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Radiation Still High After Water Drop; Winds and the Radiation Threat; "What Have We Done to Deserve This?; Clinton's Fears for Americans in Japan; Preventing a Full-Scale Meltdown; Military Families Fleeing Japan; Lessons From Japan's Crisis

Aired March 17, 2011 - 17:00   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, GUEST HOST: Now, breaking news -- urgent new attempts to cool down an overheated reactor at Japan's crippled nuclear plant. Radiation levels still are high, despite water drops from the air and spraying on the ground. Almost a full week after the monster quake, traveling in or out of Japan can be treacherous.

Now the U.S. government is stepping in to evacuate possibly thousands of Americans from the country and get them away from any nuclear danger. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tells our Wolf Blitzer she's worried about the health and safety of Americans in Japan, even as she heads home from Tunisia. Wolf is traveling with her right now.

I'm Candy Crowley. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It is 6:00 a.m. Friday in Japan. Nuclear experts say the new attempt to douse an overheated reactor has been somewhat effective. Helicopters, fire trucks and police water cannon all have been deployed to try to cool down Reactor Number Three. We're told radiation levels dipped, but they are still high. So the frantic work to prevent a full scale nuclear meltdown goes on.

CNN's Anna Coren is in Tokyo with more on this breaking story -- Anna, just bring us up to date on the very latest at those plants.

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Candy, it is entering the seventh day of this crisis. And workers, probably about 300 workers, we are hearing, are now at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant trying to bring this situation under control. We saw those pictures of the helicopters, the water cannons and fire trucks trying to spray water onto the reactors. Those crews had to get out because of radiation levels increasing. But they will continue those attempts.

Today, we also know that TEPCO, the -- the power company that owns this plant, they're also trying to reconnect to the power so as to trigger the -- the emergency cooling system. This is their number one priority, trying to cool these reactors.

And, as you mentioned, Number Three Reactor is their major concern -- Candy. CROWLEY: Anna, tell us about the state of city right now where you are, because from -- from over here, it just looks so close to Armageddon. And I'm wondering whether we are seeing it in and it sort of -- it looks overheated to us.

How is -- is it being handled there?

COREN: Well, it's funny, Candy, we -- we spoke to a number of people yesterday, foreigners, as well as Japanese. We went to the -- the immigration bureau here in Tokyo, where foreigners -- tens of thousands of foreigners lined up to get their reentry permits. Now, these are people who live and work in Japan. And that permit allows them to leave and return.

These people were saying that we need these permits in case it blows up. There were students there who said, you know, we've been monitoring the situation for the last week. We're not getting enough information from the Japanese, therefore, we are going to take the precautionary step and go to another -- another country.

That -- that's sort of the feeling. But then, you know, you speak to other people who say, well, you know, It's overseas that -- that is creating all this -- hype, you know, people speaking to their families saying, you know, you've got to get out of there. You've got to come home. There's going to be a, you know, a nuclear disaster. So I think -- I think there -- there is, obviously, a little hype. There's reason to be very concerned.

But -- but here, I've got to say, there is an element of calm. You know, we spoke to a taxi driver who -- who said he doesn't normally have his -- his television, his monitor on, you know, when he -- when he's driving around. But -- but he said he is monitoring the news very closely, because people want to know what is going on. I think -- I think the major concern is that they don't feel the government is being open and transparent enough, so that that information is being disseminated so people can make, you know, their own choices.

CROWLEY: Do you detect a difference between how expats are viewing the situation as they are in Japan and how the Japanese are viewing it?

COREN: Yes, most definitely. I think when, certainly, the tsunami-earthquake happened, I know that a lot of expats actually got out of -- out of Japan. People got their -- their families, their children -- I beg your pardon -- out of -- out of the country. And then when the nuclear crisis began to evolve and unfold, people weren't taking, you know, those risks.

So I think, you know, for those -- those people who -- who can get their families out, they are doing that. For the Japanese, they -- they don't have anywhere else to go. This is -- this is their home.

So, you know, I think that we -- we -- we can't be alarmist about this. I think we need to -- to be concerned. We need to monitor the situation.

But overall, I think that -- that everyone thoroughly needs to take a breath and -- and -- and just allow these -- these workers, allow the international community to do their job. And -- and, obviously, we -- we all hope that the situation can be contained.

CROWLEY: Anna Coren in Tokyo for us tonight.

Thanks so much.

Appreciate it.

President Obama says the United States is doing all it can to help Japan and he's trying to ease fears that Americans are in danger there or here at home. He spoke a short while ago at the White House.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We do have a responsibility to take prudent and precautionary measures to educate those Americans who may be endangered by exposure to radiation if the situation deteriorates. That's why last night I authorized the voluntary departures of family members and U.S. dependents of officials working in Northeastern Japan.

All U.S. citizens in Japan should continue to carefully monitor the situation and follow the guidance of the U.S. and Japanese governments. And those who are seeking assistance should contact our embassy and consulates, which continue to be open and operational.

Secondly, I know that many Americans are worried about the potential risks to the United States. So I want to be very clear. We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it's the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific.

Let me repeat that. We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific.

That is the judgment of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission and many other experts.


CROWLEY: The scope of Japan's nuclear disaster could change in an instant with a big shift in the winds.

CNN meteorologist, Chad Myers, is keeping tabs on the weather in the disaster zone -- let me just ask you first, Chad, we just heard the president saying that, in fact, no U.S. territory is in danger and neither is the U.S. coastline.

Is there another place, other than Japan, that is in danger, given the prevailing winds? CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Given the prevailing winds now, no, because of just the way they -- the winds will disperse the radiation.

Plus, by the time it makes landfall anywhere -- three or four days even for Russia -- that most of the radiation would -- the isotopes would have degraded to something non-radiational. There would just be -- just be things flying around the atmosphere.

I want to take you to a couple of things, Candy. And we'll -- we'll step back a little bit. This is are model that will show you where the wind will go, taking you right here, to where the wind has been. And, in fact, the wind blowing off the country, off the shore of Japan affected the water drops. I was watching the water drops live here from an NHK feed and the wind was literally blowing that water that they were trying to put on this little reactor, just blowing it in the wind. And that was the wind that we saw last night and we still see on this satellite picture now.

That wind will change. And it will change from offshore to very close to deep from the south to the north. And that would move this radiation plume. We know there is one, it's just not big enough to make it to the U.S. It could move it up toward Sendai in the next couple of days. The winds will not be offshore anymore by Saturday. They will be pointing at the northern part of the island of Honshu.

Now back to this graphic, because there was a lot of cutting and pasting going on today about a graphic that made its way around the Internet, about how this plume of radiation was going to make its way to California tonight and tomorrow. That was a -- a theoretical model that was put out just for informational purposes about a plume that didn't even exist. And that's what the text said.

But if you just cut and pasted the picture, everybody freaked out, because it looked like a bunch of radiation was coming to the U.S. today. That didn't happen and it's not going to happen.

Even if some radiation was immediately emitted right now, it would work its way through the Aleutian Islands, back up toward Russia and then probably up toward the Pacific Northwest. By the time -- five days later -- by the time it would even get close to any U.S. landfall, all the radiation would literally be dispersed -- Candy.

CROWLEY: So as I understand what you're saying, Chad, the president is perfectly right, that there's no reason to believe any U.S. territory, much less the U.S. coastline, is threatened by anything that might come our way. But the city of Sendai, if the winds switch, gets hit with yet another disaster?

MYERS: No question about that that is the possibility coming up for Friday and Saturday for that city. A million people in that city. I know what about how much damage and destruction was done by this tsunami, not the city of Sendai. Sendai is -- is just fine. A million people live there. There are big skyscrapers there. The coastline to the east of that city, that's what was devastated by the -- the tsunami. The people are still living in Sendai. If the wind shifts and that radiation goes there, there may be a completely new evacuation plan for that city -- or at least a -- an evacuation in place. Stay inside your house. Don't go out at all. And that's outside that barrier, outside that window or that circum -- that radius that they've drawn right now.

CROWLEY: Chad Myers at the CNN Weather Center for us.


MYERS: You're welcome.

CROWLEY: Some disaster survivors in Japan are asking what they could have done to deserve this. We'll take you to one city where the damage is great and so is the suffering.

And stand by for Wolf Blitzer's latest interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the situation in Japan and the safety of Americans.


CROWLEY: Fifteen thousand people now are dead or missing in Japan almost a full week after the quake and tsunami. The enormous toll from this disaster becomes more clear and painful every day.

Alex Thomson takes us to one hard-hit city, Kamaishi.


ALEX THOMAS, ITN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Army aid convoys heading east over the central mountains into the quake zone this morning. Several Japanese have asked me, what have we done to deserve this historically powerful earthquake, this vast tsunami damage and now the blizzards?

With officials here now saying more than 4,000 people are confirmed dead, we've come to the east coast to see how far the search and rescue for bodies has gone in this vast area of damage.

Our driver, Chin, just can't believe what he's seeing. He was last here on holiday several years ago.

HIROMI HARAGUCHI, KAMAISHI RESIDENT (through translator): The tsunami reached up there. There's only five homes left up there. All the rest are destroyed.

THOMSON: At the coast, we meet Hiromi and his plea to the wider world, that of so many here -- it's freezing, we need blankets, but much more.

HARAGUCHI (through translator): Well, to be frank, I need a bath and stuff like that. But I know it's too much to ask. It's so cold here. We need kerosene and we need petrol.

THOMSON: We have seen towns wrecked, factories pulverized, but never roads, bridges and the vast anti-tsunami sea defenses here at Kamaishi, smashed like they were today.

And Hiromi had been good enough to explain to us exactly what happened here six days ago.

(on camera): It was about half an hour after the last of the earth tremors finished. People noticed that this entire bay began simply emptying of water. The tide went out way beyond the red hulk of the red ship you can see there -- out even beyond the lighthouse, which you can just see sticking up in the snow.

The entire bay was emptied of water. Ad it stayed that way for some moments. Then, people living here describe an enormous rushing, roaring sound. It was the tsunami approaching at 15, 20 miles an hour, pushing everything before it right up, right through this bay.

The people living in the village in the corner there, many of them stayed put. They've never had problems with tsunamis before. They've come and gone with no issue.

On this occasion, things were very different.

(voice-over): We decided to try and get there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you write this? (ph)

THOMAS: Clearly, no vehicles are going anywhere near. And look at the size of these supposed tsunami defenses -- high enough, thick enough, long enough -- so everybody thought.

An entire town stripped away to the elaborate foundations of houses designed to withstand earthquakes, yes, but a tsunami of this scale, certainly not.

We finally reach the part of the town where local people had said many stayed, believing they'd be safe. Family property and effects strewn around everywhere, demonstrating these people's faith in the vast ramparts of their sea walls was fatally misplaced.

(on camera): Just look at it. There is no way you could get a vehicle anywhere near this village. Walking in is bad enough. There's no footprints in the snow. There are no footprints in the mud, for that matter. If the buildings or any vehicles here had been checked by search and rescue teams for bodies, there would be spray signs, aerosol on them to indicate that. There's nothing like that here at all. It's pretty clear this village has not been reached.

And I have to tell you, there is a fairly strong smell of decay coming from the buildings behind me, particularly from that garage just there.

(voice-over): One small example in one small village of the enormous job here in Japan simply to locate the bodies, let alone begin clearing up this mess.

Nearby on the sea wall -- the broken sea wall -- the warning notice for the tsunamis survives. But how many of the people here did so?

That will take some time to become clear.

Alex Thomson, Channel 4 News, Kamaishi.


CROWLEY: President Obama says America has a responsibility to learn from the nuclear disaster in Japan. should we be more concerned about our own reactors?

I will talk with a nuclear engineer who oversaw the Three Mile Island accident.

And in less than an hour, the UN considers imposing a no fly zone against Libya.

Is it enough?

Some aren't so convinced.


CROWLEY: The snow is not stopping the cleanup and recovery efforts in Japan, but it is slowing them down. A cold snap overnight left a fresh coat of snow and ice on the debris scattered across the landscape.

Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Lisa, a really critical vote at the UN tonight.


At 6:00 p.m., in just 40 minutes, the United States is set to vote on a no fly zone in Libya. But U.S. officials say that won't be enough. Ambassador Susan Rice suggests the Security Council do more than just impose a no fly zone, saying, they're weighing, quote, "a range of actions."

Meanwhile, forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi are moving closer to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. The Libyan leader today called the city's residents traitors.

After seven years of exile, former Haitian President Jean- Bertrand Aristide is set to return to his homeland. His lawyer tells CNN Aristide will board a jet plane tonight in South Africa. He'll land in Haiti tomorrow, just two days ahead of a highly anticipated election. The White House has warned Aristide's return could cause political turmoil.

And just hours ago, the House voted on a bill to bar federal funds for NPR. This follows Tuesday's vote stripping $50 million in funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports NPR and PBS. Most Republicans backed the bill, while every Democrat opposed it. It has little chance, though, of clearing the Democrat controlled Senate.

And speaking of the Senate, today it passed a bill extending funding for the federal government through April 8th. The bill, containing $6 billion in cuts, staves off a government shutdown at midnight Friday. The measure, which cleared the House Tuesday, now heads to President Obama to sign -- Candy.


What is preventing a full scale meltdown at the Daiichi plant?

I will ask a nuclear engineer and consultant who was a site director during the Three Mile accident.

And does Secretary of State Hillary Clinton see parallels between Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein?

Find out when she talked with Wolf Blitzer.


CROWLEY: The breaking news this hour -- nuclear workers are holding the line at the crippled power plant in Japan. Experts say water drops and other attempts to cool down an overheated reactor have been somewhat effective. The United States is stepping up its efforts to get Americans away from any radiation threat. The first U.S. chartered evacuation jet landed in Taiwan today. More are planned.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is staying on top of the crisis as she travels back to the U.S. from Tunisia.

Our Wolf Blitzer is with her.

He filed this report before they took off.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: I'm standing here outside the presidential palace in Tunis. The secretary of State is getting ready to leave. She just wrapped up her meeting with the -- the new president of Tunisia. There's a lot going on in North Africa right now, a lot going on in the Middle East. She's trying to stay on top of it.

But I can assure you, one thing is very much at the top of her agenda right now and on her mind -- what's happening very far away in Japan.

Madam -- Madam Secretary!

Madam Secretary!

Can we talk Japan for a second?

Can we talk Japan for one second?

Just to Japan for a second. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Oh, you know what, I --

BLITZER: Just for a sec.

CLINTON: Everybody is (INAUDIBLE) in.

BLITZER: All right.

CLINTON: -- I've just got to -- I've got to (INAUDIBLE) because we're running late.

BLITZER: Tell us what the latest is, because we're -- we're deeply concerned about Americans in Japan right now.

CLINTON: Well, as you know, the -- the president has authorized the departure of Americans. And that's the decision that was made based on all the evidence that we had before the day ended in -- in Washington yesterday. But there will be a continuing evaluation. This is, as I told you, literally a minute by minute analysis. And we're doing everything we can to support the Japanese and their heroic efforts in dealing with this unfolding disaster.

BLITZER: This must weigh heavily on you, even on a trip like this.

CLINTON: Well, it does, Wolf. I mean this is a very serious problem with, you know, widespread ramifications. And, you know, first and foremost, we want to help the Japanese, our great ally, deal with this and limit the -- the damage to the health and safety of the Japanese people. But our primary responsibility, always, is to the health and safety of Americans. And so we're -- we're working toward most of those goals.

BLITZER: This Cadillac is Secretary Clinton's car here in Tunis. She's been driving around in it, going to see the prime minister, the foreign minister, the president.

We're -- we're watching her every step of the way.

And -- and as important as these meetings are in Tunisia -- and she's really trying to send a powerful signal of U.S. support for the democracy movement in Tunisia -- certainly what's happening in Japan is very much on her mind. She's aware of what's going on. She's reading all the information, speaking with U.S. diplomats in Tokyo. She, I think it's fair to say, is deeply concerned, as is everyone, about what's going on in Japan.


CROWLEY: We have heard a lot of explanations about Japan's nuclear crisis and a lot of reassurances. But there is still quite a bit we don't know about what's happening inside the Daiichi plant and the scope of the radiation risk.

Joining us now, nuclear engineer and consultant, Lake Barrett. He is a former Energy Department official and he was a site manager during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident here in the United States.

Thank you so much for joining us on this.

Let me ask you, at the start of -- of this show, we had one of our reporters there say that there was a feeling, among the Japanese, at least, that this was -- this nuclear threat was being hyped on the outside, that there was more reason for calm for than what seems to be kind of a worldwide induced panic.

From what you know looking at this, are the Japanese underestimating the threat or are we overestimating the threat?

LAKE BARRETT, NUCLEAR ENGINEER: I think the Japanese people have it exactly right.

CROWLEY: You think there is less to this than what we're saying? And how so?

BARRETT: From what I've seen in the American press and some of the Western press, I think it's being way overplayed. This is a very serious matter, don't get that wrong, but, I mean, ,some of the pictures that you see where the headline says "Nuclear Catastrophe," and then there's pictures of body bags and people in masks, it has nothing to do with the nuclear thing at all.

So the average watcher of this might get the wrong impression that this is a nuclear death (ph). It's not that situation at all.

CROWLEY: So where are we now in the threat? I mean, tell us as much as you can tell. Obviously, you're not there, but it is dangerous, clearly.

BARRETT: It's a very serious situation. It is very dangerous there in the plant. The workers are working very, very hard to control three semi-melted reactors down that -- control three reactors that have been damaged very severely and partially melted, fuel pools. So they're working very hard to control the situation, but there's no need for widespread fear or health from a long distance.

CROWLEY: But yet we're seeing and our viewers are seeing these pictures of an incredibly damaged plant, and it's hard not to think that radiation isn't just spewing out.

Is that a possibility, that it would just be an uncontrolled release at some point? Or do you not see that happening?

BARRETT: Well, this is an industrial disaster of the first order. I mean, the building is a wreck, they've had a hydrogen explosion, so this is a very serious matter. And there is radioactivity being released from the plant right now. But the levels off site are not such that it's an immediate health concern for the widespread area. I mean, the local people have been evacuated, and that is appropriate for this time. And the people are working to bring it under better control than they have it now. So yes, material is leaving. Yes, you can see it with very sophisticated instrumentation. But it is not a major health risk outside the evacuation zone.

CROWLEY: And so tell me why for the U.S. that evacuation zone is 50 miles, where it is I think 12 miles for the Japanese. What accounts for that difference? Overcautiousness?

BARRETT: Well, my view, I believe so. When a government makes a decision for its people, it's trying to do the best thing. And you have a nuclear risk of something happening that's very low probability, where a very large release could come out, and you have to compare this radiation against what it takes to move people.

To move people 50 miles, a large population 50 miles, is a huge, huge endeavor. And I personally think that's beyond what's necessary at this point. But I'm not in the position and I don't have all the information. But as a nuclear engineer who went through this at Three Mile Island, I think we're being overcautious.

CROWLEY: Before I ask you about safety measures in our own nuclear plants here, what is the worst-case scenario that you can envision? Is that a complete meltdown? And then what's the threat?

BARRETT: I think we're past the worst time. Time is on your side because the heat levels are dropping.

When some of the cladding oxidized, it was an exothermic reaction. That has passed at this point.

So I think if the workers can get some of these electrical cables in, some of the cooling pumps running, which they're working very hard to do, I think we're going to be on the downside of this. Now, there's still going to be burps and there's still going to be lots of news about this for a long, long time, but I don't see -- the worst time I think has passed us.

CROWLEY: So, from what I understand, what happened here -- I mean, obviously, you have an earthquake, you have a tsunami. So there's -- electrical outlets fuel the cooling, and then the backup is a generator. And then after that, the backup is battery. And all of those three failed for one reason or another in these plants.

Can you envision a scenario in the United States where that might happen?

BARRETT: You can always invent scenarios for almost any situation. I mean, I've heard people get concerned about, say, Indian Point 1 at New York and the tsunami. Tsunamis don't go up rivers. So people start putting things together that don't make sense.

But yes, there's always a risk and there's always a threat. I believe the risk from the U.S. nuclear power plants is quite low and it's acceptable. We need clean, affordable energy. And I think nuclear has a role to play.

But I think we're going to learn a lot from this experience, we learned a lot from Three Mile Island, and the nation was improved after Three Mile Island. I think we're going to get better here, too, but we have a ways to go. And we need to improve what we have.

CROWLEY: What isn't at a place where you would like it to be at these nuclear power plants?

BARRETT: Well, I think we have to go back -- the NRC will methodically and carefully go through and look and see what needs to be done. The industry I know has already moved out in front of the NRC, as they should, to make improvement at their plants.

I think you need to look carefully first at plants that are subjected to potential tsunamis. The tsunami was the big issue here. It wasn't as much the earthquake as a tsunami. And we have a limited number of plants in the United States that have it. So they should look at the tsunami protection and see what needs to be done.

We've made many changes in our plants since 9/11 that made the access harder to get to, and it's made -- it's complicated some of the operators trying to do some of their work, because the buildings have been hard at electric gates and that sort of thing. So I think the NRC will look at this and we'll be a better country 10 years from now because of this.

CROWLEY: Lake Barrett, we can only hope we learn from it. Thank you so much for your expertise. We appreciate it.

BARRETT: Thank you.

CROWLEY: Thousands more Americans may evacuate Japan soon. We will look at the Pentagon's new moves to get military families out of harm's way.


CROWLEY: The State Department has already begun evacuating its employees from Japan, some 600. Now the Defense Department is authorizing voluntary evacuations for U.S. military family members stationed there. The Pentagon says those evacuees could number in the thousands.

Here now with more on the story, CNN Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence -- Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Candy, think about it. I mean, you've got thousands of American troops who are stationed in bases near that danger zone. And this isn't a war zone, so a lot of their husbands, wives, children, they're living there with those service members.

So what the Pentagon is now saying is if those military families want to leave, the Pentagon is going to reimburse them and pay for their travel home. They're still advising these families the best way to get out is by commercial or charter flights, but if it gets to the point where there's not enough commercial flights, and there's a sizeable number of these families that want to leave, the Pentagon is saying we will bring in some military craft.

In addition, the family members who may be at home right now who were planning to, say, go visit, or rejoin their service members in Japan, they are being forbidden from coming back to Japan right now -- Candy.

CROWLEY: So, Chris, what we know, though, is that the military members are staying there, and we have these radiation leaks. How is the U.S. military adapting to that?

LAWRENCE: In a number of ways. For one, you have got a tremendous shipment of pills that will ward off the effects of radiation. Those are being shipped from an Army base in Hawaii to that area just in case they're needed.

In addition, the U.S. military has been flying the Global Hawk surveillance plane over the area, trying to map some of the damage and take some readings in that area, and then sharing that with their Japanese counterparts. They have also got an elite nine-man special team that is now headed to the area. This is a team of chemical, biological, nuclear experts, so to speak.

They will be authorized to go within that 50-mile danger zone that none of the other troops can pass. They're going to be advising some of the military commanders there about how to work at a chemical burn environment, so if they had to, giving them advice on how they would have to resupply, how they would have to decontaminate, things like that.

CROWLEY: Thanks so much, Chris.

Our Chris Lawrence for us at the Pentagon.

President Obama is not taking any chances after the nuclear disaster in Japan. He has already ordered a complete review of safety at America's nuclear plants.

We will tell you more about that coming up.

And what's all that radiation in Japan doing to those exposed to it? The concerns, ahead.


CROWLEY: President Obama says the United States has a responsibility to learn from the nuclear crisis in Japan. He says he's ordered a comprehensive review of safety at domestic nuclear power plants.

We want to bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.

And I guess the overriding question, Jeanne, is can U.S. plants withstand the kind of disasters that Japan has seen?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, the question is broader than that. It isn't just about the plants, but the whole environment around the plants.

So what if the U.S. faced this kind of mega disaster? Could the country cope?

At a congressional hearing this afternoon, the former inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security said the country is better prepared than it was even five years ago, during Hurricane Katrina, but --


RICHARD SKINNER, FMR. DHS INSPECTOR GENERAL: We as a nation should be much better prepared than we are today. There does not appear to be, in my opinion, a sense of urgency within FEMA to turn words and plans into action. FEMA is an agency that always, at least in my opinion and my observations and my association with them over the last 20 years, seems to be an agency that's always in a constant state of flux.


MESERVE: There are specific concerns right now, of course, about whether the company could cope with a devastating event or series of events at one of the country's 104 nuclear plants. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was asked directly.


CRAIG FUGATE, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: Given what we're seeing there, it would go I think far beyond what we currently have in our radiological emergency preparedness program.

We would not speak to the reactor. That would be really the lead of the NRC. But if there were consequences off sites, the ability to monitor that as a team effort, the ability to do decontamination and support the evacuations, I think there's a lot more capability that even goes beyond what we have in our commercial reactor safety programs that could be brought to bear.


MESERVE: Now, earlier this week, Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts wrote a letter to President Obama expressing concern that no one agency saw itself as clearly in command of emergency response in a nuclear disaster. A White House spokesman counters that current plans give the government flexibility and agility to respond aggressively and effectively.

But the response to a catastrophe isn't just about the federal government. State and local governments have key roles. And a recent survey found that most states are poorly prepared to respond to a major radiation emergency like the one now unfolding in Japan -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Jeanne, I think sometimes we found, at least in Katrina, that flexibility and agility sometimes meant that everybody step back and waited for someone else to do it. Is that the concern here?

MESERVE: Well, that's Congressman Markey's concern, either that that they'll step back or, rather, that no one will step forward and take charge and say, hey, this is mine. It's differentiated depending on whether a nuclear event happens in a plant or outside a plant and so forth. Different circumstances would put different agencies in charge. What he's saying is we need a clearer plan here, a clearer template, so if and when we do have this kind of tragedy, everybody knows who to turn to.

CROWLEY: Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve.

Thanks so much.

MESERVE: You bet.

CROWLEY: Japan's government says radiation levels aren't high enough to be dangerous, but a different story coming from American experts. Who is right on this? I'll talk this over with Anderson Cooper, live from Tokyo, coming up.

Plus, an entire town decimated by the tsunami, the pictures you have to se to believe. Brian Todd walks us through what's left behind.


CROWLEY: Just a quick clarification before we move on. The State Department is evacuating the families of State Department employees. So far, those employees of the State Department are staying in Japan, as are U.S. military personnel.

You have seen the shocking images -- overturned vehicles, destroyed homes, flooded streets and valleys all across Japan. But those are the places -- call them lucky -- that at least still have something standing.

Our Brian Todd is in one Japanese town that has nothing, not even a single home left behind.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a matter of minutes there was almost nothing left. The coastal town of Unosumai stood squarely before the tsunami's ferocious energy and seemed to suffer like no other place.

Other cities in Japan could claim that at least some of their neighborhoods survived. Not here.

(on camera): We're at a rare vantage point where you can actually visualize the force and the scope of the tsunami. Look. It knocked the railroad track right off its moorings. It was that powerful.

And then look just all around me. The sweep of this is incredible. It came off the inlet within minutes and destroyed everything for as far as you can see.

(voice-over): Some local residents who escaped are back. They seemed still in shock as they start to pick through their homes.

I spoke with Yosuko Fujiwara.

(on camera): Describe how you feel about what this has done to your home, your town.

(through translator): This was the first time we went during my 75 years life, and I was very upset. And I was very scared.

TODD (voice-over): But in some cases people exhibit almost unfathomable behavior, combing through homes that aren't there, doing menial tasks, seemingly just to maintain their sanity.

In the midst of this carnage, what good could it do to shovel small clumps of debris from one side of a walkway to the other? Just a few feet away, one visitor isn't surprised. Dr. Steve Chin, an emergency medicine specialist with the L.A. County search and rescue team, has seen these patterns in Haiti and after the tsunami in Sri Lanka.

(on camera): Doctor, why do people pick through these remnants to take with them? What are they doing?

DR. STEVE CHIN, L.A. COUNTY FIRE & RESCUE: You know, it's a catastrophic incident. It's a horrendous thing. It's something that's totally out of anyone's experience. So trying to piece back together those things that were normal for you is a big part of the healing process, and starting that process of recovery.

TODD (voice-over): A Japanese official tells us people in this town are known for being provincial, not venturing out much, keeping to themselves. So, of course their lives have now been disrupted and destroyed on two levels. They've lost their homes, and they've had to be displaced, take up residence in a place they're not used to, while thinking of everything they left behind.


TODD: And we're now back near Ofunato, Japan, where the crews are just packing up some gear, getting ready for their next deployment. The towns like this in the northeast of Japan will take a long, long time to recover. It will take more than international crews, of course, to help them. And the Japanese government certainly has a lot of work on its hand to address the humanitarian need in the region of the northeast of Japan -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Brian, where do these people go? We see them coming back to take things away, but clearly wherever they're staying has to be close enough for them to walk. Is that so?

TODD: Well, some of the people we spoke to said that they're going to stay with relatives. The lady I talked to in the piece said she's going to stay with her son for a while. So some of them do have extended family in the general area here, but, you know, you just -- a lot of them, you just don't know where they're going to go.

And it's really hard to actually get a gauge of how many people survived the tsunami. And in this town, Unosumai, it was so just completely leveled, so completely destroyed, that you get a sense that there aren't a lot of townspeople who might have survived from this. And what officials have told is that a lot of the time the tsunami will carry victims back out to sea when it recedes, so some of the bodies may never be recovered.

CROWLEY: Brian Todd, covering these devastated Japanese towns for us.

Thanks, Brian.

We are monitoring Japan's nuclear crisis minute by minute. Stand by for an update on efforts to cool down reactors and restore power.



We have with us now our Sanjay Gupta, who has been in Japan for almost a week now, in Tokyo.

Sanjay, let me ask you -- there's so much interest in these men who are actually at the plant trying to cool down the core of these reactors. What do they have on? What is protecting them from the effects of radiation exposure?

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, imagine what their life must be like in there for them, Candy.

First of all, I mean, there's no power, right? That's what started this whole problem in the first place. They may be walking around by flashlight trying to get things done, dealing with explosions, dealing with fires.

I think we have some of the gear I want to show you. For example, this is a hazmat suit type thing. It's sealed around the neck and around the ankles. But look at it. It's really not much. There's a mask like this that people may wear, Candy.

Again, in the situations I was just describing, a respirator on there that could help. And then there's detection equipment, where you're actually detecting how much radiation is in the air, and certainly being able to detect it on yourself or your equipment as well.

But the most harmful types of radiation is gamma ionizing radiation. That's not going to do much. I mean, that penetrates just about everything.

So these are guys who know the deal, Candy. They know what this radiation can do. And they know that this protective gear may offer some benefit against some types of radiation, but not everything. So it's quite a frightening situation.

And we know that inside the plant, the levels have been quite high. We don't know the exact numbers, but if you look outside the plant, you can sort of get an idea of how high the levels must have been inside. So it's quite something, quite remarkable, what they're going through.

CROWLEY: Now, we have been -- people have referred to this at least as "suicide mission." But is it necessarily that at the state we are right now?

GUPTA: Well, you know, I think we don't know for sure right now, Candy. I think that, you know, there's two things.

First of all, scientifically, in order to study this type of thing with radiation, you would have to knowingly expose people to radiation. That study is obviously never going to happen. So how do we know about what we're talking about or what they're going through is based on previous disasters, to some extent -- Chernobyl, Three Mile Island people have talked about, and every situation was different. So it's very hard to say for sure.

The second thing is, one of the missing pieces of the puzzle is, how high is the radiation in these plants? How much radiation have these workers been exposed to? How well has this idea of rotating workers, decreasing time of exposure, how well has that worked? Are they taking these medications to try and decrease their likelihood of developing cancers?

So there's lots of questions I think that still need to be answered. But it is possible they could be doing their jobs, and while the radiation that they're getting is very, very high, as compared to normal, it could still be lower than the threshold that would cause an impact on human health.

CROWLEY: Certainly what we hope for.

Our Sanjay Gupta in Tokyo.

Thanks, Sanjay.