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updated 3/15/2011 12:12:23 PM ET 2011-03-15T16:12:23

Guests: Chuck Todd, Eugene Robinson, Anne Thompson, Ian Williams, Curt Welling, Suzy DeFrancis, Alex Thompson, Edward Markey, Jason Grumet, Suzy DeFrancis, Charles Ferguson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Nuclear planet.

This is HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews in Los Angeles.  Leading off tonight: Japanese meltdown.  The country of Japan is confronting a grim reality three days after the massive earthquake and tsunami.  Thousands of bodies are washing up on the shore, and the death toll is likely to go over 10,000 dead.  And for many who survived the catastrophe, there‘s no power, no running water and very little food.

The disaster in Japan is threefold—humanitarian and economic, but also nuclear after several explosions at a nuclear reactor increased the threat of meltdown.  We‘ll get the latest from the earthquake zone at the top of the show.

Plus, the nuclear crisis.  Can meltdown be avoided?  What meltdown fears in Japan mean for nuclear energy here in America.  And later, the relief effort, overwhelming in a country that hasn‘t seen this level of hardship since World War II.

We begin with Alex Thompson of Britain‘s Channel 4.  He joins us from Sendai, Japan.  Alex, tell us what you‘ve seen over there.  It‘s quite dramatic.

ALEX THOMPSON, CHANNEL 4 NEWS:  I‘ve covered disasters around the world and wars for 22 years.  I‘ve never seen anything quite on the scale of this.  Let me give you just one example of a town that we went to.  You walk in and—you can‘t drive, but you walk into a place which has been completely pulverized.  You might see one or two buildings which are made of concrete which have withstood the tsunami, and then there‘ll be anything up to a mile, mile-and-a-half of utter wasteland, debris, houses reduced to matchwood, personal effects, a child‘s doll, a wedding photograph, an old guitar, and thousands, hundreds of thousands of tons of girders, of bricks, of mortar, of concrete, anything imaginable that you could see from a town which has been put through the most extraordinary pulverizing machine of the tsunami.

You can build in a certain degree of protection against earthquakes, and goodness me, the Japanese do that as well as anybody on the planet.  You cannot build in protection against these sorts of forces, when a tsunami upwards of 30 feet high comes into a town at 15 to 20 miles an hour and pushes five, six miles into the land.

MATTHEWS:  Does the government or do the news media have a full picture yet of the damage?

THOMPSON:  We do not have anything like a full picture of the damage.  I‘m speaking to you from Sendai, which is one of the more easily accessible towns.  Even today, at the shoreline here, they were going around picking up bodies, collecting bodies.  Now, that is the sort of thing that you see usually on the first 24, 48 hours from a disaster like this happening.  This is happening in one of the most accessible areas, four days into the disaster.

And the range of the disaster is extraordinary.  To the south of where I‘m speaking, there is a very real possibility tonight of a full-scale nuclear meltdown at a nuclear power plant.  To the north of where I‘m speaking, there‘s a major forest fire going on caused by oil tanks being ruptured by the earthquake.  And all they‘ve got to do—to get people off that island, all they‘ve got to do the job is simply one small helicopter.

MATTHEWS:  What can‘t you see in the pictures?  What‘s it like to confront the faces of the Japanese people in these hours?

THOMPSON:  The Japanese people are showing the most extraordinary stoicism, for which they are quite rightly noted the world over.  But you know, there‘s also an extraordinary warmth and compassion.  Let me put it this way.  We went into a town which was almost completely destroyed.  It‘s without question the worst affected town in this entire disaster.  And the area is huge, let me tell you.

A woman came out.  She was living in a school dormitory with her family because her house has been obliterated.  She looked unsure.  She looked a little suspicious.  Who were we?  What did we want?  Then it was explained to her by our interpreter.  She hugged her.  She hugged the producer.  She said, I thank you.  I can‘t believe you‘ve come from the other side of the world.  I can‘t believe people care.  I can‘t believe they‘re interested.  But I‘m so glad that the outer world—the outside world now cares and sees what is happening to us.

MATTHEWS:  After World War II, the Japanese people forswore war as a foreign policy.  They rejected militarism of any kind.  They thought they were not going to see this kind of devastation.  Is this a shock to them, to face this from a natural cause, rather than war?

THOMPSON:  No, it‘s not a shock to them.  The concept is not a shock.  They live with it every day.  You need and you can get special insurance, for instance, for earthquakes in this country, and special insurance again to cover you for tsunami protection.  They‘re going to be paying out on that one in a very big way, let me tell you.

They live with the idea that you have to take part in mass evacuation drills all the time.  They‘re very well averse (ph) to what seismic activity and plate tectonics can do in this part of the world.  They are very well averse to the possibility of tsunamis.  They do happen.

But a tsunami on this scale has simply taken the entire country by surprise, from its stock exchange and its major corporations who are—who are slowing down and even closing some of their factories, right through to ordinary people, who have lived with the possibility of a tsunami, perhaps on (ph) that small house by the beach, but never, ever thought that they would see anything on this kind of scale.

MATTHEWS:  Were the—well, this must be an obvious question.  I don‘t think there is an answer, but I‘ll try with you, Alex.  You‘re on site.  Did they ever think of tsunami, earthquake and the dangers of nuclear energy all at once?

THOMPSON:  I think they probably did.  And I know for a fact that the kind of building, the kind of design which goes into their PWRs, their pressurized water reactors, which absolutely fringe Honshu Island—it‘s the main source of power for the country, it‘s their engine house—yes, they did.  And yes, they engineered these things into the situation.

But it‘s fair to say that they are now looking at that very carefully in the future, looking at redesigning.  Vladimir Putin has ordered a redesign of Russian nuclear installations on the Pacific seaboard as a matter of urgency.  The size of this earthquake—it went on for more than a minute.  It was well over eight on the scale of magnitude.  It was relatively close to the shore.  The length of it, the profundity of it and the resulting tsunamis have created a situation where I think all nations are really thinking again and looking to the redesigning of future reactors.

MATTHEWS:  Finally, the social order of the country—you noticed the

you talked to the stoicism of the Japanese people, which you say is world-renowned.  How well are they working together?  Are they operating as a community, as a nation?  Is there any chaos that you can see?

THOMPSON:  The remarkable thing is chaos, no.  Absolutely not.  A number of people have noted the fact in our teams that there‘s no looting here to speak of.  I heard of no reports of that.  There are great shortages of petrol and gas.  What you get is simply long queues, a mile, two miles is not unusual for people to just sit patiently and wait for their relatively small ration of gasoline.  That‘s the kind of thing you have here.  You‘re getting that at food shops.  You‘re getting that even for water.  So people are very organized about that.  They are very patient about it.  But what they need is simply more people, more plant (ph), more knowhow.

MATTHEWS:  OK, from Sendai, Japan, it‘s been great getting your very tough reporting and excellent reporting, Alex Thompson of the UK Channel 4.  Sir, thank you for that report.

THOMPSON:  You‘re most welcome.

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, much more on this nuclear crisis in Japan.  Can meltdown be avoided?  That is the question.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Some of the most dramatic video we‘ve seen, and it‘s all dramatic, from the disaster in Japan was of the tsunami wave rolling across an airport.  NBC‘s Ian Williams went back to that airport to survey the damage.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

IAN WILLIAMS, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  The port city of Sendai was the closest city to the quake‘s epicenter.  One of the worst affected areas is this industrial and housing zone around the airport.  Some of the first images broadcast of the tsunami came from here, the water barreling ashore and sweeping across Sendai airport Friday, engulfing runways and battering the air (ph)  bridges.

This is what it looked like on the ground today.

(on camera):  This is a parking lot of the Sendai flying school.  Now amid the wrecked cars sits this training aircraft, dumped here by the wave, swept from the hangars over the back there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  When we return, the nuclear crisis in Japan and what it will take to avoid a meltdown.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Right now, all attention is on a widening nuclear crisis in Japan.  On Saturday, there was an explosion at reactor number one at the Fukushima nuclear plant, 150 miles north of Tokyo.  Early this morning, another explosion at reactor number three at the same plant.  While the explosions damaged the buildings surrounding the reactors, Japanese officials say the containment vessels remain intact.  Well, the nuclear fuel rods have overheated because the earthquake knocked out the electricity used to pump in the regular water used as a coolant.  In a last-ditch attempt to avert a full meltdown, the Japanese started to inject sea water into the reactors, which will disable them permanently.

Can Japan avoid a full meltdown?  What should we expect in the days ahead?  Joining me right now is NBC chief environmental affairs correspondent, Anne Thompson.  Anne, how many reactors are a problem at this point?

ANNE THOMPSON, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  There are three reactors at this plant that are a problem, Chris.  Units one and units three, as you mentioned, were—were—they both endured hydrogen explosions.  But today, you know, the biggest concern has really been about unit two.  And that‘s because the water level in unit two dropped so dramatically that it exposed the fuel rods, and that‘s a problem because when the fuel rods are exposed, there‘s no water to cool them and then melting begins.  And that‘s what they‘re trying to avoid.

They managed to get some hoses hooked up and they started pumping sea water into unit two, as well.  They were the only three units that were active when the earthquake struck, and the reactors actually worked because they shut them down.  I mean, the systems worked as they should.  They shut them down.  What didn‘t work was the backup power system.  They run on diesel generators.  Once they shut down, they are off the grid, they run on diesel generators.  When the tsunami came in, the tsunami knocked out those diesel generators.  And then you go to backup battery power.  Well, apparently, the back-up battery power they had didn‘t last enough.

MATTHEWS:  And that was to provide the coolant.  And explain how that normally works.

THOMPSON:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Normally, you have to cool down these rods, right?

THOMPSON:  Right.  You have to cool down these rods.  And what they do is—it‘s simple.  They pump water into them.  They use the term “coolant,” but it‘s just water.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

THOMPSON:  And that pump runs from power on the grid.  And when the grid got knocked down, then you go to the diesel generator and then you go to back-up battery.  And then they all failed.  And then when that happens, you‘re not getting water in to cover the rods and the water level goes down, and then you have exposed rods and you can have melting.  And that‘s what they are desperately trying to avoid.

And they‘ve clearly made a decision—some people call it “Hail Mary pass,” some people call at it last ditch effort, but they‘ve decided to pour sea water in there because the most important thing is to get those rods cooled down and to prevent melting.  And in pouring in the sea water, they for all intents and purposes, the experts I‘ve talked to, said they‘ve lost use of those reactors.

MATTHEWS:  You know, it reminds me of being a kid and growing up and driving old cars and overheated engines because the water‘s not cooling the engine.  But in this case, it‘s serious business, as you and I know, because it‘s not just one car along the side of the road with an overheated engine.  And here‘s the question.  I haven‘t thought about this, and most of us haven‘t, but you know this issue.  What happens to people when they‘re exposed to radiation of the kind that might come out of these potential or even halfway meltdowns?

THOMPSON:  Well, the biggest risk is that you could get cancer.  And I think that‘s—and the other thing is you can‘t see it.  You can‘t feel it.  You can‘t smell it.  You don‘t—you don‘t know where it is.  And that is the—perhaps the most frightening part it.  But that‘s the real danger, is that—getting exposed to a heavy dose of radiation, that you could get cancer.  And so one of the things they do—this is why they hand out those iodine pills because the stable iodine that they give you, what that does is protects your thyroid from taking in any kind of radioactivity material and therefore causing thyroid cancer.  But those iodine pills only protect your thyroid.  They don‘t protect other parts of your body.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Anne Thompson, for that great report.

For more now on the control of this nuclear crisis—and that‘s the issue now, controlling the crisis—we turn to Charles Ferguson, who‘s president of the Federation of American Scientists.

I guess, Charles, the question now is how does this—we grew up—I grew up.  I‘m older than you.  I grew up with the term “fallout,” strontium 90, all those concerns about nuclear testing we had to deal with back in the ‘50s and then the ‘60s, of course.  Then we stopped some of those concerns.

But right, what‘s the concern of the fallout coming from Japan across the Pacific, if you will, to our own country?

CHARLES FERGUSON, FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTISTS:  Well, Chris, to date myself, I grew up near Three Mile Island.  I was just entering high school when the accident happened in 1979, and I remember those concerns back then.  And there are dozens of radioactive isotopes that are produced from the fission reaction.  And as Anne was saying, iodine‘s just one them we can protect against.  But there are others that we need to make sure people are away from the area.  And the Japanese authorities have seemed to do the right thing, get people out of the area as quickly as possible to minimize the exposure.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at this grid we‘ve seen.  It‘s a horrific grid, but it compares the various nuclear meltdown scenarios.  We have Chernobyl, of course, in our—in our deep memory of the former Soviet Union, where that occurred, and that was the worst.  Here‘s Chernobyl.  It has the highest rating of seven.  The levels below that are at five, Three Mile Island.  That got a five.  The Japanese officials are saying now the situation at Fukushima right now, the one we‘re looking at, that plant, is still a four.

Give us a sense of what that means, seven being Chernobyl, five being Three Mile Island, and then the difference not just in the meltdown degree but the level of successful containment.  Put those two figures together, meltdown degree and containment.

FERGUSON:  Absolutely.  So this is not going a Chernobyl type of an accident because in Chernobyl, there was not a containment structure to keep that radioactive material inside the nuclear plant.  And apparently, what the Japanese authorities are saying is that the primary containment structure that‘s around the reactor core itself is still intact.  The hydrogen explosions at reactors one and two—or excuse me, one and three -- (INAUDIBLE) blow holes through the secondary containment structure.  That‘s a concern because spent fuel pools are inside that containment building.  And if those lose water, those heat up, then we could potentially have radioactive material going into the environment.

So if I had to rate this on a scale between Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, I would say this is probably going to be worse than Three Mile Island but not nearly as worse as Chernobyl.

MATTHEWS:  Let me put in the cultural factors.  I never trusted the old communist Soviet Union.  They never told us the truth.  I never felt they gave us the truth about Chernobyl.  The United States does value individual citizens.  Whatever you think of the capitalist system, our government tends to look out for people.  Why were we more successful in containment with Three Mile than they were with Chernobyl?  Is it just a difference in this—in the economic and the cultural and ideological systems?

FERGUSON:  Chris, that‘s a key part of it.  You know, in fact, Gorbachev said that the secrecy behind the Chernobyl accident probably contributed to—major contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

But speaking as a nuclear engineer—and I was trained as a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy, and I‘m proud to say that a lot of U.S. Navy personnel stepped up to the plate right after the Three Mile Island accident and improved safety of the nuclear system in the United States.  The design of that nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island was much, much better than at Chernobyl.

MATTHEWS:  We have 31 designed nuclear plants in the United States that are similar to the one over in Nikishima (ph) right now, the one causing a great concern right now. 

Give us a sense.  Do you think we have a better backup system than they do?  They don‘t seem to have had a good one, because it was undermined by the tsunami, which turned off the electricity and affected their diesel backup—actually, the electric battery backup to the diesel system.  None of it worked.  They ended up putting in seawater, which is destroying their plants, as an extreme measure. 

How are we in that regard, in all these degrees, in terms of nuclear -

diesel backup, battery backup?  Do we have all these backup systems? 

FERGUSON:  We do. 

And there are parts of the United States, say, in California, where there are two nuclear plants, at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, where concerns have been raised about seismic activity.  There are a lot of faults in California.  In fact, three years ago, in 2008, a fault was found near the Diablo Canyon site, the so-called Shoreline Fault.

And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the plant operators said, we‘re on top of it.  We‘re checking it out.  The plant is safe against those types of accidents. 

But, still, you have got to wonder and think we‘re going see a reevaluation of nuclear power in the United States as a result of this event happening in Japan. 

MATTHEWS:  What would you do?  What‘s your just one instinct?  What‘s your first instinct that we didn‘t know and what we have learned from this disaster and potentially worse disaster in Japan? 

FERGUSON:  Well, to put such a nuclear plant right on the coastline facing east in Honshu, where—confronting the Pacific Ocean—and they invented the word tsunami in Japan.  So I don‘t want to point to many fingers of blame at the Japanese.

I know why they have invested so much in nuclear power.  But they should have been better prepared this type of catastrophe, even though it‘s sort of a once-in-a-lifetime event. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s a perfect storm of hell.

Anyway, thank you, Charles Ferguson.  Great—great analysis.  I really appreciate it.

Coming up:  Those explosions at that Japanese nuclear reactor have many in America—well, this is an understatement—rethinking nuclear power, because even some of the liberals who thought they were totally anti-nuke have come around because of the concerns about energy. 

Well, we‘re certainly rethinking the whole thing again, the whole ball of wax.  Will this threat of this meltdown in Japan change on politics on nuclear here at home? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT:  I don‘t want to stop the building of nuclear power plants, but I think we have got to kind of quietly put, quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what—what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami. 

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER:  I don‘t think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy.  I think we ought to just concentrate on helping the Japanese in any way that we can. 

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  We‘re going to have to see what happens here, obviously.  It‘s still—still, things are happening.  I‘m still willing to look at nuclear.  As I have always said, it has to be done safely and carefully. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  That was an array of opinion and some of the reaction on Sunday to what‘s happening in Japan politically here at home.

Are U.S. reactors ready to handle a similar disaster?  We have seen the political reaction.  But now Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Ed Markey, an expert in this field, he‘s been chairman—in fact, he‘s been ranking member, but he‘s been the expert on the Democratic side for decades now.

Mr. Markey, here‘s the question.  It seemed like the president, a Democrat, and many Democrats were willing, given the exigency of our energy needs in the world, the dependence on the Middle East, with all its craziness and uncertainty, we were willing to go into an area we didn‘t really want to go into, nuclear.  Now we see the danger in the other direction.  What it‘s going to do to our politics? 

REP. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  Well, again, it‘s not protesters that have hurt nuclear power over the last 30 years.  It‘s investors. 

After Three Mile Island, after Chernobyl, investors, Wall Street just walked away from nuclear power.  So, just as some confidence had begun to be built in the industry, we now have the worst accident in the history of the world, with the exception of Chernobyl. 

So, I think that what we‘re about to see is a dramatic rise in the risk premium for Wall Street to invest in nuclear power plants.  They have already said all along that they won‘t build any nuclear power plants unless the taxpayers guarantee it, which is the condition which the nuclear industry and Wall Street have extracted from the last couple of Congresses. 

But this makes it even more dangerous out in the marketplace.  So, I think that it was never going to be a large part of the electricity mix in our country going forward.  I think this is going harm it even more. 

MATTHEWS:  Congressman, let‘s take a look at a map that shows the risky earthquake areas in our country.  The red areas are the highest risk.  And we can see them out near the San Andreas Fault obviously on the West Coast.

Here‘s a map of the 104 active nuclear power plants over—setting that in our country.  They‘re mostly in eastern half of the country.  And here are those two maps together showing the quake-prone areas and the plants themselves. 

Have we been careful to array our plants away from the earthquake zones? 

MARKEY:  No, we have not. 

For example, the San Onofre nuclear power plant in California is only built to withstand a 7.0 earthquake.  The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was a 7.8 earthquake.  The Diablo Canyon plant in California was built on an earthquake fault, which, by the way, was not discovered until after the whole plant had been designed, and Shell was out—Shell oil was out drilling for oil, and they found the fault. 

The same thing is true down in Southeastern United States, another earthquake-prone area.  So, we have not avoided them.  And, in fact, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site is right on an earthquake fault.  So, obviously, over the years, there‘s I think been a little bit of wishful thinking that an earthquake could not occur in the United States, but we‘re getting a very serious warning from Japan that we should not believe that humanity can trump Mother Nature.

MATTHEWS:  What..

MARKEY:  And if Mother Nature decides to strike, we will have big problems. 

MATTHEWS:  This has quite been a object lesson for us all.  And it may get worse.

Congressman, what is a good, smart, prudent move to make now, if you were a centrist on this issue?  Is there such a thing as a centrist on this issue? 

MARKEY:  I do not believe that confidence will be high in nuclear power, unless the centrist steps back and says that we must do a complete reexamination of the premise upon which we build nuclear power plants in our country, that we build true defense and depth into the new facilities, and, by the way, that we review the latest, almost approved design at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Westinghouse AP1000 design, that one of the top scientists at the regulatory commission is saying is so vulnerable, that it could shatter like a glass cup. 

So, if boosterism replaces common sense and rationality, then that boosterism is going to lead to a catastrophe for the industry financially, because the public will not trust the experts, unless the experts can convince the public that they are taking these warnings very seriously. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s good to have you on, Congressman.  I know you‘re one of the few people in this country that has taken the nuclear danger of nuclear energy seriously for all these decades.  Thank you for coming on.

MARKEY:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  Jason Grumet is the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

And, sir, I guess the question is to you, what is your—is give me another perspective on this, sir.  I want to get as rich a perspective.  Most people look at the conversation we have had tonight about us getting cancer, the possibility that, in order to get energy, we have to risk cancer is too high a risk.

Your perspective, sir? 

JASON GRUMET, PRESIDENT, BIPARTISAN POLICY CENTER:  Well, Chris—and, first of all, I want to applaud Congressman Markey for all his efforts over the last few decades to make nuclear power safer. 

But the big issue, Chris, is that all we want is energy that is cheap, clean, secure, reliable, and domestic.  That‘s all we want.  The problem is that that does not exist.

MATTHEWS:  Is there such a thing? 

(CROSSTALK)

GRUMET:  No, there‘s not such a thing.  So, obviously continued investment and much more investment in longer-term R&D is one of the answers. 

In the meantime, we have to balance imperatives.  And one of the real attributes of nuclear power is not only that it‘s 20 percent of our existing electric generation, but it‘s 70 percent, over 70 percent of our non-carbon generation. 

And Congressman Markey has been one of the strongest advocates for the need to with climate change and other pollution issues.

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

GRUMET:  And to suggest that we jump away from that towards coal or even natural gas I think is unrealistic. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s talk about jumping away.  My—I was at the dentist on Saturday and I noticed, as I do notice whenever I go the dentist or this—and you get one of those X-rays, the dentist leaves the room.  The dental assistant or the nurse in some cases will leave the room.  So we do know that there‘s a danger of too much radiation.  We have known it for decades, if not a couple of generations now.

Are we taking the same kind of precautions that a doctor takes when we build a nuclear plant?  Are we going all the way in making sure we don‘t get radioactive danger? 

GRUMET:  Well, look, I think we certainly have made all of the efforts that we have been able to. 

And this tragedy is going to force us to reconsider a lot of these concerns.  But also worth noting, you know, we haven‘t built a plant for 40 years.  The AP1000, which is being considered, is major technological advancement, based on what‘s on the ground today. 

And also I think important to focus on the fact that we keep talking about seismic, seismic, seismic.  But it seems to me that the real issue was the tsunami.  And I think we really need to be looking not at the seismic zones, as much as we these tsunami zones, if we‘re going to try to understand the impact on the U.S. 

MATTHEWS:  And we don‘t have tsunamis in our country, you‘re saying? 

GRUMET:  Well, it was 4,000 years ago, apparently, that the last major underground landslide created a wave of the magnitude or greater than we just saw in Japan. 

MATTHEWS:  And you‘re not worried about the San Andreas fault out in California and those nuclear plants?

GRUMET:  Oh, look, Chris, I‘m worried about everything.  And I‘m worried about coal mining accidents.  And I‘m worried about climate change.  And I‘m worried about mercury pollution.

I think the question right now is both looking forward and looking at the existing facilities.  There will be a hard-core look at existing U.S.  facilities. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, just—just—just to put my perspective, there‘s a difference between coal mining accident where the courageous, gutsy coal miners get trapped down there.  And that‘s a horror, and it affects the workers. 

There‘s a—we have had a deep drilling problem down in the Gulf, which was scary in terms of environment.  But nuclear affect human lives immediately and in the long term.  It kills.  We saw what happened when we dropped nuclear weapons on Japan.  We saw the dangers of Chernobyl and the reality, the horror of it, and almost the horror of Three Mile Island.  We‘re looking at it.

And every time I drive by Three Mile Island, it scares me to look at it.  You‘re not saying...

GRUMET:  No, I‘m not...

MATTHEWS:  Are you willing to say that nuclear is in the same category as other—another energy source?

GRUMET:  No, absolutely—absolutely not. 

Nuclear has low-probability, high-consequence problem. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.   

GRUMET:  So, I think, you know, we cannot tolerate any possibility of another Chernobyl, of another meltdown.  We have to use all deliberate knowledge to make sure that we‘re confident that that won‘t happen. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

GRUMET:  But, at the same time, nothing that just happened in Japan suggests that our existing facilities are vulnerable. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, that‘s an argument you have made.  And we will hear other arguments tonight. 

Jason Grumet, thank you very much for joining us.  Great having you on.

GRUMET:  Pleasure.

MATTHEWS:  Much more coming up. 

And, tonight, I‘m going to be on “The Tonight Show” on a somewhat hopefully lighter note, although we will probably talk about this tonight.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Michelle Caruso-Cabrera with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

We had a late-day surge, but it was not enough to push the markets into positive territory.  The Dow Jones industrial average finished 51 points lower, but well off of the worst moments of the day.  The S&P 500 lost nearly eight.  The Nasdaq fell 14. 

Events in Japan having a noticeable impact in a number of sectors today.  Japan‘s benchmark Nikkei index closed down more than 6 percent overnight, as industries and refineries shut down production.  Right now, losses there are estimated at around $175 billion. 

U.S. oil refiners soared on hopes that they will be picking up some of that activity.  And solar stocks also gaining ground after the quake raised new concerns about the future of nuclear energy. 

Toyota plunging on word that it‘s suspending operations at all of its Japanese plants until at least March 16.  And a roller-coaster ride for the yen, finishing only slightly lower, as the Bank of Japan supplied $41 billion in yen to banks and lenders in the hardest-hit areas. 

That‘s it from CNBC.  We‘re first in business worldwide—now back to

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL. 

Now to the humanitarian relief challenge following the devastation over there.  The tsunami caused devastation in Japan. 

Suzy DeFrancis is public affairs officer for the American Red Cross, and Curt Welling is the president and CEO of AmeriCares. 

Thank you both.

Suzy, it‘s good to see you, under these strange circumstances, not so much. 

SUZY DEFRANCIS, CHIEF PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICER, AMERICAN RED CROSS: 

Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  But tell us—it seems to me—what are you looking at, as a Red Cross spokesperson, for what—the hell over there we have to deal with?

DEFRANCIS:  Well, Chris, we‘re working with our counterparts, the Japanese Red Cross. 

They are a very strong society.  They have about two million volunteers.  And they are very experienced at this kind of work.  But something like this can overwhelm even the best organizations.  And so we have sent one of our top people over to work with them on—as part of a team. 

We‘re also getting ready to make a pretty sizable financial donation to them.  That‘s going to help them care for what is a mounting number of people in shelters.  The last count I saw was about 500,000 people in shelters. 

So, these people need food and water, blankets, relief items.  They need emotional support.  We‘re seeing a lot of seniors, Japanese society has a number of seniors and, of course, they have their own needs.

So, the needs are great, but I‘m confident that with this extra help, they are going to be met.  Again, this is a very capable organization.

What we worry the most about, though, are some of the people we haven‘t been able to get to, who are cut off in some 80 different communities, either because the tsunami water has receded but, you know, you can‘t get in there through the roads.  So, there are some people that still haven‘t received any help.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Let me go to now Curt Welling.  The long term challenge—I mean, we‘re talking about a country that‘s been hit—I‘ve never seen pictures like this.  None of us have ever seen pictures like this.

And now, the president, I did like the way he moved quickly to offer our U.S. aid in terms of airlift for food supplies and the emergency support that only the military can give in a big power way.  What‘s down the road here, Curt?

CURT WELLING, AMERICARES CEO & PRESIDENT:  Well, Chris, the pictures remind me a lot of the tsunami aftermath in Sri Lanka and Indonesia more than five years ago.  All these crises have a rhythm and they have unique elements, obviously.  But they a search-and-rescue phase where we‘re trying desperately to get to as many people as possible to prevent loss of life.  And then there‘s a phase where we‘re caring for the fragile population that‘s been displaced.  And that‘s could be as many as a million people in this emergency.

But then there‘s a rehabilitation and reconstruction phase, and, candidly, we don‘t yet know how long it‘s going to be before we can get there because the great thing that‘s hanging in the balance is what you were just talking about, whether we‘re going to have some sort of radiation or nuclear event, which obviously would take this crisis and increase its magnitude and severity enormously.

MATTHEWS:  Suzie, how do you get people to into an earthquake zone, a tsunami zone and it‘s also a potential nuclear hazard for them?

DEFRANCIS:  Well, it‘s a triple threat.  I mean, you‘re absolutely right.  I will say that, we know Red Cross of Japan has been trained in nuclear and biochemical response.  So, they have about 31 teams that are trained in that.

They also have specialists at the Nagasaki hospital, a Red Cross team that again has a lot of experience in that.  So, that would certainly be, who would be called on to help in this kind of situation.

MATTHEWS:  What a challenge.  What a challenge.  I hope we can have a partner in this because it think it‘s a great goodwill opportunity for us and our—one of our big friends in the world since World War II, certainly.

Suzy DeFrancis, thank you.  Curt Welling, thank you for that outlook.

We‘re going to right now to talk about that.  If you want to give some money to the American Red Cross or to AmeriCares, go to our Web site for donation information.  It‘s Hardball.MSNBC.com.  It‘s really simple, Hardball.MSNBC.com.

When we return, incredible pictures of devastation.  We‘re going to go back to Japan with a firsthand look at the destruction.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Still ahead: on the ground in Sendai, one of the hardest hit cities in Japan.  Plus, the response to the disaster in Japan from the U.S. government.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.

At the beginning of tonight‘s HARDBALL, we talked to Alex Thompson from Britain‘s Channel 4, who‘s in the devastated city of Sendai in northern Japan.  We‘re looking at the map right now.

Last night, Thompson filed a remarkable report for “Dateline” on NBC that we thought you should see.  So, once again, here‘s the man who was on at the beginning of the show tonight, Alex Thompson.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX THOMPSON, CHANNEL 4 NEWS (voice-over):  The offshore islands and the beaches were renowned, Minami Sanriku, itself famed for its festivals across the calendar.  Now, one date, Friday March 11th, 2011, the day Minami Sanriku was obliterated.

The destruction here they say worse than anywhere else in Japan, 95 percent of the town gone and all by a huge tsunami of 30 or 40 feet.  It plowed over the roofs of these four story tower blocks.

After miles of country unaffected by earthquakes, you come to it with immediate effect.  Past the police checkpoint and the silence strikes you.  Kites and buzzers pored through the rubble and yet another body quietly removed with whatever dignity an old blanket can provide.

Squads of police continue their retrieval process.  But hardly anybody here appeared to be looking for survivors.

(on camera):  As if this town hasn‘t suffered enough, it‘s frankly -

well the pictures tell their own story—pulverized.  And right now we‘re being told to get out because they‘re saying there‘s another tsunami alert.  So, as you can see, we got to go.

      

(voice-over):  Between such you alarms, they wander back during the day.  Some bewildered, others pragmatic.  But all simply are dwarfed by this.  The empires of men upturned in moments.

(on camera):  Tell me—how many people have been killed in this town?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m not sure.  But according to the news, 10,000 people died out of 17,000 people in this town.

THOMPSON:  Ten thousand out of 17,000?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, very sad.

THOMPSON (voice-over):  Killed in this awful collision between the incomprehensibly vast with the pathetically intimate.

(on camera):  The sheer force and scale of it is hard to take in.  Hundreds of thousands of tons of saltwater and debris rushing up this valley, filling it 40 feet deep, 15, 20 miles an hour.  Look at it, canals reformed, embankments gone, harbor walls obliterated.

What I‘m standing now, look at that, it‘s over a mile and a half in land from the harbor and the distant sea way down there also obliterated.  And when you go down this way, you look up the valley, look at that—up past the old telecommunications building, around the bend and the debris goes on around that bend for at least another mile.

(voice-over):  There is no hospital here.  That‘s gone.  So, serious injuries must be flown out with the Japanese defense force.  The waiting can be simple, undignified, even, but there‘s a real sense of a community pulling together in all of this and astonishment that the outside world should care.

At the school, a woman hugged us and said, “I can‘t believe you‘ve come all the way from England for this.”

Pulling together, too, behind the school gym, delicate work, this, the bureaucracy of death.  Identifying bodies and sending them on for their funerals.

This is a small town.  They know these people.

These nine more bodies, this time from a body just next door to the high school, the old people‘s home.

Hochita Takima (ph) is a restaurateur in town, or used to be.  As he put it, there‘s nothing left now except the concrete base.

They‘re shouting “run, run,” and not very politely, either.  It‘s another tsunami alert.

Nothing happened here, although there were a couple of tidal waves a little farther up the coast.  And look at the faces in what‘s left of this town.  You take such warnings seriously.

And should you wonder why so many are missing, presumed dead, when the town had 30 minutes warning between quake and tsunami—the answer‘s in the terrain, hemmed into a steep valley north, south and west, the one road out was quickly jammed as the 40-foot wave began coming in.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s Alex Thompson of Channel 4 from the U.K.—extraordinary reporting from Japan.

Up next: the American response to the crisis.  We‘re going to have the latest from the White House.  Chuck Todd‘s going to join us.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.

President Obama has pledged—and he did so quickly—big support for Japan and its recovery efforts as they try to recover from this horrendous tsunami and disaster with regard to nuclear as well.

I‘m joined by NBC News chief White House correspondent, Chuck Todd, and “The Washington Post” executive—or rather associate editor, Eugene Robinson.

Gentleman, I want to start with the first question of humanitarian aid.  I was struck by the president‘s quickness with which he said we‘re going to help our friend.  Your thoughts about that, Chuck?

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, it‘s the number—if you‘re going to rank our allies, their may be the second most—the closest ally after Great Britain economically.  All of the things we‘ve done in that country since World War II to help it become the economy that it is today.  So, in many ways, it shouldn‘t be a surprise, unless, remember, all of the military troops, the importance that Japan is to us militarily.  So, it‘s really not a surprise when you think about it in both strategic terms, and, of course, just simply economically.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Gene.  You know, the president was at his best, I thought, in terms of just of quickness.  And here‘s a country that has bought into our culture since the war, baseball, of course, probably the most impressive country in buying our culture in many ways.  What do you think of the way he‘s handled this thing?

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, what was interesting to me was the way the president noted his personal connection to Japanese culture, having been raised in Hawaii, which is a heavy influence of Japanese culture, he‘s familiar with it.  I think it affected him personally.

And so, in terms of the humanitarian response of trying to help the Japanese, I think he has been as fast and correct as you could possibly be.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  You know, the big question going forward for the White House, I think, is nuclear power in this country.  What have we learned from the Fukushima ongoing calamity and how does he respond to that?  He‘s been a big proponent of nuclear power.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the whole Democratic Party, Chuck, has moved over from a position of hard skepticism to acceptance because of the pressure we‘re under to try to reduce our need for fossil fuel.  Is this going to force a step back?  And then to where?  ANWR?  Where do you go when you pull back from nuclear?  What‘s the alternative?

TODD:  Well, look, I‘ve seen—that‘s the struggle with this.  You can look at what foreign oil has done.  It‘s dragged us into quite a bit of military conflicts in the Middle East.  That‘s one aspect of this.

You look at nuclear, and, obviously, there‘s catastrophic—there‘s a catastrophic impact if there is a total meltdown of a nuclear plant.  A lot of people die mining for coal, Chris, in this country.  That‘s not exactly the safest way.

So, you know, the stark reality in all of this, is that—is there

is there an energy source out there that isn‘t outside of wind and solar?  And really that those are the two that don‘t come with collateral damage?

      

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but let‘s go to you on this, Gene, because you‘re writing about this for tomorrow.  Where do we go?  We were looking at this hell.  We looked at what happened in the Gulf of Mexico with deep drilling.  We see the dangers of deep mining for goal.  Perhaps the most dangerous in terms of our imagination is the nuclear—let‘s face it—it affects planets, our planet.

What‘s your alternative?  I‘ll be blunt.

ROBINSON:  You know, what I think you have to do now is I think you have to take a pause and take a real, hard look at nuclear and decide whether we want to go that way.  You know, statistically, that‘s probably the safest way to generate power.  However, in the very improbable event that there is a catastrophic accident, it is the worst, by far, of any way you could think of generating electricity.  The potential consequences—

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, guys.  Thank you.

ROBINSON:  -- are just catastrophic.

MATTHEWS:  Gene, thank you for reminding us the president was raised in Hawaii.  The influence he felt was of the Japanese Americans of living in Hawaii and not of the Mau Maus which is his more insane critics have brought up.

Thank you, Chuck.  Thank you, sir.

That‘s HARDBALL for now.  Thanks for being with us.  Catch me tonight, if you will, on the “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.  I‘m not here doing that, strange night to be doing it.

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

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