one you assessed the threat pretty well. Are 50 people enough to handle six reactors in distress?

GUNDERSON: Normally one reactor will have 100. So there should be 600 to 700 people on the site. Basically you are saying ten persons per reactor. No. They must be doing one or two single critical things, and I hope one of those is pushing water into that fuel pool.

All of the other things that need to be done they've obviously determined that they can't afford the exposure to these 400 or 500 people that have been relieved. By sending people offsite, you can bring them in over the course of the next couple days and manage your dose to the personnel that are on site.

The standard is five ram per year for each of these guys. In an accident you can go higher. But still you don't want to overexpose your personnel. So my guess is they pulled back personnel and will bring them in very few at a time to just do the most critical things because they simply have a limited labor pool who is really familiar with that plant, and they don't want everybody to get an overexposure.

KING: I have a mock-up of the reactor here. We were showing you what spent rods look like. The questions about reactor number two yesterday were down in here, down here at the bottom where you have supplemental pools of water. We still have not got good questions. We know they said they were pumping water in and the level dropped. What does that tell you about everything you've seen and red and heard in number two where they thought they might have a full meltdown?

GUNDERSON: When the level dropped and when the pressure changed the way it did it was almost simultaneous with the large explosion. That tells me that the containment breached. The other two units one and three probably have minor leaks in their containment. Unit two has a major league in its containment. What's happening is they are pushing water in and steam is coming out, and with that is radioactive material. So unit number two is releasing radioactive material through the breach wherever it is.

KING: I'm showing a map here. This is satellite images of six of the reactors here, four in a row here and two over here. Four is where the fire is. A layman would think, fire, you see the flames. Explain the difference in the sense that if they are seeing flames here, if these are spent rods that are so hot that people see flames, describe the situation and temperature at that location.

GUNDERSON: There's two possibilities. I hope it's an oil fire in which case it will run out of oil and ultimately stop. But the more frightening possibility is that the zircaloy itself can burn, and that means it has reached over 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. When that happens it disintegrates and the fuel pellets themselves are exposed directly to the fire and to the air and to the air, and they volatilize.

So whatever radioactive material is in there with go volatile and lift up with smoke and into the atmosphere. The lucky thing, if there's one lucky thing in this event so far is that most of the time the wind has been blowing out to sea. If wind turns and goes the other way, I would suspect contamination not just in Japan but potentially Korea and China as well.

KING: Let me ask you one last question on that. As we talk about the assessment of the crisis right here at this plant and in complex with six reactors, there are 32 of these around the world. What questions would you ask tonight? Is this a once in a lifetime occurrence so if you have one of these plants anywhere else in the world no sweat, or do you ask serious questions tonight?

GUNDERSON: The mark one containment has been flawed since it was built. It's been known since 1972. The NRC expressed reservations about the mark one containment. In risk analysis in the '80s they felt there was a 90 percent chance that mark one containment would fail. My opinion is that this is a flawed design and you can't turn all 32 of them off tomorrow, but we should go about eliminating those mark one reactors.

KING: Mr. Gunderson, we appreciate your help and insight. We'll keep in touch as we try to get more information about this fire at reactor number four tonight and all six in distress at that one plant. We'll keep in touch on that issue and go back to the region for the latest as well.

And also ahead tonight, an American teacher in Japan desperately searches for his girlfriend. The town is usually 15 minutes away. Not after the tsunami.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Survivors in Japan's earthquake and tsunami describe what they felt and saw with a mix of horror and awe. Earthquake veterans say they knew immediately this one had more punch and those lucky enough to hear tsunami warnings and get to high ground or to high floors, well, they struggled to find words to describe what's followed -- waves as high as 30 feet, unfathomable destruction.

Look at this.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

KING: You watch the destruction here. It is just numbing. It is numbing to watch entire buildings, cars just moving and floating away, all the debris in front of it all. The quake, the tsunami hit hardest, of course, in northern Japan, places Kuji. It's a small fishing town where much of the fleet, about 80 boats, destroyed by the waves.

Twenty-four-year-old Indiana native, Zack Branham, works there as a teacher and rode out the tsunami on the top floor of the city hall. His girlfriend works in the town normally about a 15-minute drive away, Noda (ph). But there was no phone service after the quake.

Three times, Branham was turned away from Noda Friday night because downed power lines and other problems may get in there, unsafe and impossible. But early Saturday, Zack tried again.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZACK BRANHAM, KUJI CITY, JAPAN: I just was lucky to actually sneak my way past the persons directing the traffic. I just pulled my hat down over my face and just kept walking in behind some emergency workers. And hopes at that point because the water had gone down and knowing my way around the village pretty well, I thought, you know, I could -- I could navigate my way in.

Still not having any word, though, once I made my way into the main street of Noda, it was rather a horrific scene. It means that complete houses were just washed away, washed into bits. Cars were completely flipped over all around. You look -- you know, there's children's toys, there's clothings, there's television, there are just personal belongings everywhere -- in no way resembled the village, this cute little quaint village in which, you know, Georgia and I very much loved. It wasn't that anymore. It was one large, muddy destructive mess.

And without being able to contact her, you know, it was really hard, but I was able to follow some of the military personnel and some of the emergency workers in. I kind of fell into ranks behind them and they had worked their way -- back way more of a trail into the backside of Noda.

And once I finally got into there after navigating through quite a lot of mud and, you know, wrecked homes and et cetera, I was able to work my way to her apartment where she wasn't there. Worked my way from her apartment to (INAUDIBLE), her elementary school, she wasn't there. I went to where a kindergarten she taught once, the kindergarten was completely gone. When I saw the kindergarten, I really started to get scared, because it was completely gone at this point. And from there, I was able to finally work my way to her junior high school she teaches. And this was after about solid three and 3 1/2 hours of just continuous hiking throughout, you know, all of the destruction. And, luckily, while I was there, I was able to run into some guys that she'd worked with.

KING: And they knew where she was?

BRANHAM: Yes. Yes.

KING: And so, describe the scene when you finally find her after, what, 24 hours, 20, 24 hours into your search by now?

BRANHAM: Yes. It was -- it was pretty -- first, both of us were exhausted. But, you know, it was just really kind of even hard to describe. I didn't ever want to let my mind go to a dark place and neither did Georgia, but for her, she had just spent the last few hours of that morning cutting up tablecloths to actually going to be used for covers for dead persons that had been recovered at that point. So, she had a pretty horrific morning as well.

And so, by the time we actually found each other, you know, we just couldn't let go of each other. It was really hard to even just like let her out of my sight. It's been -- for the last few days, it's been hard to even let her out of my sight, you know?

KING: How did she get - how did she get involved in cutting up the tablecloths? Was it just the community came together to have to deal with the horror around them?

BRANHAM: Any and all able bodies were really, you know, asked to help. Georgia included being a city employee. So, it was just kind of responsibility that was thrust on her rather than asked of her.

KING: It has to be a tough responsibility for someone who came to teach and to be part of a community, but to be a teacher and to be doing something like that -- what kind of impact has that had?

BRANHAM: It's -- you know, it's been rather kind of surreal, truth be told. But as a whole, you know, I think it was really tough. You know, Saturday night, once we were able to finally work our way back into Kuji and we were very lucky to go to one of our friend's Kenji Hiriyama's (ph) house here in Kuji. She has invited all the other ELTs, English teachers, of the area to his home to stay the night for warm food and warm place to sleep.

You know, for Georgia especially when we got here, you know, she didn't want to talk about it. And we knew that everyone was going to ask questions. And for her, it was very hard to even really describe what she had gone through because she herself was unable to really assess, you know, the true magnitude of it all.

You know, it's just been really hard really for us without, you know, true news broadcasts, et cetera -- as a whole, like I said, it's surreal. It's really hard for any of us to really, you know, assess the situation or to be able to describe it fully.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: We thank Zack for his time and we wish him well after that ordeal. We're glad he's reunited with his girlfriend.

When we come back, live back to the region. Remember, breaking news tonight: another fire at one of six reactors under distress about 140 miles north of Tokyo. We'll get the latest from the scene. Also, the latest on some recovery efforts.

And let me help, before the break, put this into context. We often call this the worst nuclear crisis in the world since Chernobyl. Well, the International Atomic Energy Agency has its own scale of major accidents. It now says today that this accident in Japan at the moment rates sixth, six out of seven, a serious accident. Chernobyl rated at seven back in 1986, Three Mile Island in 1979 was a five. So, for now, and this is still unfolding, of course, six reactors still in distress, the IAEA rates Japan as a six out of seven.

Our live coverage continues just after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The Japanese government dealing with so many emergencies at the moment, all six reactors in one complex in varying stages of distress. That is a big priority, especially with a new fire tonight.

Also, as we move into day five, it is Wednesday morning now in Asia, the odds are dwindling. The odds are dwindling. We need to be honest about that, that survivors can be found. But still, the search continues especially up in northern Japanese towns closest to the epicenter.

In Ofunato, tonight, CNN's Brian Todd is there. Brian is with an American team from northern Virginia.

And, Brian, any luck today on this tough, tough, tough search?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, so far, no success that we measured by pulling live people from the rubble. They have been working now for about a day and a half full time on the ground here. No survivors pulled from the rubble yet, but they are working very tirelessly to try to do that. They think that they -- you know, they can some have success if they just keep pressing because they know from experience in Haiti, New Zealand and elsewhere that people can survive a few days if they find a pocket, a void in a collapsed building or a piece of rubble they can hang there for a few days and survive. And that's what they're counting on.

They got dog teams here, listening devices, cameras, heavy hammers -- jack hammers. They're working with all sorts of tools to try to get at them. But a couple complications have set in. A snowfall occurred overnight. That's making it a little more treacherous for the rescuers. And we've had three major aftershocks just since we've been here. Over my right shoulder, you can see a tractor trailer truck that was just lifted and placed up on a building. So, if an aftershock occurs, that's just the kind of danger that you're dealing with here, John.

KING: And, Brian, you're with a team that has done this so many times before. And they understand the clicking clock. What is their sense as you move in? This was a Friday afternoon quake. It is now Wednesday morning in Japan.

What is their morale as they know their odds are dwindling?

TODD: The morale is very good because they do know that despite the odds, you know, dwindling as time passed, no one is under illusions that things are going to turn out -- you know, that there's going to be a great miracle here. But they also know that, you know, again if people can find a void, a pocket in a building, they can get to them and they communicate with them from the outside. They're optimistic that they can try to do that.

But, again, no one is under any illusions after more than four days now have passed that they can find a lot of people alive. They are pressing very, very hard. I just talked to a Chinese rescue official there working alongside the Americans and the British and they are working very hard as well.

These Chinese officials told me that the people in this town only had about a 20-minute warning after the earthquake occurred that the tsunami was coming. They had to get to higher ground again no telling how really many of them did it at this point.

KING: And, Brian, as you've been reporting to us, we've been showing some of the many still photographs you filed into us. Fabulous reporting. Stay safe and we wish you luck. And we certainly wish those teams luck in the hours ahead.

Brian Todd for us tonight live in Ofunato in northern Japan.

You see Brian right there in the front of it. There's a search and rescue and recovery effort. And then there's search and rescue effort -- excuse me. And then a recovery effort, and the nuclear challenge facing the Japanese government.

So, a bit earlier tonight, I talked to James Lee Witt. He was the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency back in Bill Clinton's presidency. He now runs a disaster response consulting firm. And I asked him his assessment of what we're seeing in Japan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: If you were in charge of this operation in Japan right now, what would your biggest questions be?

JAMES LEE WITT, CEO, WITT ASSOCIATES: Well, you know, I would want to make sure they had everything in place not only in the recovery efforts, with putting grid maps in place and making sure they covered all of the grids and making sure that people, you know, that had food and water and the medical supplies they need and the shelters. And then also, I would advise them to start a team of looking at developing the recovery plan, a long-term recovery plan, because that's going to be critical, too, with all of that debris.

And, John, they are going to have a lot of different hazardous materials in those piles of debris and stuff that's going to have to be separated. So, they need to start that process as soon as possible. But I know now they have more worries than that to deal with. But I think that the initial response, they've done pretty good.

KING: And if there is or if there can be a playbook, a guide book for something like this -- I mean, what are you looking for? What is day five? If you're look at day five, is it in some cases, it's again a sad point. I remember this in Banda Aceh after the tsunami, the decomposition of bodies that are buried under the water and in the debris and it's a horrible, horrible scene.

Is there -- are you at a point now where you're starting to worry about an additional public health aspect of this?

WITT: There's no doubt about that. They need to stay on top of that as well. I know when I was in Indonesia and Thailand and Sri Lanka -- and that is a -- that is one of the top priorities they have to deal with pretty soon.

KING: This obviously has happened in Japan. But if you were the top disaster official for the United States government, what would you be doing about U.S. nuclear preparedness? For example, these plants -- you know, cooling systems are designed to have multiple redundancies and, obviously, that has failed in some of them. There are similar plants here in the United States.

Would you be recommending to the president right now a top to bottom review for the U.S. nuclear industry or something in between?

WITT: I would -- I would -- I would want to work with the governors and just say, OK, you have two plants in your state, that's 40 years old or older. And I would work with the state and the governor's office and say, OK, let's review this very closely with our nuclear regulatory commission and see if there's any problems but also make sure that we put in any mitigating things that we could do to keep it safe.

KING: And do you think specifically to any plants that have seismic risks in the United States? Again, this is a massive quake, 9.0, but the redundant systems are supposed to survive that and whether it was the quake or the tsunami, they did not in some of these reactors in this case. Would you be especially putting those places on alert, saying, "You know what, we need to rethink this"?

WITT: Absolutely. If there's any of the plants that's in fault areas that are close enough to fault areas that could be damaged, then they should be looked at and making sure all of the measures are there that would keep this from happening. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Conversation with James Lee Witt a bit earlier today.

When we come back, we're going to go back to top story, the breaking news tonight. Again, updated information on a fire, another fire at that nuclear complex where all six reactors are in various stages of distress.

As we follow the breaking news and amid all the tears and the nuclear fears, our correspondents like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, also, they were finding stories of remarkable survival.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: We saw those cars being tossed around like toys and people said that it looked like a movie. I heard that over and over again. There were people in a lot of those vehicles. There were people in those cars.

This man that I met, Mr. Ayabashi (ph), was one of those guys. His car spinning around, getting hit several different directions. He eventually is trying to break out by using his right hand to try and smash the window while the water is increasing in his car. He's drowning. He eventually was able to open the door, but the force of the water is so strong that it pins the door back on and he's just stuck.

He's 63 years old. He's retired. He doesn't have much in the way of resources or support network. He doesn't even remember how he got saved. But now, he's in the hospital.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Live picture here. This is Ofunato, Japan. You see the debris still in the streets five days after. Hill is here around up here, but down here in this little valley, the destruction from the tsunami. You see the debris everywhere, this town where rescue operations are underway as we move into day five.

Hopes of finding survivors are dwindling, but people are still looking -- just stunning the devastation everywhere you look on the building. You find scars from something hitting it as the waters came through. We heard ambulances in that shot a short time ago.

As we're watching this unfold, the search and rescue effort -- hopefully a search and rescue effort, we're also watching a dramatic breaking story tonight. Another fire -- another fire at a nuclear complex where all six reactors are under some stages of distress.

Arnie Gundersen is back with us. He's a nuclear expert.

And I want to talk to you, sir, of that reactor number four. We know that the fire was up here, near the roof area. We know just below that roof are the spent fuel rods. You described earlier on the program just how dangerous and risky this could be.

We know among the options that were being debated -- and we're told on Japanese public television, at least at the moment, the option has been taken off the table was they need to get water up here somehow to cool these spent fuel rods. They were thinking about using helicopters. Good idea or bad idea?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN, NUCLEAR SAFETY ADVOCATE: That's a really bad idea. I'm glad they took it off the table. The problem is that the gap between the fuel is really, really critical. And I'm going use my hands here.

The gap is designed to be whatever, but if it's hit by water, it could push the gap close together. And what that could do is cause a nuclear criticality. It could cause a nuclear chain reaction to occur. Then all bets are off.

You know, we've been dealing so far with decay heat from an old nuclear criticality, but the fuel pool itself could begin to have a chain reaction if the water hit it too hard and pushed the fuel too close together. Not a good thing. I'm glad they stopped.

KING: So, Mr. Gundersen, help me. I'm going to change the image here on the wall. I'm going to bring up a different image.

I want you to tell me that we know earlier in the other reactors, reactor number two, for example, the problem was down here near the core. They were pumping ocean water in through this pump from the bottom, if you can see. There's a pump line coming in here. But the spent rods are up higher in the building, up here.

If you don't want to use helicopters, what are your options to gets the water up there?

GUNDERSEN: That's a really good question. You know, what I've heard this afternoon and this evening was that the building is too radioactive to have people in. So, my guess is they'll have to go in with some kind of a ladder truck, a fire truck with a really long ladder and try to squirt the water in through the ladder.

KING: How much time do they have?

GUNDERSEN: I don't think the -- excuse me?

KING: How much time do they have before this is catastrophic?

GUNDERSEN: It can boil dry in a day. So they have, you know, on the order of 24 hours to straighten it out.

KING: On the order of 24 hours. And if it boils dry, what happens?

GUNDERSEN: The fuel catches fire. The steel, the zircaloy begins to burn and the radiation within the fuel volatilizes and becomes an aerosol. It becomes airborne. KING: Arnie Gundersen, it's a sober assessment. We appreciate your expertise. You've had experience building these spent fuel rods. We appreciate your expertise tonight. I can't tell you I enjoy what I'm hearing, but I'm glad we're getting it from someone who knows this well.

Mr. Gundersen, thank you very much.

We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, back to the breaking news -- again, another fire at the endangered nuclear complex in Japan tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The search for loved ones, other images there, dramatic images. Many of you have asked how you can help. There's a way right there -- CNN.com/Impact. CNN.com/Impact, the way you can help if you want to help. You can give to a number of agencies that can help people around the world here.

We're continuing to track a major nuclear crisis, part of the breaking news story in Japan tonight. We're all on top of that. Six reactors under distress, one had a fire tonight.

Our coverage continues right now "IN THE ARENA."