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Japan's Nuclear Crisis Worsens

Aired March 16, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks, Wolf, and good evening, everyone. Tonight Japan's nuclear crisis is taking an alarming turn for the worse, and there are questions about whether the Japanese government is hiding or is blind to the full extent of this catastrophic.

Officials acknowledge a second reactor at the troubled Fukushima complex likely is ruptured and that more radioactive steam is escaping. Underscoring the deepening crisis, Japan's emperor made an unprecedented nationally televised address, saying he's deeply worried about the nuclear emergency but urging the Japanese people to stay calm.

And this also gives you pause. After days of supporting the Japanese government's response, the Obama administration urged Americans in the America to keep at least 50 miles away from the Fukushima complex. That's more than four times the 12-mile evacuation ordered by Japan.

And it gets worse. A top U.S. nuclear official says conditions at the six reactor complexes are far more dire than the Japanese have acknowledged. One alarming example, U.S. nuclear regulators believe the pool that is supposed to cool highly radioactive spent fuel rods in the number four reactor has boiled completely dry, creating a severe radiation and contamination risk that could complicate efforts to prevent catastrophe at the other nearby areas.


GREGORY JACZKO, CHAIRMAN NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION: We believe radiation levels are high which could impact the ability to take corrective measures.


KING: Just look at this new satellite image. It is stunning and sobering. The buildings housing one, three and four clearly damaged, and steam, most likely radioactive steam in the after photo, leaking from units two and three. The escalating nuclear crisis comes as the death top continues to climb as 4,314 now confirmed dead and as many as 8,606 still listed as missing more than five full days later.

Let's begin our assessment of the risks and options in this nuclear emergency with Anna Coren live in Tokyo tonight. And, Anna, on this day we're hearing about bringing in trucks with cannons to pump water. They're trying desperately to get power restored at the nuclear complex. Sounds like desperate moves in desperate times.

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, it is desperate times. I mean, I don't think we can be alarmist about this situation, but at the same time no one can underestimate the severity of it.

And I think the reason why things have changed overnight here is because up until, you know, this morning, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Japan is taking the right steps, in agreement with the way Japan was handling it. And now they have come out and as you have said have been downplaying the situation, haven't been giving all the information that they think should be available.

So what we know is that these workers have to cool these plants, these reactors, these spent fuel rods. If they're exposed for too long, they emit radioactivity, radioactive material. So that is the danger.

Water cannons are being brought in to pump and spray water. That is something they have said will take place. They had planned to bring helicopters over and dump water into these pools, but that was scrapped because of high winds and high levels of radiation.

Now, John, there are some 180 workers, it started off with a skeleton staff of just 50. It has increased to 180 workers. They are inside that plant battling explosion, battling fires, and trying desperately to pump that water in. And they are the people who are trying to contain this situation.

KING: Anna, help our viewers in the United States understand probably not familiar with the Japanese political structure but the emperor made an unprecedented -- never before have the Japanese people seen the emperor deliver a nationally delivered address. If there's nothing to underscore how ominous this is, that has to be it.

COREN: That's right. We're here in the bureau when the emperor came on television and it was an amazing scene because he does not do this. He may come out once a year and deliver an address to the people wishing them happy New Year, similar to what the queen does in the United Kingdom, but not here in Japan.

So this was the first time he has come on television and addressed his people in a time of crisis, and that certainly, you know, explains the gravity of the situation. He said that he was deeply concerned about the nuclear situation and that he was thinking of his people.

But, you know, Japan is a very private and proud country, and this is where I think that the cultural difference is really confusing people. In other parts of the world there's so much more open, so much more transparent, but here in Japan they're trying to contain the situation themselves, but for the outside community, the international community, that is really baffling, really confusing.

KING: Anna Coren tracking the alarming turn in the nuclear crisis in Japan. We'll keep in touch with Anna throughout the hour. With radiation escaping from the Fukushima complex, winds and weather critical elements in any assessment of the risks and in developing emergency response plans. This is a wind map from the meteorological agency, and winds are moving towards the ocean which is a best case scenario with Tokyo just 150 miles to the south.

Wind isn't the only problem. Snow and freezing temperatures are coming in which complicates the recovery efforts. CNN's Anderson Cooper joins us now live from Tokyo. Anderson, I want to get to the recovery effort and the continuing -- it's a miracle at this point -- rescue attempts.

But let's start with the mixed signal, the conflicting signals from the Japanese government. It has to be unsettling to the people, they are a proud, quiet people but have to be getting pretty frustrated with their government.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST, "AC 360": Everyone is being polite but there is deep concern and a lack of confidence, many people I've talked to have in the leadership at this point. You got to remember, I mean, you know, we're all giving out information and everybody is talking about what's happening. All of that information when it boils down to it, all of it is coming from this private Japanese company which runs this plant. All the information that the government is giving out is coming from this private company.

So it's not as if you have a situation where the Japanese government is overseeing and dealing on the ground with what is happening at this plant. Remember, there is a small number of workers there. It's now been raised to about 180 rotating through but, again, the flow of information from my understanding comes from this Japanese -- from this private company.

That's a situation which is extraordinarily troubling, and we're all just reminded of that when you have the energy secretary and others coming out and saying we're not getting much information. We don't really know -- the energy secretary today said we don't know what's going on the ground at that plant. That's an extraordinarily troubling statement.

It's an honest statement, and I think people here at least appreciate that honesty, because what we're hearing from Japanese officials and what we're hearing, well, basically just from Japanese officials is kind of speaking around it and kind of double-speak.

And there has now been created a real credibility gap in what the public statements that are being made. And I don't know if anyone I've talked to who say they believe what they are hearing about the situation, and that becomes extraordinarily troubling when, you know, you're watching this thing around the clock and when people here in Tokyo -- remember, Tokyo is not tsunami damage and a little earthquake damage so it's not as if people are struggling in their day-to-day life like up in the northeast where concerns about food and water can at least distract one.

In Tokyo everybody is focused on what is happening in this nuclear plant and what way the wind is blowing, and so for the Japanese government not to be making statements which are clear and declarative, and that certainly not in the nature of the Japanese government or in the history of the Japanese government, but this is a time when people want transparency and honesty, and most of the people I talked to don't feel they are getting that at this point.

KING: Not getting it. It was a weak government to begin with. This is a major credibility test.

Let's take a minute. We are justifiably spending most of our time looking at the nuclear emergency and trying to get better information but from day five into day six, I mentioned the better weather conditions. Have we moved on simply to recovery now in the northern part of country you just spoke of?

COOPER: You know, I certainly don't want to be somebody who's making pronouncements about whether people should be hopeful or not. I can tell you this -- those debris fields are extraordinarily difficult. This is not Haiti where there was an earthquake and things fell and you kind of new where people were, knew where to look. These are debris fields that have been carried great distances, miles even by the water and then as the water left been deposited there.

So even if you know where people live in a town, that's not where you're going to find their bodies if they've perished. Their bodies may be miles away underneath, you know, 15 feet of debris.

So what search and rescue teams are finding is that in a lot of these areas it is extraordinarily slow going. They don't have in many cases real heavy earth-moving equipment, debris-moving equipment. They're probably not enough cadaver dogs for them to use. And just moving around in these debris fields is risky for them because you have exposed nails and glass and all sorts of things.

So you've got to do it systemically and very carefully. That takes a lot of time. And certainly if anybody is alive in those debris fields, you know, I mean these temperatures are freezing cold now at night. You have now snow on the ground. This is just one thing after another compounding this.

Also you got to remember, John, you know, a lot of fatalities we're seeing from the water and impacts of being hit in the water with this debris. So, again, it's not a building has collapsed and there may be an air pocket. If there are people who had been carried by the water over great distances amongst debris, it's very unlikely that they will be alive at this point. And so it's obviously more of a recovery effort, but again even that is very slow going.

KING: A sober note there, the recovery effort under way at a time the country is facing an unprecedented nuclear crisis. Anderson Cooper live for us in Tokyo. Anderson, thank you. And Anderson will be back in a couple of hours "AC 360." You want to watch that for further developments.

Let's take a moment to reinforce an important point. This is the nuclear evacuation zone put in place by the Japanese government. First it called for anyone within about six miles of the Fukushima complex to leave. Then it was extended to 20 kilometers. That is about 12.5 miles. You see it right there.

And anyone in the next 10 kilometers, another six miles or so is being told to stay indoors, close all your windows, don't use the air- conditioning vents. So Japan's government -- Japan's government says it's safe once you get about 12 miles away. Well, here's what the White House now says.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:: American citizens within a 50-mile radius of that plant should evacuate beyond the 50- mile mark.


KING: So why is the United States suddenly taking a more urgent view of this crisis and sounding a lot more alarmed than Japan's government?

Sharon Squassoni is the director and senior fellow at the Proliferation Prevention Program at the center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. And, Sharon, it is stunning. Japan is a key ally of the United States, and there was a switch thrown today in Washington. The administration coming right out and essentially telling them that what the Japanese have been telling their people is an understatement of the severity of the situation.

SHARON SQUASSONI, NUCLEAR EXPERT, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Well, the United States is following other countries who have been drawing back their foreign personnel. So I think if people, if American citizens are there and don't need to be there, they should certainly get out of harm's way.

The Japanese may interpret it as a negative sign, but the U.S. is also doing everything it can to help by having its warships in the area, by sending Nuclear Regulatory Commission personnel to assist them.

KING: But is there not a message to the Japanese people or maybe the question is better put, when you hear the U.S. energy secretary saying there's at least a partial meltdown or you hear the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission saying that, you know, this is worse, this is worse than people are being told, is there not a message to the Japanese people that perhaps their government is keeping information to them or is blind from the severity of this?

SQUASSONI: I think it's a little unsettling, but what we have to remember is there is a lot of uncertainty about what's going on. If you think back to Three-Mile Island, there was a time when U.S. officials were only getting their information from Metropolitan Ed which was running the Three-Mile Island reactor. As things go on, we'll get additional information.

But it's a crisis situation where we're not sure if all the gauges are working. You know, there's a skeleton crew. They're battling challenges at four, five, and six reactors. So it's a very tense situation.

KING: And when you hear them say maybe we can bring in some water cannons tonight, maybe we can hopefully final get some power restored to that site, we're five going on six days later given the time difference -- it's already the morning, Thursday morning in Asia. Do you get a sense that they're still making this up as they go along? I'm not saying that critically. Or do you get any sense that they're getting more organized and capable of responding?

SQUASSONI: It's hard to say. I mean, it's a miracle in some ways that things haven't gone worse more quickly because, frankly, when you're dealing with radioactive material, things can spiral out of control very quickly. That hasn't happened here.

But it is a little unsettling that they don't have probably a little more organization. That's probably the result of the earthquake and the tsunami, the problems in getting electrical power to the site. The whole scenario is very troubling.

KING: Sharon Squassoni will stay with us.

And still ahead in this program, Dr. Sanjay Gupta live from Japan. Dr. Gupta will help us assess the radiation risk. Next up, the nuts and bolts of the Fukushima reactors, six reactors in distress, two of them with possible ruptures.


KING: Confusing and often conflicting information complicates, severely complicates our effort to understand the depth and risks of Japan's nuclear crisis. And adding to alarm statements from top Obama administration officials that they too are getting mixed signals and conflicting information from Japan.

And those new U.S. assessments that the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi complex is more grave, U.S. officials say, than the Japanese people are being told.


JACZKO: We believe that there is no water in the spent fuel pool known as number four. I would say that it is my great hope that the information that we have is not accurate. I would hope for the sake of everyone that the situation is not at the state that we think it is.


KING: Let's take what we do know and get a risk analysis from two people who understand the technology and danger. Still with us, Sharon Squassoni from the Center for Strategic International Studies, and back with us tonight, Arnie Gundersen, who has worked on reactors identical at the Fukushima complex. And Mr. Gundersen, when you have officials in the United States government saying at reactor number four, the pool where the spent fuel rods are kept completely drained, those rods at least one point were dry and exposed. They talk about two possible ruptures of two of the other reactors, number two and number three.

We've had these conversations for the last couple of nights about the severity of this. What is your sense today compared on yesterday?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN, NUCLEAR SAFETY ADVOCATE: I think the United States made the right choice it getting the evacuation boundary out to 50 miles at least for our personnel.

But, you know, the fuel pool issue has two problems. The first is now that the fuel is getting hot and whether or not it catches fire, it is releasing volatile gaseous radioactive material. That is really bad in a cloud form.

The second thing that's more critical, there are gamma rays being emitted. That water used to shield those gamma rays so essentially there's a gamma ray field on the site that's going to affect how well the people can do their work onsite. It wasn't bad enough to be in the suit and all that, now they're going to be exposed to a lot more gamma rays. It's compounded the problem a lot.

KING: Compounded the problem a lot. Sharon, you have visited nuclear facilities in Japan, not this one. But I think we can show people what a spent fuel rod pool looks like, and it is on the top of the building here, on the top of the building. It's not like the main reactor core where it's inside lead or steel. These rods are kept in a pool of water.

If the water drains out as Mr. Gundersen was just saying, you have this highly radioactive material and it is releasing gas into the air. It could be on fire as well. Japan is one of the most advanced nations in the world. How can this stuff be left in a bathtub on a roof so that if something like this happens, it is so exposed.

SQUASSONI: Keeping spent fuel in a pool is how everybody does it across the world. We do it -- the fuel itself has --

KING: Across the United States it's in a place that is so unsecure that if there was, god forbid, an earthquake or a plane crash, a terrorist attempt, is it just sitting up in the roof if the building gets destroyed and the water gets shut down and power gets shut down could this happen in the United States?

SQUASSONI: Well, this is a design feature of some of these boiling water reactors. You'll see a lot of variation across the United States for where these spent fuel pools are. And they are designed to withstand a range of dangers.

In this case what you may have is, you know, you have the roof blown off and that exposes the fuel. But generally I guess the expectation is that you can keep filling up that pond with water. Generally there is about at least 30 feet of water above those fuel rods and all of that acts as radiation shielding and cooling.

And the problem is as that water goes down, you're going to have a range of radiation risks. And if there is a fire, you won't only get those gases. You'll have particulate matter and that's a very serious situation indeed.

KING: Mr. Gundersen, I want to try the best we can with the information we have to get this into context. We have the number three reactor damaged to the containment vessel, mixed signals as to how severe. The number two reactor, Secretary Chu our energy secretary says there is at least a partial meltdown going on there. Exposed rods, fuel rods in at least three of the six reactors.

Are we ticking toward a solution here or are we ticking toward a catastrophe?

GUNDERSEN: We have not seen the light at the end of the tunnel yet. It's still dark in this tunnel and I really don't know how long we have to walk.

You know, this design, we have 23 of them in the U.S. just like this, so essentially about 20 percent of the U.S. nuclear reactors are just like this. And they've been grandfathered in. Everybody realized as time went on that that was not a great idea, but these plants have been allowed to continue with that design and basically --

KING: As we pray for the Japanese people and we hope their government and their utility gets a handle on this are you saying do you think the United States government should be doing anything different and reassessing them and temporarily shutting them down just to have a deep breath and take a look?

GUNDERSEN: Well, I actually I like what President Merkel did over in Germany. And the plants that were -- they have several of this design, and she said let's shut them down for a couple of months.

It's not a big deal this time of year. It's the lowest time of load for the year. If you shut them down in March and April and early May it doesn't affect it. There's plenty of power on the grid. So it wouldn't hurt America to do that. And it might allow us to take a breath and look at these plants objectively and see what we can do to improve them.

KING: A lot more ground to cover. We'll ask Arnie Gundersen and Sharon Squassoni to stay with us.

Up next, though, Sanjay Gupta tells us what people in Japan, what risks they have right now with all this radiation.

Also, all the worry and concern is keeping people indoors. They're hearing that from their government or persuading many to go someplace safer. CNN Kyung Lah shows us parts of Tokyo virtually deserted.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KYUNG LAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Normally there are people lining up for this popular restaurant. Over here you would normally see people also lining up to get food to carry out. You can see there is no one here. This is highly unusual for the middle of the day on a Wednesday.

Walk around over here and this is one of the only ATMs in the area. There is normally people lining up all down this street, but you can see there's no line today.

A country on edge and on the move, away from the brewing threat to the north. Kyung Lah, CNN, Tokyo.



KING: Tonight there are fears as well as some evidence that wind and water may be starting to spread the radiation leaking from the Fukushima nuclear plant. Take a look at this graph of radiation measurements right here taken since Friday at the plant's perimeter -- a little bump on Saturday, more bumps on Sunday and Monday. You see the explosion at reactor number two there on Tuesday, the radiation levels really start to spike. Two big releases then, more -- one more early today.

Water is a problem, too. Measurements taken earlier today show higher, although not dangerous, levels of radioactive cesium and some iodine in the water supply right around that nuclear complex.

Our chief national correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is monitoring radiation levels in Tokyo, about 150 miles away from that complex. And he has tonight some disturbing readings.

Let's tart there, Sanjay. You have your own device to help you understand not only what's happening but whether you and the citizens there are at risk. What can you tell us?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, we're carrying these pocket dosimeters, John. I think people may have started to understand what these are. These basically tell two things: how much radiation you've been exposed to since you've been wearing it and also it will give a little alarm if you're suddenly exposed to a particularly high level of radiation, in this case, what is known as one sievert.

Now, interestingly, my levels quadrupled over the last 36 hours that I've been wearing this, which in and of itself may sound concerning. But to put it all into context, it's actually not that much higher than just the levels you would get with background radiation. It is higher for sure and that makes sense given that if you measuring the air outside here in Tokyo, official reports say it's 20 times higher in terms of radiation levels than it normally is.

So, radiation levels higher in the air over here. That's being reflected in our personal dosimeters. But all of that together is -- John, I want to be careful here, all of that together does not indicate in any way that it would have an impact on human health. This of it like this: the amount of radiation that I would get in a year instead I'm getting it in about a month and a half. So, it's the same amount of radiation, a shorter time span, John.

KING: OK. And your caution and perspective is very valuable. Let me ask this way. If you quadrupled in the last 36 hours, if it takes a couple of weeks, a couple of months to get this containment effort under control at this complex and there is a release of consistent levels to what we've seen over the past several days, what happens then? You've mentioned you've been exposed to radiation you might get in a year. What happens if people are exposed to this for seven more months? Does it then become a risk?

GUPTA: Well, yes. And a couple things to keep in mind here. First of all, radiation levels go up and the radiation levels in surrounding cities, even as far away as Tokyo here, go up as a result of that, then obviously, everyone is going to be getting more radiation.

Also, as part of that, the radiation could get into other parts of the supply chain. So, it could get into the water. There's been some concern about that. It could get into the food. There's been concern about that as well.

So, how it all sort of interplays in the human body, I think, you know, it starts to compound. Your question -- I think the point you're alluding to is very valid here. If it continues or the levels go up, then I think you start getting into some real concerns about longer-term radiation risks.

And, John, let me for just one second distinguish acute or short- term risks versus long term risks. Short-term risks is what everyone is focused on. That's from extremely high levels of radiation, much higher than we're seeing now, exposed even at a one-time dose to somebody. That can cause the nausea, the vomiting, the skin changes, the bleeding and depression in the immune system.

The longer-term changes are more silent. I mean, for decades down the roads, has what you've been exposed to increase your risk of cancer? That's the real question and concern at levels that are, you know, slightly higher than they are now.

KING: I want to ask you, lastly, Dr. Gupta about -- there's 180 of them now. There were 50 -- only 50 for awhile, about the people who are the heroes, and they're attempting to be greater heroes in this crisis. They're in that complex and they are working, trying to cool these reactors.

What about the radiation they're exposed to?

GUPTA: It's kind of heartbreaking to think about it, John. I mean, I -- you know, we don't know the levels inside the plant. You can start to do math, calculate how much shielding is in the plant and figure out the levels are this high outside the plant. They must be, obviously, higher, much higher inside the plant. So, these people are exposed. They potentially are being exposed to, you know, levels that are going to be lethal in the longer term. So, it's heartbreaking to think about, you know, wearing suit, walking around possibly by dark, carrying flashlights, wearing respirators and, you know, these people, they know the deal. They know the risks, they know the radiation levels.

So, they're not walking into this sort of not knowing. So, even as they're doing this work, they may be looking at dosimeters or looking at the levels and recognizing just how much exposure they're getting. So, it is -- it is remarkable work, you know, by people who know just how grave these risks are.

KING: Invaluable perspective and context from our Dr. Sanjay Gupta in Tokyo. Sanjay, thanks.

Another worry is where the global winds will carry this radiation. So far, winds over Japan have been light-blowing from the west out to the sea. If they become stronger, computer models, and you can watch this play out, they show that current looping -- winds looping around the world would take more than three days to reach the West Coast. That's one reason most experts say any radiation that ultimately reached North America would be very, very minimal. But we'll keep an eye on that.

Still ahead here, we'll go back live to Japan for the latest on the nuclear crisis and the recovery efforts.

And next, the day's other breaking news, including what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told our Wolf Blitzer about a serious strain in U.S.-Saudi relations.


KING: Welcome back.

If you're just joining us, here's the latest news you need to know right now. Crews are preparing to use a water cannon to try cooling the exposed nuclear fuel rods at Japan's crippled power plant.

After a day of heavy fighting in Libya, Moammar Gadhafi's forces claim they captured a key rebel city. That city, Ajdabiya, controls the roads to the rebel's main stronghold of Benghazi.

Bahrain's security forces attacked pro-democracy demonstrators today, chasing them from city streets and according to witnesses -- listen to this -- even knocking down hospital doors and beating doctors and patients.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the help Bahrain is getting with this crackdown.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Did you support the decision by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send ground forces into Bahrain to fight the opposition?

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Absolutely not. And we find what is happening in Bahrain to be alarming. We have spoken out against it, both publicly and privately. We have made it clear to the highest levels of the government of Bahrain that what they are doing is pursuing the wrong track, that there is no answer to the demands for political and economic reform through a security crackdown.


KING: Secretary Clinton is now in Tunisia and Wolf Blitzer is traveling with her and joins us live from Tunis.

Wolf, absolutely not, with no hesitation, clear criticism from Secretary Clinton of the Saudi behavior. This is a serious breach in a very, very important relationship.

BLITZER: It's a very serious breach. The relationship is there, obviously, but the U.S. is not happy that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dispatched hundreds of ground troops to help the besieged king of Bahrain in the face of these protests that are going on. It's causing a serious crisis, not only in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the U.S. relationship with the United Arab Emirates but Bahrain.

Remember, John, and our viewers will know, Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf. So, there's a lot of interest there. They're not happy with what the Bahraini government is doing. And they're making it very, very clear. This is a big issue for the secretary of state and for the Obama administration.

KING: And, Wolf, as you talk to her about the big challenges on this trip in the Middle East, in North Africa, you also got her perspective on the earthquake and tsunami and the impact and recovery effort in Japan. But you also closed with a question that, as you know, comes up all the time because to Secretary Clinton, because she ran for president before, because she has such a high profile -- at the end, you essentially asked her this question, my word, not yours, what's next?


BLITZER: If the president is reelected, do you want to serve a second term as secretary of state?


BLITZER: Would you like to serve as secretary of defense?


BLITZER: Would you like to be vice president of the United States?


BLITZER: Would you like to be president of the United States?


BLITZER: Why not?

CLINTON: Because I have the best job I could ever have. This is a moment in history where it is almost hard to catch your breath.


KING: I think she's supposed to answer those questions exactly the way she just did, Wolf. The question is: do you believe her?

BLITZER: Four noes there, you can't be more definitive than that on those issues. It's a free country, she can certainly change her mind. And a lot of people, especially if you take a look at our latest CNN poll that just came out, she's got pretty good job approval numbers right now. A lot of people say, you know, she's not going to be that old in 2016. They'd like her to run.

But right now, she's saying, no, no, no and no. She was very definitive. And we'll see if she changes her mind. But, right now, she says she'll serve out this term and then move on.

KING: Remember, she said she didn't think she wanted this job either. We'll deal with 2016 down the road. She's among the most popular members of the Obama cabinet. If this president asks her to stay on or do something else, pretty hard to say no to him as she did to you.

BLITZER: Yes. It's a lot easier to say no to me than it is to say no to the president.

KING: It's not easy to say no to Wolf Blitzer, but it's a little harder to say no to the president of the United States.

Wolf, stay friend -- stay safe, my friend.

Wolf on a very important trip with Secretary Clinton through the Middle East and North America. We'll continue to track his parts. We'll take them here. Watch "THE SITUATION ROOM," as well.

When we come back, back live to Japan to get the latest on the recovery effort, plus the latest on the nuclear crisis and analysis from our two nuclear experts.


KING: Japan is 13 hour as head of us here on the East Coast of the United States. That means it's approaching 9 a.m. on Thursday morning. Six days ago -- six days ago, the punishing magnitude 9.0 earthquake, then the big tsunami.

Anna Coren rejoins us now live from Tokyo.

And, Anna, as the new day dawns, there's so much anxieties, so many questions in the country about long term recovery, but let's talk for a minute about the 180 people who as we speak are inside that troubled nuclear complex, trying -- they're already heroes, but they are trying to be greater heroes to a country that doesn't know what's going to happen next.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. They're making the ultimate sacrifice, aren't they really? They are entering the sixth day of this crisis and they are desperately trying to contain the situation.

Now, from what we understand, a skeleton staff of 50 were left inside the plant, but that has now expanded to almost 200 workers there. They're working in shifts of 50, hence, they've been dubbed the "Fukushima 50."

Now, they are trying to pour water, get waters into these pools where these spent fuel rods are sitting. They need to be covered in water. Otherwise, they emit this radiation material and that is the grave concern here, that some of those reactors, those pools would have actually dried up. So, these men -- they're battling fires. They're battling explosions while trying to get this water into these reactors.

We know that a water cannon is being brought in today to try and help that situation. A helicopter was supposed to do that. It was supposed to dump water yesterday, but that was scrapped because of high winds and the radioactive material that was coming out of this plant.

Now, to talk a little bit more about those men, we have limited information. We spoke to the power company yesterday that runs the plant and they refuse to disclose any information but we got one report of a 59-year-old man. He is just six months away from retiring and yet he volunteered. Now, we understand it's older men who being asked to volunteer in this operation, and the reason being, John -- this is rather morbid that they are being asked to volunteer because they're more likely to die of old age as opposed to cancer-induced or I should say from radiation induced-cancers, which actually take decades to manifest.

So, that is the information that we're receiving at this moment, John.

KING: God bless them. God bless all of them, and they are 180 now trying.

Anna Coren, live from Tokyo, thank you very much.

Returning now to provide some important perspective, nuclear experts Sharon Squassoni and Arnie Gundersen.

Sharon, let me start right there. You've traveled to Japan frequently. Help our viewers here in the United States understand the cultural significance. You heard Anna talk about how older -- older workers who understand this plant essentially being encouraged to volunteer because, essentially -- I hate to say it this way -- they are closer to the end anyway than younger workers.

SHARON SQUASSONI, NUCLEAR EXPERT, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTL. STUDIES: Right. I think -- you know especially in Asian cultures, age is considered to be a venerable thing. The older you are, the more respect you get.

I suppose the bright side of this is that they are also more likely to be workers who are very familiar with the plant. It is a recognition, I think, though that the radiation exposure is quite significant for these people.

KING: Arnie Gundersen, you're very familiar with this specific design. You could probably walk blindfolded through one of these plants.

Take us inside. Take us inside when you hear about those spent rods in reactor number four with the pool drained completely. You hear at least two of the containment vessels, I believe it's number two and number three, if I have the numbers right, have at least cracks in them. And you watch this complex play out.

Take us inside. What's going on in there?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN, CHIEF ENGINEER, FAIREWINDS ASSOCIATES: Well, first off, you know, you can imagine a fireman in a full body suit with a respirator and an air pack on in the dark, in hot environment, probably carrying extra equipment. And on top of that, entering an area where there's been explosions and it's likely that there's rubble. Well, that's there, plus radiation.

So, now, these guys have to watch their dosimeter as well as worry about all of those features. I guess the problems are really exacerbated by the darkness and the rubble, and the question is when you get to a spot where you have to be like, near the fuel pool, you have very limited stay time. Maybe you can stay 10 minutes, maybe five. I hired employees that could only stay on the job for three minutes before they exceed their personnel exposure.

So, you get all suited up and you do all that maybe you can do three to five minutes worth of work.

KING: And, Sharon, if you could only do a three to five minutes worth of work and we already know they're having trouble getting a significant water supply up there. We know they don't constant electricity because the power was wiped out by the tsunami. It leaves you with the impression that they're getting very, very little done at a time. That's why it's taken so long.

SQUASSONI: Well, that could be. Certainly depending on the levels in that spent fuel pool, and the rate of water shooting out of this hose, you know, it could take quite a while to fill it back up. But, again, you know, we just don't how much, you know, how much water, if any, is left this that spent fuel pool.

But the issue that Arnie highlighted is correct. You know, you've got to swap out these workers. There has to be a good organization so that they can pick up the tasks that the person before them has done.

KING: Arnie Gundersen, let me just ask it bluntly this way. Again, you're very familiar with this design. You've worked on this exact same model. What would you do differently?

GUNDERSEN: I think I would have acknowledged ahead of time -- I would have acknowledged as soon as the event happened that the situation was much more out of control than Tokyo Electric did. You know, wrap it around to the beginning of your show, I don't think Tokyo Electric was not telling the truth, but they didn't tell enough information soon enough. What they told was probably true, but they didn't tell enough of it and didn't tell enough of it quick enough.

KING: It has been described already, Secretary Chu today called it, Arnie, worse than Three Mile Island. Based on everything you know tonight, is there a chance that it will be worse than Chernobyl?

GUNDERSEN: I actually think it's at Chernobyl level right now. You know, you have four different reactors. A year ago, the worst case imaginable was 1 percent fuel failure with a containment that leaked a 10th of a percent per day. That's what we thought was the worst that could happen. And now, we're finding 70 percent fuel and a containment with a hole in the side of it.

This is 100 times worse than the worst case we imagined a year ago.

KING: Sobering, sobering, sobering perspective.

Arnie Gundersen, Sharon Squassoni, appreciate both of you so much. As I said last night, I don't really like what I'm hearing, but appreciate insight from people who understand so well.

When we come back, we will give you another sobering look of a before and after glimpse of the nuclear complex that tonight is in crisis.


KING: Before we go tonight, we want to show you some powerful images, including some new images just in to us. I want to show you these pictures. This is from NHK, Japan's public television network.

They fed in live. So, they're about an hour and a half old. If you watch right there, if you look, you see the puffs of steam coming up from the second reactor in from the right. If you look at there, this is the nuclear complex, all six reactors varying degrees of distress. These pictures taken from a helicopter 35 kilometers or just about 25 miles away, long range view but you see right there, more troubling steam coming up from at least one of those burned out reactors there and it is without a doubt there's some radioactivity in that steam. That's one image we wanted to show you.

Now, we want to take you back to another stunning and a very sobering image, satellite imagery. Before and now again of that nuclear complex in trouble. Look at the picture beforehand. It's on the left there -- you see those buildings. They're all pretty clean and secure. Now, take a look after.

This is March 16th. Reactor one, some damage on the roof; reactor two not only damage but steam coming out of it; reactor three in tough shape; reactor four even tougher shape -- all six reactors in trouble out there. Stunning images there.

We'll continue to track this. We'll be back tomorrow night.

We'll continue our coverage "IN THE ARENA" right now.