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New Breakdown and Nuclear Danger; A Half Million Stuck in Shelters in Japan; Concerns of Earthquake and Tsunami Impact; Hunts for Japan's Victims Intensifies
Aired March 14, 2011 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brooke, thanks very much.
Happening now, we're following breaking news -- a new reactor breakdown adds to fears of a nuclear disaster in Japan. UN experts insist there's no sign of a meltdown right now. But over the past few hours, we've seen another explosion, a radiation spike and almost constant danger.
It's 6:00 a.m. Tuesday morning in Japan and rescuers are racing against time. We're with the crews searching for survivors and bodies over three days after that monster quake and tsunami.
And the other major story we're following right now, Libyan rebels -- they are retreating. They are being defeated in some key towns. We're keeping the spotlight on Moammar Gadhafi's brutal fight to hold onto power.
I'm in Paris with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she holds critical meetings on the Libya crisis.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
It's an incredible story we're following.
And CNN International anchor, Isha Sesay, is joining us today -- indeed, all of this week -- Isha, I can't tell you how upset people all over the world are right now about what's happening in Japan. This is such -- such a heartbreaking story. We're going to share all the details we have with our viewers in the U.S. and around the world over the next two hours.
ISHA SESAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf.
This is a story that has the world gripped at the edge of its seat, as they watch this story very quickly unfold. So much the people in Japan are dealing with, search and rescue teams dealing with so many different issues. This was a situation that occurred almost in the blink of an eye, for those that were at the heart of it. And you see the pictures as they come into us here at CNN of the devastation, of the grief, of the destruction. And we are closely following it.
As you say, Wolf, over the next two hours, we will be bringing all the latest to our viewers, because it's been almost four days after the big one hit. Every missing person found alive in the wreckage is a small victory, after almost 2,000 bodies have been found so far.
Our correspondents are across the disaster area covering the urgent rescue operation, as well as the unfolding nuclear emergency.
CNN's Anna Coren is hard hit Sendai, Japan and she joins us now -- Anna, break for us where exactly you are and what you've been seeing.
ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As you say, Isha, we are in Sendai, which is in the northeast of Japan. We've been spending a lot of time a little bit further north. And that's where the really -- the real devastation we have seen -- houses, neighborhoods, suburbs completely, completely destroyed.
We spent time with a -- a military team that went from house to house, trying to see if there were any survivors. But it became apparent very quickly that they were there to retrieve the bodies.
House after House, they were finding -- finding people. And these were the elderly, Isha, people who weren't able to get out in time.
From the moment that the quake struck, the residents of Ishinomaki had about half an hour -- less than half an hour to get out, to get to higher ground. And it turns out that so many of those elderly just weren't able to get out of their homes in time.
SESAY: And, Anna, talk to me about the challenges those involved search and rescue operation are dealing with.
COREN: Yes, an enormous challenge, because this is such a vast area. You know, we are talking about so much coastline, because this monsoon wave hit Japan's northeast coast and really collected everything in its path for five to eight kilometers. And this wall of water, some 10 meters, as I say, just collected absolutely everything.
If they were -- people were standing in their houses on the ground floor, they -- they just would have been collected. They would have been washed away.
We spoke to one man who clung to his roof for dear life. He said he watched as the wave just came straight through. And -- and he was just praying that it wouldn't collect him. He said he spent the night on his roof and -- and just -- as -- as he watched his neighbors and other people just disappear.
So this is a story that we are hearing over and over again, as -- as they're survival stories, Isha. They -- they are the ones that everyone is clinging onto hope.
But as the -- the helicopters buzz over -- and they're doing that constantly -- we know -- we know that they are finding more and more pockets of devastation. And that is where they will be finding those bodies.
Currently, as you say, the death toll stands at around 2,000. But officials here are saying that is expected to rise well beyond 10,000. A harsh reality, I guess we will discover, Isha, in the coming days.
SESAY: Yes, absolutely.
Anna Coren joining us there from Sendai in Japan.
Anna, appreciate it.
Thank you -- and, Wolf, you hear Anna saying it there, that right now, the death toll is at about 1,900, with expectation, even as people hope against hope that they'll find more people alive, is that that death toll will, indeed, rise -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, these are critical, critical hours. If someone is still alive, Isha, as you well know, they have to be found and they have to be found very, very quickly. It's already been three days plus since this earthquake and tsunami struck.
We're going to be checking in with all of our correspondents, not only Anna Coren, but Anderson Cooper is standing by, Gary Tuchman, Brian Todd.
I want to go to our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta right now, our chief medical correspondent, because he's been checking in with people at the evacuation centers. So many people right now are homeless as a result of what's going on.
SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: A lot of people have been told to evacuate as a result of these concerns about radiation. Add that on top of, obviously, so many peoples' homes being destroyed as a result of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
This is one of the largest sort of makeshift refugee camps. It sort of just came together over the last few days. And this is something that people here in Japan know, is that schools are typically built at higher levels than many other buildings. And the building codes for schools are often stricter. They are more earthquake-resistant and they also become an immediate place for refugees in the aftermath of something like this.
So hundreds of people have been coming into this particular part of the school, this gymnasium. They say anywhere around 700 people in this particular area now, more people in other parts of the school.
And this is quickly becoming one of the largest refugee areas as a result.
It's very cold outside. So people who were displaced as a result of this mandatory evacuation -- Onagawa, by the way, is about 150 kilometers from here, Fukushima about 100 kilometers from here. But even people from Onagawa had made their way to this particular refugee area. That's sort of the consequence of all these different activities, all these different tragedies over the last several days.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
BLITZER: And on top of everything else, there's a nuclear crisis right now.
Sanjay is going to be checking into the fallout from that.
But right now, there are deep, deep concerns about what's going on at these nuclear power plants that have been so devastated by the earthquake and especially by the tsunami.
Jeanne Meserve is standing by in Washington.
She's got the latest information on what exactly is going on -- it's been very confusing and, at times, Jeanne, we've been getting conflicting information.
Well, what do we know right now, because the impact could be enormous?
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the situation in Japan just seems to go from bad to worse. Three reactors are now in serious trouble. And Japanese officials are not ruling out the possibility of a meltdown at all of them.
Today, an explosion at the Fukushima Number Three reactor damaged the cooling system at Reactor Number Two. Reactor Number One was already in crisis and Japanese efforts to inject seawater into all three of them to keep them cool were set back when the pump injecting water into Reactor Two ran out of fuel and stopped.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
YUKIO EDANO, JAPAN'S CHIEF CABINET SECRETARY (through translator): The fuel of the pump ran out. And it has taken more time than it originally anticipated. And at one point in time, the water level did start to fall and the fuel rods were exposed above the water. This situation did continue for a while.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MESERVE: Now that problem was fixed. They started to inject seawater again. But then another problem arose. A valve that is supposed to vent pent up steam and heat didn't open. That caused the water covering the fuel rods to evaporate and they were exposed a second time.
The company which owns the plant says it should be able to locate and open that valve. It's critical, of course, that they keep those rods covered as much as possible and they need to try to keep the pressure down to prevent a rupture in the containment vessel. Of course, if there were a rupture, that could result in a release of radiation. Today, radioactivity levels around the plant did go up for a time, but then they went back down. About 200,000 people have been evacuated from the area -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Are they asking for any U.S. help right now -- Jeanne?
MESERVE: Yes, they are. The U.S., from the beginning, has been offering to do whatever was needed. Today, finally, a formal request from the Japanese, both -- both to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission here in the U.S. and the IAEA. The NRC already had two experts on the ground and now they're building up a larger team to go over there. The Japanese have also asked for some equipment to help them deal with this cooling situation at the Fukushima plant.
BLITZER: All right, Jeanne.
We'll stay in close touch with you.
Thanks very much.
Here's a question a lot of us are asking right now -- could this kind of a disaster actually happen in the United States?
We're going to check in on that possibility and much more of the fallout from this nuclear problem in -- in Japan right now. That's coming up -- Isha, there's other stories we're following related to this, as well.
SESAY: Absolutely. Our Brian Todd is with a U.S. emergency crew there in Japan. And, Wolf, time may be running out to find survivors.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news out of Japan right now -- the earthquake, the tsunami, a nuclear crisis under -- unfolding right now.
Jack Cafferty is here.
He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, THE CAFFERTY FILE: Wolf, inspectors from all around the world trying to figure out just how dangerous the Japan nuclear situation really is.
It can't be good -- hydrogen explosions, fuel rods exposed, reactors overheat, radioactive vapor being released into the atmosphere.
The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency said today that the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi power plants is unlikely to become another Chernobyl.
Why is my B.S. detector on red alert, I wonder?
And what happens if a series of major aftershocks rock that region?
France's nuclear watchdog today said the situation at Fukushima is worse than Three Mile Island. That was the 1979 meltdown in the United States at a plant in Central Pennsylvania -- the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history so far.
No one was injured at Three Mile Island and no one died, but the situation was considered so serious at the time target the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ramped up safety standards after the accident and stopped the construction of any new reactors for about 30 years.
Well, we've got growing demand for energy in this country and nuclear power has been poised to make a sort of a comeback of late. In the past few years, a handful of power companies have applied for permits to build new nuclear power plants.
Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of California introduced a bill earlier this month that would call for the construction of 200 new nuclear reactors by the year 2040.
President Obama has touted nuclear power saying it may be part of the solution to the energy and global warming issues facing the United States. It all sounded pretty good, until last Friday in Japan. Now you can bet approval for any new nuclear construction is going to be pretty tough to come by. Whether the world is running out of oil or not.
Here's the question. Should the Japan earthquake stop any future construction of nuclear power plants? Go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile and post a comment on my blog.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Would you want one, Jack, built in your backyard?
CAFFERTY: There is one in our backyard. There's Indian point. It's about 12 miles up the Hudson River from the northern part of Manhattan. It's been there for years and years and years, and, you know, fortunately so far without incident, but there's one very close by. And just to the west of us in Pennsylvania, there's a whole cluster of them in the eastern part of that state. And as I understand it, the prevailing winds tend to blow from west to east.
You know, we haven't had any problems. France has been very successful with this energy source, but Mother Nature's got a way of, you know, pitching curveballs at the human race that we are simply unable to deal with sometimes.
BLITZER: Yes, and not only are they afraid of another large aftershock which could be disastrous, but if it's large enough, that could trigger yet another tsunami and God only knows what the fallout from that would be. So there's still a lot of worst case scenarios here that folks are really worried about in Japan right now. The folks all over the world are worried about it. Jack, thanks very much.
Isha, a lot of people are wondering could this happen in the United States. I know I'm worried about that, but go ahead and tell us what you've got.
ISHA SESAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: yes, absolutely. You know, Jack made that point that Mother Nature has a way of throwing curveballs. You know, Japan's nuclear crisis is indeed raising that very question about the safety of nuclear power plants right here in the United States.
CNN's Casey Wian is at San Onofre Nuclear Plant, which is actually there in California.
Casey, a plant that you're at is actually on a fault line which could leave it exposed to this eventuality of an earthquake. As you talk to folks there, what do they tell you about the level of preparedness for that kind of disaster?
CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely, Isha. The San Onofre nuclear power plant is operated by Southern California, Edison. It's capable of producing enough to power 1.4 million homes.
Clearly, as can you see behind me, it is on the beach in southern California, so it is clearly vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. Earlier we went down to the beach to take a closer look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WIAN: When the San Onofre nuclear power plant was built, officials determine that the largest tsunami that could happen here was 25 feet so they built the plant with a protective wall 30 feet above sea level. The plant was also built to withstand 7.0 earthquake, because the nearest faulty here is only thought to be capable of producing a 6.5 magnitude quake, but what happens if those estimates are wrong?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WIAN: Now the man who can answer that question joins me now. He is Pete Dietrich, chief nuclear officer here at the San Onofre nuclear power plant.
What is to stop what happened in Japan from happening here in southern California, Pete?
PETE DIETRICH, CHIEF NUCLEAR OFFICER, SAN ONOFRE NUCLEAR POWER PLANT: I think the first thing I would like to say is on behalf of the all the employees in the nuclear power industry, the employees of Southern California Edison and San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, our thoughts and prayers and support goes out to all the people in Japan, and particularly those operators and plant personnel working to deal with the difficult situation in Japan.
To specifically answer your questions, it's a little premature. We continue to understand facts and information coming from Japan. You know, the Japanese are dealing with a very difficult situation and their first priority is not necessarily to provide us information, but what we do understand from the events unfolding in Japan, the current San Onofre design is to withstand an earthquake that is off a higher magnitude than was experienced in Japan.
Also, we have, as you saw, down on the ocean front, a 30-foot reinforced tsunami wall that is designed to withstand the appropriate and associated tsunami associated with the maximum credible earthquake.
WIAN: My understanding, though, was that it's designed to withstand an earthquake of 7.0 which is what happened on the nearest faulty here, but the San Andreas fault is not that far away, and that's capable of producing something in the neighborhood of 8.4.
How can you be sure that something there couldn't trigger a bigger disaster here?
DIETRICH: OK. We often speak of a Richter scale, but it's usually associated with the epicenter measurement of an earthquake. San Onofre is designed to withstand a certain earthquake that has a retro scale value and a distance from an epicenter.
And what that translates to and equates to is really the driving factor with an earthquake, and that is the peak ground acceleration here at the plant. And we are currently designed to withstand and have been designed to withstand a 0.67g or times the force of gravity earthquake.
The report from Japan is that that Japanese earthquake was a 0.35g peak ground acceleration at the epicenter of the earthquake.
WIAN: Yes, thanks for joining us. We have to leave it there.
Isha, you can hear there's still lots of concern here in Southern California despite the fact that the officials here say that this plant is safe. Just at a time when nuclear power was beginning to get more attraction as a possible alternative to oil, this incident happened in Japan. This disaster happened in Japan creating a lot of new concerns here.
SESAY: Absolutely. No doubt about it, Casey.
Many, many questions to be considered in the days and weeks ahead.
Casey Wian there in California, appreciate it. Thank you.
Wolf, as we say, a lot to be learned from what has happened in Japan over the course of the last couple of days. Many looking at it very, very closely.
BLITZER: You know, if Casey is still there, Casey, can you still hear me over there, Casey Wian in California?
WIAN: Yes, I've got you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Casey, if you get -- because what -- what your guest just said, it doesn't seem to make any sense. This was an 8.9 or a 9.0 earthquake in Japan, and -- and the reactor, the facility where you are can withstand a 7.0.
Why does he say that -- that it can withstand a 9.0 or an 8.9? I don't understand what he's talking about.
WIAN: If you could just give us a little clarification why you're saying that this facility could withstand something as high as a 9.0 when it was built for something much less.
DIETRICH: Again, the design of commercial nuclear power plants in most seismic analysis is done around a peak ground acceleration measurement, and that peak ground acceleration measurement for San Onofre is a 4.67 Gs which would equate to a 7.0 earthquake at an epicenter five miles from here, which is our nearest fault line.
So traditional seismic analysis revolves around the times the force of gravity peak ground acceleration, and that is what we design our structures to be able to withstand. That's how you size and put the strength into your mechanical supports and other things that we retrain and protect our equipment with.
WIAN: Are you 100 confident that this plant could withstand something the size of what happened in Japan?
DIETRICH: Again, as I said, it's a little premature. As we understand the facts and circumstances coming out of Japan, yes, we could.
WIAN: There you have it, Wolf.
BLITZER: I think a lot of people, Casey, are going to dispute your guest. This is an 8.9 or 9.0 and he's talking about something in the 7s, and I'm no expert on this, but it just doesn't pass the smell test to me, but we'll continue to check his facts and see if he's got them or if he's just spinning our viewers out there, because on the surface, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But we'll continue to check it out.
Casey, thank very much.
Casey Wian in California.
The quake and the tsunami are certainly already impacting Japan's major economy, and it could soon get a whole lot worse. We're going to explain what's going on.
And we'll also take you inside one of Sendai's shelters, where despite their horrific reality around them, some people right now are smiling. Much more of the breaking news coverage coming out of Japan right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: The pictures are dramatic, and they are so sad. Rescue operations continuing even as we speak right now. Folks trying to get out. There are survivors who have been stuck. There are search-and- rescue teams that have come in, not only from Japan, but from all over the world.
Isha, there are people who will survive, but as you and all of our viewers by now know, there are so many, so many thousands of people who simply have not survived this earthquake but especially the tsunami.
SESAY: Absolutely, Wolf. Thousands of people remain unaccounted for. The numbers right now stand at 1900 hundred dead, over 3,000 missing, but we feel that those are very, very preliminary numbers, that they will indeed shift and they will move higher.
Brian Todd flew out of the United States with a rescue team from Fairfax County in Virginia. He flew to Japan to be part of this search-and-rescue effort, and he joins us now with a report he filed earlier on.
And some of the challenges that they are facing now that they are on the ground there in Japan.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: These teams are very eager to get to their destination. We just found out one of the bay, it's the city of Ofunato, about this six hours by this route we're told. This is a city just northeast of Sendai. It's on the coast, very badly hit by the earthquake and the tsunami.
Frustration on everybody's part here because they want to get down there. They're working as fast as they can to get down there. It's a lot of hurry up and wait in a hanger like this, when they are pulling together all of the equipment and all of the other gear, the canine teams, the inflatable boats. Everything has to be loaded on to palettes.
Some of it may be getting there by air. Some of it will definitely be going in a convoy that we're going to be going in. So we're eager to get there. And, of course, these guys, this is from the L.A. team right here. They just got their briefing. The Fairfax team is getting their briefing. A British team maybe joining us in this operation. It looks like Ofunato is a real place in need right now.
Testing out one of the key pieces of equipment. This is the search camera. It's going to be lowered into the rubble to find unidentified victims. Search specialist Tom Griffin is with me.
Tom, show us first how long this thing can extend?
TOM GRIFFIN, SEARCH SPECIALIST: It actually extends out about seven feet. Typically drill a hole or using an existing void hole to access a victim. The camera head has a light in it which we can adjust the brightness of. It also has a microphone and a speaker in it so we can speak to the victim and hear them. It gives us the ability to do actually and visually view the person so that we know exactly where to start digging.
TODD: After a very long drive from the Misawa air base, we're now on the outskirts of Ofunato Japan. It was almost seven hours trying to get here. Now we have to stop here at least for several hours because the Japanese government does not want these teams to unload all of their gear and start their base camp tonight, concerned about the danger of pushing into the city and setting up camp in the total darkness.
So these teams have to stay here just on the outskirts for the next several hours. We can't even unload all of their gear. It's a bit of a frustration because they wanted to get on the ground sooner than this. By the time they start to actually set up that base camp and fan out into Ofunato early Tuesday morning local time, it will be almost 90 hours since the earthquake struck. A real frustration for these teams and the people waiting for them in that city.
Brian Todd, CNN, just outside Ofunato, Japan.
BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Brian.
This disaster in Japan could pose a massive, massive threat to the country's global economic standing.
CNN's Mary Snow is picking up that part of the story. The economic fallout is very significant, Mary?
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. And Japan is already acting, pumping $180 billion into its banks to ensure the financial system has enough cash, but winding the worry over the third largest economy in the world is the question over what will happen with Japan's nuclear reactors. Not only is there the obvious main concern about whether this will be another Chernobyl-type situation, but out of just hitting the electrical grid are disrupting businesses. We've seen automakers and electronics companies halting production, and not just because plants may have been damaged.
Toshiba, for example, said it's scaling back and cutting power consumption in response to the earthquake. Now carmakers are also keeping some plant shut to conserve energy.
Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics says the severity of the damage depends on whether the outages are controlled or not.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARCUS NOLAND, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, PETERSON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL ECONOMICS: What we learned after 9/11 was even very severe economic shocks to a local region can't bring down a national economy unless they affect a network. And so if the network is severely disrupted, and power shortages are propagated throughout the country, then it could have a much more severe economic impact.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SNOW: And while it's impossible to know the extent of the damage, one firm that calculates the cost of catastrophes estimates the cost from the earthquake and tsunami to be around $100 billion, broken down into $20 billion in damages to homes and about $40 billion to infrastructure.
And Wolf, Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody's Analytics, who's been on this program many times, says he does believe that Japan will suffer another round of recession -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Mary, if Japan does go through another recession, and it's the third largest economy in the world right now, what about the impact on the global economy?
SNOW: A big worry. Impossible to say right now, but some economists that we did speak with say they believe that Japan will recover quickly, and that they also believe the country will spend whatever is necessary to recover, despite the fact that Japan, its debt is twice the size of the country's GDP.
Now, the question, of course, how extensive will be disruptions be to businesses and the supply chain around the globe?
BLITZER: Mary Snow with that part of the story.
Thanks, Mary, very much -- Isha.
SESAY: Wolf, there's a big international effort under way to help the people there in Japan. The U.S. military is involved. Crews are there in Japan to help. But some sailors are the ones who needed help as they cruise through a cloud of trouble.
Plus, CNN's Anderson Cooper is in the quake zone right now. He's standing by with the very latest on what he's seeing.
Stay with us.
SESAY: Well, Japan is asking the United States for more help with its nuclear emergency. Another reactor, the Fukushima Daiichi plant, lost its ability to cool down today. This, just hours after an explosion rocked the building housing another reactor. Eleven people were injured in the blast.
And radiation levels, well, those spiked, though Japanese officials say there wasn't a massive leak. And U.N. nuclear watchdogs say there's no sign of an actual reactor meltdown so far.
French nuclear safety experts now are describing this crisis as worse than the most serious nuclear power plant accident right here in the United States, the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979. And Wolf, I know that you're going to have a guest that you're going to put some of these tough questions about this nuclear crisis to.
BLITZER: Yes, Isha. In fact, joining us now is Marvin Fertel. He's the president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute which lobbies for the nuclear power industry.
Mr. Fertel, thanks very much for joining us.
Are nuclear power plants in the United States right now -- and there are what, around 100 that are operating even though no new ones have been built for 30 years? Are they capable of withstanding an 8.9 magnitude earthquake?
MARVIN FERTEL, PRESIDENT & CEO, NUCLEAR ENERGY INSTITUTE: Well, Wolf, we have 104 plants operating in our country right now, producing 20 percent of our electricity. And they have all been designed and licensed by the NRC to be able to withstand an earthquake that's appropriate to their location, more so maybe on the West Coast, with a higher seismic factor, less so on the East Coast. So they have all been licensed and designed to be able to withstand an earthquake and, to be honest, a tsunami that would be associated with that earthquake.
BLITZER: So all the reactors on the West Coast, are you saying that they could withstand an 8.9 magnitude earthquake?
FERTEL: No. What I'm saying is they could withstand the earthquake that would be appropriate for where they are located on the West Coast. So, for instance, I think earlier today you heard --
BLITZER: Is an 8.9 possible on the West Coast?
FERTEL: I don't know if 8.9 is possible, but what they are designed for are ground motions that are very significant, because you don't design for a Richter scale number. You design for the ground acceleration that shakes the building.
And to be honest, what we know right now, the ground acceleration for the 8.9 earthquake that occurred in Japan, our understanding is that it was .35 Gs. And we understand that the earthquake designs for our West Coast plants exceed that by a significant amount.
BLITZER: Right now it looks like the folks in Japan, the experts in Japan, are really in uncharted territory. They are doing all sorts of things to prevent a meltdown and a nuclear crisis, including using seawater and other devices which aren't normal operating procedures.
Is that your understanding as well?
FERTEL: Well, they are certainly outside of their design basis, and they're certainly being very innovative and working very hard. And our support and our prayers go with them as these people are really trying to do everything they can.
Fundamentally, right now, and fortunately, the containment structure is still working fine, as is the primary system. So there are no major releases of radiation occurring, though what they are doing is very, very innovative to try and keep the core cool.
BLITZER: Because they always built these reactors to withstand an earthquake, but I'm not sure, at least in Japan, they expected a tsunami of this magnitude to cause the kind of damage that it's clearly caused to these nuclear power plants.
FERTEL: I think clearly, Wolf, that's one of the lessons learned that's going to come out of this, because the plant did handle the earthquake quite well. The diesels worked after the earthquake. It was after the tsunami that they ran into a lot of trouble.
BLITZER: Could this kind of meltdown happen -- we know it happened at Three Mile Island. We know it happened at Chernobyl. But the question is, a lot of folks are asking, could this happen again in the United States?
FERTEL: Well, you know, I wouldn't talk Chernobyl, because it was a very different reactor. But Three Mile Island, we melted half the fuel, and the cost arrest to the systems worked correctly.
There was really no health effects, there were no major releases of radiation. And, for instance, we really improved safety after that by the lessons learned. Can you have accidents that melt fuel? Obviously, we saw that at Three Mile Island.
BLITZER: Mr. Fertel, thanks very much for joining us.
Marvin Fertel is the president of the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Shelters are popping up throughout the Sendai region right now. We're taking you to one where, despite the tragedy, some people are smiling.
Plus, wiped out. An entire town flattened by the tsunami. We're going back for a first look at the damage.
BLITZER: New video coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now from Japan. Take a look at this, images that are just horrific. This video just coming in right now.
You can see the horrendous, horrendous disaster that has unfolded. There are whole parts of Japan where rescue workers still can't even get close to because of this disaster. Whole villages have been wiped out and thousands of people remain unaccounted for. This is a disaster of epic proportions in Japan.
And as we get more and more information, Isha, it looks like it's only -- only going to get worse.
SESAY: Yes, no doubt about it. And, Wolf, there are almost half a million people actually living in shelters there in Japan right now.
Here's CNN's Kyung Lah. She has more from Sendai.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KYUNG LAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a tsunami disaster this massive, Mari Sato is learning the small gestures matter most. Food and water, she says, from someone she barely knows. Sato lost everything in the tsunami that hit Sendai. She learned from these before-and-after satellite images in the newspaper that her home was destroyed.
"I never imagined a tsunami could do this," she says, saying she lives inland about two miles from the ocean. She is one of the hundreds of new residents of Shichiko (ph) elementary school. Rin Takahashi (ph) is the youngest, only 3 weeks old. Her father says he's numb and he can't seem to put her down ever since he and his wife fled from the water and debris that flattened their town.
"I have to protect my children," says this new dad. "The only thing I can think, I have to protect my children."
Children, blissfully unable to understand. Others clearly do.
(on camera): There are so many victims in this tsunami. This is just one converted classroom in this school.
To my right, there are very elderly people. To my left, a child. All of them awaiting word on the status of their homes and their families, all of them missing. They say it's impossible to think beyond this immediate emergency.
(voice-over): The most pressing, locating the missing. A message board is filled with calls for help to find relatives. "I can't find them," says this man.
The tsunami has hit all of Sendai in some way. Stores, still damaged and without power, are selling what they can. You can see the need for yourself as a line wraps around the building. Needed most, water, tea and canned food. Today, only 10 items per family.
(on camera): What happens tomorrow and the day after that?
(voice-over): "What can we do?" says this mother of two young children. Her husband quickly adds, "At least we're all alive."
(on camera): you feel lucky still?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lucky.
LAH (voice-over): Back at the school, two friends reunite by chance. Rare tears of joy, out-shed though by those of grief and Japan's growing humanitarian crisis.
Kyung Lah, CNN, Sendai, Japan.
SESAY: Well, search and rescue teams are fanned out across northern Japan, doing everything they can to find those who may have survived this catastrophe. We're going to bring you the most dramatic moments when we come back.
Stay with THE SITUATION ROOM.
SESAY: Every day since the catastrophe in Japan the images we've been seeing from the quake zone are breaking our hearts and taking our breath away.
Take a look at some of the latest pictures.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God! Whoa! Holy -- whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! Oh, my God.
GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We sometimes have to take some creative measures to illustrate what's going on. And this creative measure is actually being on a rescue boat, where these people have been trapped for more than three days in an office building. They're being rescued right now by members of the army.
This couple right here, a husband and wife, for three days trapped in an office building, the flooded streets of this little town. We just talked to this gentleman a short time ago when he translated for us, and he says he just wants to be in a safe place. What they're doing is they're rowing back and forth dozens of times, picking up people who have been trapped on the watery streets here along the Pacific Ocean in Japan.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Heartbreaking stories, indeed.
Jack Cafferty is asking, should the Japan earthquake and the tsunami stop any future construction of nuclear power plants in the United States, indeed around the world? Your e-mail, coming up.
And live reports from the center of the disaster zone. Our own Anderson Cooper, he's standing by to join us from Sendai in Japan.
BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
CAFFERTY: Wolf, the question this hour is: Should the Japan earthquake be reason enough to stop any future construction of nuclear power plants?
Robert writes from Formoso, Kansas, "Yes, but not necessarily for the obvious reason. Before building additional nuke plants, we need first to be able to safely dispose of the spent fuel product. Hiding it in tin cans and abandoned salt mines is not the answer. Out of sight, out of mind won't work for the future inhabitants of this planet." Tom writes, "No, not at all. If anything, this is a chance for us to learn how to make better, safer nuclear power plants. We learn from failure. This is something that can help prevent things like from happening in the future."
Dave in New York writes, "The reason your BS detector is on red alert is because the captain of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that was sent to Japan to help took one look at the radiation levels of returning airplanes and got his boat out of there ASAP."
"The intelligent thing to do would be to stop the construction of fission reactors and work on developing fusion reactors. They're safe, they don't generate toxic waste, and they use abundant fuel. Our sun is a giant fusion reactor."
David writes, "No, it shouldn't, but it probably will. An interesting question recently came up on another forum about the terrible disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The question was, how many people died? The answer was zero at Three Mile Island, 50 died as a direct result of Chernobyl."
Paul writes, "A popular question, but no, I don't think so. Nuclear power has been around since the 1950s, with plants located all over the world. Outside Chernobyl, there have been no major breaches or catastrophes. How many oil spills have we had?"
"It's the only viable, efficient source of energy outside fossil fuels. Renewable energy is still developing. It's not there yet, and until it is, we can't do without nuclear power."
Jeremy in Georgia says, "Definitely shouldn't affect new construction of nuclear power plants. The odds of having issues such as Japan's are very slim, just like Japan's chances were. Nuclear power is cleaner, more cost-effective than coal-burning powerhouses, and puts a lot of people to work both during and after construction."
If you want to read more on this, we got a lot of e-mail. Go to my blog, CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.
BLITZER: I'm getting a lot of e-mail on this as well, Jack. Thanks very much.
An American caught up in the earthquake nightmare, desperate to talk with the family back in the United States. How a CNN crew actually helped out. Stand by for that report.
BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, we're following breaking news from Japan, growing fears of another disaster and a possible nuclear meltdown at a stricken power plant as the death toll from the earthquake and the tsunami climb to horrifying new levels.
Also, gripping stories of survival and emotional reunions. You're going to see how a CNN crew helped one American in Japan get in touch with his family.
And CNN has dedicated our global resources to bring you every angle and the very latest news. We're standing by for live reports from our own Anderson Cooper, Gary Tuchman, and others on the ground in Japan.
Isha Sesay of CNN International is joining me for our special coverage this hour. Indeed, Isha will be with us all week.
I'm Wolf Blitzer, in Paris with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.