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updated 3/21/2011 12:24:44 PM ET 2011-03-21T16:24:44

Guests: Ann Curry, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, David Corn, Jeffrey Merrifield, David Sanger, Michael Hirsh, Michael Grunwald, David Mack, Colum Lynch, Cynthia Tucker

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Escape from Japan.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews in Washington. 

Happy St. Patrick‘s Day. 

Leading off tonight: High anxiety.  Here‘s how desperate it‘s gotten at that nuclear plant over in Japan.  Authorities have been reduced to dumping water from helicopters and spraying water from fire trucks in a last-ditch effort to cool those spent fuel rods.  In a moment, we‘ll hear from a nuclear power regulatory commissioner and get a report from the ground in Japan.

Also, credibility gap, the widening chasm between what the Japanese government is saying and what we can believe.  It happened at Three Mile Island.  It really happened at Chernobyl.  And now it‘s happening at Japan, officials playing down the dangers.  We‘ll try to bridge the credibility gap tonight.

Plus, the nuclear disaster has once again turned U.S. public opinion, obviously, against nuclear power.  Could have predicted that.  But that hasn‘t stopped die-hard supporters from calling this a once-in-a-lifetime fluke over there.  Could nuclear power make a comeback here, no matter what happens in Japan?

Also, on another day, this would be our lead story—certainly our lead story.  The United Nations Security Council is voting this evening on whether to authorize, quote, “all necessary means,” close quote, to protect civilians in Libya.  That could mean we‘ll soon be conducting air strikes in Libya.  In other words, we‘d be fighting a third war in a Muslim country.

And Donald Trump spent the day, the morning, on TV trashing the likely Republican candidates for president, but also flirting with the birther vote.  Does that mean he‘s actually running, the fact he‘s doing that?

We start with the nuclear crisis in Japan.  NBC‘s Ann Curry is joining us from Akita, Japan, which is 220 northwest of the nuclear complex.  Ann, I love having you on the show, but what a terrible time.  What‘s happening to our American compatriots in that country?

ANN CURRY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, there‘s a lot of fear, anger and distrust here, Chris, especially because of the discrepancies now between the U.S. government and the Japanese government on just what the risk is.

I want to tell you, however, first of all, about some breaking news we‘re hearing from the State Department, that there is a large pocket of Americans up in the Sendai area.  Now, the Sendai area was hard hit by the tsunami and the quake.  It is north of this Fukushima nuclear power complex.  And so now what‘s happening is 14 buses are now en route, according to the State Department, to get this large pocket of Americans that‘s been trying to get out ever since the tsunami and the quake.  It‘s en route, and it‘s supposed to be transporting, these buses, up to 600 Americans that may be up in that area.

The problem is, these buses are now going to have to travel south past this nuclear complex to get to Tokyo.  So there‘s going to be a lot of, obviously, concern about the winds.  And certainly, this is going to be a very thought-out operation to make sure that that transport is safe.

Also, we want to tell you about these nuclear reactors, Chris.  Two, three and four are still in big trouble.  You mentioned these helicopter water drops.  The last word we‘ve had is that the Japanese government have stopped those water drops because they‘re still assessing whether, in fact, they even worked, whether they have made a difference.

And this is doing nothing to answer, to mitigate this distrust and

anger that I talked about.  I mean, ever since the U.S. government came out

and said that it had a different risk assessment, that Americans, it said,

should be 50 miles away from the nuclear power complex, while the Japanese

government is saying that it‘s 12 miles, the evacuation is 12 miles, and 19

up to 19 miles away, people should stay in their homes, this has really caused an increase in distrust.  And people are now openly—Japanese citizens are openly saying—questioning their government‘s judgment, and the train stations, the airports are crammed with people, while the streets of Tokyo are empty, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Put it together.  This normally would be a tsunami story, if it weren‘t for the nuclear reactors that had been basically jeopardizing everything right now.  What is happening with people trying to help?  Normally, we‘d have worldwide relief efforts coming into a country like Japan helping people deal with this horrible—we‘ve seen the pictures—horrible destruction of these towns and cities.  What‘s happening to them?  Are they afraid to go in now because of the radiation?

CURRY:  Well, it is a big concern.  Every aid agency, every responding group has got to assess the risk for their workers.  And what we‘re looking at on a map, if you could imagine this—the hardest hit area is in the north, and they are hard hit.  We‘re talking about people who have no heat, who are in freezing temperatures because now the temperatures dropped and snow has arrived, are shivering at night.  We‘re talking about elderly people shivering at night in whatever coats that they have in evacuation centers.  We‘re talking about people not having enough food.  We went to an evacuation center, Chris where they—where people were down to one ball of rice and water a day.  And you know, we‘re talking, in that particularly evacuation center, the people were between the ages of 3 and 95.  So the problem is that‘s in the north.

In the middle is this nuclear power complex.  And down below is Tokyo, and Tokyo is the feeder point where all this aid is arriving.  So we have reached all the way to the top out of safety for our team to Akita in the way northwest, and we can tell aid organizations that are listening now that the airports in Akita—the airport in Akita is open.  And if aid would be able to come in that direction and if they could get the gas, which is very difficult to get on the roads, and they can get clearance to drive on the roads, they could drive this kind of aid that‘s so needed down towards these hard-hit areas.

But it‘s very, very difficult to come in from the south because of this nuclear disaster.  So you‘re absolutely right, Chris.  It has—it has, if not seriously—it has seriously slowed, at best, the response, the humanitarian response in one of Japan‘s greatest hours of need.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go to the politics.  Last question.  How are the people responding to the government‘s information so far?  Do they trust it?

CURRY:  No.  There is an increasing anger and fury about the credibility because of this discrepancy between what the U.S. is saying and what the Japanese government is saying in terms of what the risks are.  And I think that just to see that people are concerned and that they‘re leaving is an indication that there is a growing sense that the government and the company that‘s operating this nuclear facility has lost credibility.  And that is a major concern.

I don‘t know the extent to which there is this feeling, but it is clearly—it‘s clear that it‘s happening.

MATTHEWS:  Great reporting from Ann Curry over in Tokyo—or actually, over in Akita, Japan.  Thank you for joining us so much tonight on HARDBALL, Ann Curry from the “TODAY” show and NBC News.

For more on the desperate race to cool the nuclear complex and prevent a meltdown, a real meltdown, let‘s turn to Jerry (SIC) Merrifield.  He‘s with me.  He‘s a former commissioner on the nuclear regulatory committee.  (SIC)  You heard Ann‘s reporting.  Fill it in.  What‘s—what can you add?

JEFFREY MERRIFIELD, FMR. NRC COMMISSIONER:  This is very serious story.  I mean, really, what the—the key issue here now is to make sure that they can get water into those spent fuel fields, whether it‘s by helicopter, whether it‘s by cannon.  That water needs to get in here to avoid those rods from being exposed.

MATTHEWS:  How much water are we talking about here, just talking about the kind of thing you see in a big fire in a big city, a five-alarm fire with the big hoses pouring in?  Is that the kind of water you need?

MERRIFIELD:  Well, sort of.  You know, the problem—the problem, and the unfortunate thing is—and I don‘t—and we‘re still trying to figure out why this didn‘t happen—but you could have put a fire hose in there a long time ago, days ago, and they didn‘t.  And it is rather curious—

MATTHEWS:  What were they using, bucket brigades?

MERRIFIELD:  Well, it‘s uncertain.  At one point, they had a relatively small number of folks at the site.  They were focused on trying to deal with the reactors, who were having the challenges.  And it makes one wonder, what were they doing with the pools?  Here in the U.S., we would have had a lot more people going into that reactor.  We would have made sure that there would have been people taking care of the pools, put in, if they needed to, some fire hoses.  It doesn‘t take a lot.  Really, all you need to do is enough water going in there to make up for the water that‘s evaporating, and that‘s not that hard if you catch it quick.

MATTHEWS:  What‘s more dangerous to the people of Japan now, the spent fuel that needs to be cooled or the actual reactors themselves?

MERRIFIELD:  Well—

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE) seem to be getting out of control.

MERRIFIELD:  No, the issue—actually, the issues in the reactor, with the limited information that we‘ve been receiving lately, is the containments of the reactors may appear to be intact at all of the reactors at which we‘ve had concerns.  The real issue right now are the spent fuel pools, where those are open, they are uncontained, and we‘ve really got to get water on those to make sure that there‘s not additional problems (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  This is an American television show.  I want to talk about us.  A United Nations weather forecast shows the radioactive plume sweeping across the Pacific Ocean right now and reaching southern California by tomorrow, Friday.  But officials say radiation levels—this is officials say—radiation levels will dissipate by the time that cloud reaches the United States, our West Coast, and pose no danger or health risk to Americans.

What is—can you give us—do you have the competence to tell us this sense of how dangerous is a—the word “plume”—I know it doesn‘t mean mushroom cloud.

MERRIFIELD:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  It sounds close enough, though, to most people.

MERRIFIELD:  Right.  Right.

MATTHEWS:  My God, this thing—and we‘re used to—I grew up in the ‘50s, and we‘re used to these misty clouds transforming people into shrinking men and all kinds of crazy things affecting us.

MERRIFIELD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Is it truly not dangerous?

MERRIFIELD:  What we‘re going to see is not dangerous.  Let me put it into context.  If you look at Chernobyl, in which you had a reactor that had a major fire with graphite, lofted that material 30,000 feet, 40,000 feet up into the air and got into the jet stream.  That material—the distance from Chernobyl to New York was about 5,000 miles.  Over the course of a year, the amount of radiation received—that was received in the United States is one three hundredth of the amount that you—that an average person would receive.  So that even though it was a major catastrophe, the impacts in—here we saw—you look at the distance from Tokyo and Los Angeles, it‘s actually—

MATTHEWS:  We‘re looking at one of those explosions—

MERRIFIELD: -- greater.

MATTHEWS: -- over there right now, in the stock footage here.  It‘s pretty scary.  Let me ask you, how long will there be a danger over there, a couple weeks, three weeks, four weeks?  How long is this going to go on?

MERRIFIELD:  I think it‘s—I think it‘s indeterminant at this point.  I mean, I would—if they can keep the water on the spent fuel pools and if they can reestablish power at the reactors themselves, which they appear to be doing, hopefully—

MATTHEWS:  Why is that good, to reestablish power?

MERRIFIELD:  Well, the reason they need to reestablish power—

(CROSSTALK)

MERRIFIELD: -- cooling power capabilities back into the reactor so you‘re simply not putting in sea water, you‘re actually using the emergency systems within the plant itself to keep the fuel—

MATTHEWS:  Like a car with a water-cooled engine.

MERRIFIELD:  Right.  Exactly.  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  So how long—I mean, you‘ve got—you‘re our expert here, so most Americans are out there worried, they‘re buying iodine pills on the West Coast, we heard today.  They‘re probably wearing out the CVSs out—whoever‘s selling this stuff.

MERRIFIELD:  This is not going to be—this is not going to be a major issue for the United States.  I mean, I think the important thing to keep in mind, there‘s a vast difference between what we can detect for radiation—and we can detect microscopic amounts of it, in the parts per billion—versus that which is meaningfully going to affect people‘s human health.

MATTHEWS:  So we don‘t have to worry about the particulates landing on us.

MERRIFIELD:  No, we do not.

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t have to worry about it beaming towards us, obviously.

MERRIFIELD:  That‘s correct.

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t—do we have to worry about those plants melting down truly, what we know as a Chernobyl-style meltdown?  If those reactors, the six of them, whatever—if some of them do melt down, then what, to us, anything to—how about to the Japanese people?

MERRIFIELD:  Well, if we‘re looking—if we‘re looking only—OK, let‘s start first with the American people.  If those—if those reactors were to melt down, or if that fuel was to melt down, the amount of radiation would be more localized.  It would be a much more serious issue for the people who live in Japan.

MATTHEWS:  Would it become a dead zone?

MERRIFIELD:  There is an area, potentially, you would certainly want to keep people away from entering because it could have very high radiation levels.

MATTHEWS:  For a long time?

MERRIFIELD:  It could be for a long time, yes.

MATTHEWS:  And what about us?  If there‘s a meltdown at one of these reactors in Japan, or several?

MERRIFIELD:  If there is a meltdown of those reactors, that is going to be an issue for the people of Japan.  There will be radiation.  It will be relatively low level that will reach the United States.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s great.

MERRIFIELD:  And now—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I hate having you on for this reason, Jeffrey, but you‘re a great guest, and people are hanging on every word.  I can tell you from the size of the audience watching these shows, people in America are hanging on this information.  We have never felt this need to know this information before, luckily.  We‘ve been very fortunate.

MERRIFIELD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you.  Do you think we should have nuclear energy in this country?

MERRIFIELD:  I do.  I do.  You know, we‘ve had an excellent safety record on the reactors over the last 30 years.  They‘ve been reliable, 90 percent capacity factors.  It‘s a form of fuel that‘s not—that we have energy security—

MATTHEWS:  OK.

MERRIFIELD: -- zero carbon effect.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll have you back on to debate this.  I think it‘s going to become a very hot issue politically.

MERRIFIELD:  I‘m certain it will.  I‘d be happy to come back.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much.  Thanks for coming on.

MERRIFIELD:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Jerry Merrifield.

Coming up: How high is the radiation risk around that nuclear plant

again, and even in Tokyo itself, the capital of the country?  Can we trust

this is the big one coming up.  We‘ve got some great reporters coming up on this.  Can we trust the Japanese government—or any government but the Japanese government?  We‘re going to get to the issues of cultural self-reliance and why the Japanese government has been so reticent to ask for foreign help from the first moment of this strike, first notion they had trouble, and they didn‘t go for help.  Is that just pride?  And maybe it‘s justifiable pride.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The crisis in Japan has obviously shaken America‘s confidence in nuclear energy.  A new Gallup poll finds that 70 percent of Americans say they‘re more concerned about nuclear power because of what they‘ve been watching unfold in Japan.  We‘re not stupid.  And support for nuclear power in this country is dropping a bit.  A plurality now, 47 percent, now say they‘re opposed to it, 44 in favor.  Obviously, that‘ll go back and forth, but it ain‘t going up very high.  That‘s a 22-point shift downward since the beginning of the month, when 57 percent of Americans did support nuclear energy, versus 38.  So a big turn-around there.  We observe things.  We Americans learn every day.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The U.S. and Japan have split on the severity of the radiation risk from that crippled nuclear plant over there.  And here‘s “The New York Times” lead today right at the top of the fold on the right-hand side, the biggest story of the day—“The chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave a far bleaker appraisal on Wednesday of the threat posed by Japan‘s nuclear crisis than the Japanese government had offered.”

Well, does the Japanese government have a credibility problem?  David Sanger is chief Washington correspondent for “The New York Times.”  He wrote that lead piece.  Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for “National Journal.”

David, thank you for joining us.  It‘s great to have you on tonight, and Michael, as well.  David, what is the situation in terms of fact versus the reporting from the Japanese government?

DAVID SANGER, “NEW YORK TIMES”:  Well, I think yesterday, Chris, there was a fairly large gap in the collection of facts between the U.S. and Japan.  That‘s been closed up a bit today because the U.S. has been able to send its first airborne sensors over the plant, with the permission of the Japanese government, and we‘re beginning to see some readings out of that.  So people can begin to get some common numbers about what‘s actually emitting from the plant.

I think there‘s also a greater sense of reality among the Japanese officials now that what they‘ve been doing, at least what they did today and what you saw with those dramatic helicopter drops of water over the plant, may have made for really great TV video, but it‘s not clear that they lowered the temperature of either of the spent fuel rods that they‘re trying to hit by one iota.  It‘s not clear at all that that was working.

So I think now you‘re beginning to see the two sides come together.  But there‘s still a huge cultural gulf.  Michael and I both lived in Japan at about the same time, and you know, the Japanese, first, often don‘t want to talk very directly about bad news, particularly if they think it‘s going to cause a panic.  But secondly, I think that they have been less than fully rigorous about thinking about the order in which they wanted to attack this problem.  And today you sort of saw them just throwing everything at it.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Michael Hirsh.  I suppose the first indication was there was a difference in fact, was that Americans were saying 50 miles would be a good radius to get away from this nuclear plant, and the Japanese were saying 19 miles will do it if you keep your doors closed. 

Now, obviously, we‘re all looking at the diagram here to show those differences of degree.  And also, the Japanese government reduced by a multiple of three the degree in which people felt exposure was a problem.  So they were making it a lot easier to justify sending the workers back in to face the reactors.  That‘s what gave me the thinking there‘s a difference of fact we‘re getting here, Michael.

HIRSH:  Well, unquestionably. 

And, you know, look, all governments tend to dissemble a bit and play down disasters when they occur, but I think, you know, the record of the Japanese government has been particularly egregious on this front.  There was a—a very serious accident in 1995 at the Monju fast breeder reactor, and it was later found that the semi-governmental utility that ran that had actually falsified the video of the event to play down the severity of it. 

And this has been, you know, an ongoing issue.  And it does play into these questions about cultural differences.  You have in Japan, despite, you know, nominal democracy there, much more of a hierarchical approach, where the government plays a paternal role and decides what and what not to transmit to its citizens. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s a great question for you, David, being at “The Times” and reporting on all these stories over the years. 

Is this a case where our republican form of government, I don‘t mean capital-R, our basic form of government, where people at the top have to make decisions that wouldn‘t pass by plebiscite on a regular basis—nuclear energy is probably a great thing, because it avoids all kinds of carbon problems, and it‘s better than dealing with some Third World countries or Middle East countries if you have to, but it does carry that huge stakes, where it probably won‘t go bad, but, if it does go bad, you can‘t even get insurance for it. 

Is that kind of thing you just can‘t sell to the public, so governments generally go with nuclear because it‘s a better bet in terms of bang for the buck, et cetera, but that bang is very dangerous? 

SANGER:  Well, you see that in all countries, but you have particularly seen that in Japan, Chris, where, of course, the nuclear allergies are much greater than they are even here in the United States. 

And it‘s fairly remarkable that, in the country that suffered, you know, the only major nuclear attack—

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

SANGER: -- the only nuclear attack done in war, that you have got 30 percent of the energy coming from nuclear power. 

And that was out of necessity.  And the government pushed it through, just as Michael suggested before, and has found itself frequently in the position of having to suppress bad news, particularly over that Monju breeder reactor that—that he made reference to. 

So, the government is certainly in that position.  It‘s made worse in Japan by the fact that you have a news media that, while much more independent than it used to be, still sort of organizes itself around government ministries and is far more dependent on the government for official news. 

MATTHEWS:  I see.

SANGER:  And, so, it‘s a lot harder to come out with the kind of journalism that we see here in the United States that would challenge an existing governmental position. 

The other element in all of this is that Tokyo Electric Power Company may not be fully leveling with that—with their own Japanese government officials.  And one of the remarkable things about this is, it‘s very hard to know who‘s really in charge here, the government or Tokyo Electric Power. 

It reminds you in some ways of those debates we had on your show, in fact, about whether or not the U.S. government or BP was running the show during the—during the oil catastrophe. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Yes, it sure looked like BP, as we know.  Thank you. 

Michael, more for you next time.  I‘m sorry to short you this time. 

We have so much to get on tonight.

David Sanger and Michael Hirsh from “National Journal.” 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Up next:  President Obama and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle had more pushing—had been pushing for more nuclear energy here at home.  Of course, even the Democrats were joining the team, but is the crisis in Japan changing their minds?  The future of nuclear energy here, after this—next. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Has the crisis in Japan stalled the push for nuclear power here in the U.S.?  Well, it‘s a good question.  Not so, reports Michael Grunwald in the brand-new issue of “TIME” magazine that just came out yesterday.  There it is—quote—“Republicans have dismissed Japan‘s crisis as a once-in-a-lifetime fluke.  President Obama has defended atomic energy as a carbon-free source of power, resisting calls to halt the renaissance and freeze construction of the U.S.‘ first new reactors in over three decades.  But there is no renaissance.  Trying to avoid flukes like Fukushima Daiichi is remarkably costly, and trying to avoid those costs can lead to flukes.”

Michael Grunwald joins us.

Well-stated, sir.  It‘s a strong argument.  And I‘m just wondering, are we in trouble in terms of nuclear?  Because nuclear was going to be our big salvation from depending on the Middle East, from going back to ANWR, from more offshore that nobody—everybody finds unsightly and now dangerous.  Isn‘t the—it‘s not our ace in the hole anymore, is it? 

MICHAEL GRUNWALD, “TIME”:  Well, nuclear is attractive as a kind of carbon-free alternative to coal.  It doesn‘t really compete with oil, which is more about transportation.  Nuclear provides our electricity. 

But it turns out that it‘s—you know, the argument used to be, well, it‘s expensive, but at least it‘s clean.  But it turns out, it‘s outlandishly expensive, and there are other, cleaner approaches that are much cheaper.  Most obviously, natural gas is pretty clean.  Energy-efficiency is extremely clean, and you can get it done right away.  Wind and solar are getting cheaper every day. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m trying to think of what the betting odd would be where the odds are really good, but the stakes are really heavy, and you lose your house.  Say you bet your house every day against a $10 bill, and you would get a free $10 bill every day until you lose your house.  Nuclear energy seems like that. 

It‘s a good daily bet, but, eventually, there‘s going to be a “China Syndrome,” right? 

GRUNWALD:  Well, it‘s certainly—you know, one thing we have learned, not only in nature, but—

MATTHEWS:  There will be one if we have—yes, yes, go ahead.  I‘m sorry. 

GRUNWALD:  No.

We have—we have learned not, only in nature, but in finance, that, sometimes, these worst-case scenarios really do happen.  And, you know, if you‘re using wind or solar or gas, you lose a wind or a solar or gas plant.  If you lose—you know, when your nuclear fission is hard and dangerous, and when something bad happens, it can be really bad. 

What we have also found is that, you know, because splitting the atom is a really complicated way to generate power for our Xboxes, that it‘s really expensive to create a plant that can do it properly. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

GRUNWALD:  You have to choose between either cutting corners or creating these situations—

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

GRUNWALD: -- where the costs are just not competitive. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, back, well, 21 -- 32 years ago, we had a great film, which was a very popular film in this country, and awoke a lot of us to nuclear energy and turned it—probably held the industry back 20 or 30 years.  It‘s called “China Syndrome” with a great cast of Jack Lemmon.  Jane Fonda is in it.  And Michael Douglas plays the cameraman.

It‘s about a fictional nuclear accident here in the U.S.  The great Jack Lemmon plays the plant operator who at first rebuffs reporter Jane Fonda‘s questions about the plant‘s safety.  This couldn‘t be more today.  We are going to play you a clip from that great movie, “China Syndrome.” 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE CHINA SYNDROME”)

JACK LEMMON, ACTOR:  Let me try to explain something that, unfortunately, people do not understand. 

These plants are designed for the possibility of an accident.  Every conceivable thing that could ever go wrong has been taken into consideration.  Why, hell, we have got a quality control that‘s only equaled by NASA.  Every component, every one of them is tested, and then it‘s tested again.  Every critical weld is radiographed.  Every single thing is checked, it‘s double-checked, it‘s rechecked, everything. 

JANE FONDA, ACTRESS:  You haven‘t answered the question. 

LEMMON:  In anything that man ever does, there‘s some element of risk, right?  Well, that‘s why we have what we call defense in depth.  Now, that means backup systems to backup systems to backup systems.  You were there, and you saw what happened.  There was no leakage of radiation.  You know why?  The system works. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And the Fukushima plant had two backup systems.  It had a diesel backup, and it had a battery-operated, and both were flooded by the tsunami. 

There you go, Michael. 

GRUNWALD:  Right. 

You still hear a lot about defense and depth.  And, you know, the nuclear industry has done a—done a really good job.  Three decades ago, they had some really serious problems, and that‘s part of what led to Three Mile Island.  They have—they have become a much better managed—they‘re—they‘re much better run than they were today.

But human beings are imperfect.  And, you know, if this was something where it was our only alternative, the only way to provide our juice, then you would have to look at it really seriously.  But since it‘s so expensive, since you‘re talking about these costs that are four or five times what you‘re looking at with natural gas, sometimes 10 times with energy-efficiency, it‘s hard to understand why, even after an event like this, you know, people still are saying that it‘s—you know, it ought to be our first choice. 

These plants won‘t be ready for decades.  You know, if we want to attack the carbon problem, this is not the answer any time in the next—you know, before 2030. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Michael Grunwald, congratulations.

Michael Grunwald of “TIME” magazine, thank you, sir, for coming on. 

As long as there‘s wind in North Dakota, we probably shouldn‘t be doing this. 

Up next: the United Nations Security Council set to vote on a no-fly zone over Libya, a sweeping no-fly zone, which involves a lot of fighting.  Are we about to get involved in a military mission in yet another Muslim country?  This will make it three, after Afghanistan and Iraq. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks rebounded today, after two days of very steep declines.  The Dow Jones industrial average jumped 161 points.  The S&P 500 climbed 16, the Nasdaq not quite as strong, up 19 points. 

Volatility easing substantially today, as emotions cooled and investors started looking at rebuilding Japan.  The iShares Japan Index Fund surged more than 4.5 percent.  Iron ore mining stocks also moved higher in anticipation of those rebuilding efforts.  You can see BHP Billiton up 3 percent. 

Banks also gained on a report that the Federal Reserve is about to allow some of them to begin raising dividends—Bank of America higher by more than 2 percent. 

February‘s core inflation numbers were relatively tame, but food prices shot up nearly 4 percent.  That‘s the biggest jump since the Nixon administration.  Energy costs also higher, but this was before the recent spike in oil prices.  And those prices are soaring again today, surging 3.5 percent as the U.N. Security Council debates a no-fly zone over Libya. 

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUSAN RICE, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS:  The U.S.  view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include, but perhaps go beyond a no-fly zone, at this point, as the situation on the ground has evolved. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back. 

That‘s U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on Wednesday night.  That‘s yesterday.  The U.N. Security Council is set to meet tonight to decide whether to take action on Libya. 

Here‘s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talking to NBC News‘ Andrea Mitchell yesterday. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE:  We believe that we have to take steps to try to protect innocent civilians, and we cannot do it without international authority. 

So, we‘re working as we speak to try to get international support, which is very important, because unilateral action would not be the best approach.  It would have all kinds of unintended consequences.  International action with Arab leadership and participation, we think, is the way to go. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re joined right now by “Washington Post” reporter Colum Lynch, who is covering the U.N. meeting. 

Colum, is this getting in there?  Is the U.N. going to get us in there on the side of the rebels, or is this really about civilian protection? 

COLUM LYNCH, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, this is clearly inserting the international community, the U.S., its allies and the Arabs, on behalf of the rebels. 

I mean, they‘re—in the resolution that‘s going to be adopted in the next hour or so, there‘s specific language that authorizes the use of force in order to repel any effort by the Libyan regime to—to attack Benghazi, the rebels‘ last stronghold. 

A lot of the language has been couched in humanitarian language, protection of civilians, but the—it gives sort of sweeping authority to place itself in between the two forces and to essentially save the rebels from defeat. 

MATTHEWS:  This is so much like Korea, where we went into Korea under U.N. sanction, U.N. auspices, and we went to save them, the South Koreans, at Pusan, at the very bottom of the peninsula, and then later, of course, became—MacArthur became famous for the Inchon Landing, a much more dramatic effort to win the war. 

Is that what this looks like; this is first base, we‘re going further than this? 

LYNCH:  It‘s—it‘s not clear.  I mean, it doesn‘t look like it‘s going to be—you know, it‘s going to be a massive invasion force.  The European diplomats in particular have—have indicated—I think Alain Juppe, the foreign minister of France, said that there won‘t be forces on the ground. 

I mean, I—I don‘t quite believe that.  I suspect that there will be some military presence. 

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s flying the planes, us or the Saudis? 

LYNCH:  It‘s likely to be—I would suspect it‘s going to be the Americans and the Europeans mostly, but there will be, you know, Qataris from the United Emirates and other Arab countries as well. 

I don‘t know exactly how that‘s going to play out.

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

LYNCH:  But there will be some sort of integration, but—but the West carrying, like, the—the big burden of this. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Thank you, Colum Lynch of “The Washington Post,” covering up at the U.N. in New York.

With me now is former Ambassador David Mack, who is a former U.S.  diplomat who served many posts, including an early assignment interacting with the young Gadhafi.  He‘s a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us.

It looks like we‘re going in.  I‘m hearing mixed views all day today as we go into this first edition of HARDBALL tonight that we may be using the Saudis to go in in front.  What are you hearing?

DAVID MACK, FMR. DEPUTY ASST. SECY. OF STATE:  Well, I a lot rather see Egyptians there.  They share a border with Libya.  Turmoil in Libya threatens their own security.  They‘ve got about a million Egyptians maybe working in Libya.

And the Egyptians have got a very large, capable air force.  They‘ve got a huge army, not capable in all respects, but the antitank units certainly aren‘t going to be used for internal security.

MATTHEWS:  They‘ve fought Israel three or four times.  They can fight Libya, can‘t they?

MACK:  I think that they would be an over powering presence, if they would come in.  Now, the Libyans might be nervous about that, but I talked to a Libyan American businessman the other day who—and I thought he would be opposed to the idea, and we said, no, we‘re desperate enough.  We‘d like—we‘d take the Egyptians.

MATTHEWS:  How about—is it bad for the United States—is there a perception—I just heard from Colum, and they‘re stressed to hear this that we‘re going to be leading the attack, the Americans getting into our third war front over there.

MACK:  No.  I think it‘s a terrible idea if the Americans—if the Americans lead.  I think that Secretary Clinton had it exactly right—we want to see Arab leadership.  We want to see Arab participation.

MATTHEWS:  Not a coalition of the willing where we‘re out front and we‘ve got a few Polish people or something in the background.

MACK:  No.  I favor us being junior partners.  And since the French are the ones who sold the Libyans all that high-performance aircraft in the Libyan inventory, I think the French better be out there shooting some of those aircraft down.

MATTHEWS:  I mean, they basically—this may be the first time when we do have allies that are real—the French, the British, the Lebanese have all supported this resolution, apparently.

MACK:  Well, we do and we don‘t.  Let‘s not forget—I worked on the

Iraq no-fly zones.  It was a French resolution, basically, resolution 688 -

-

           

MATTHEWS:  Then they pulled out.

MACK:  -- that got us in.  And the first time they saw that some Iraqi civilians were going to be killed, they said bye-bye and they left us in charge of it for 12 years.

MATTHEWS:  But that was their politics.  This time, is their politics saying we‘re not going to get anything out of Gadhafi now, he‘s an international outlaw basically, so we might as well join the rebels?

MACK:  No, I think you got a point there.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

MACK:  They thought—

MATTHEWS:  There‘s no money in dealing with Gadhafi anymore.  He‘s gone.

MACK:  That‘s correct.  (INAUDIBLE) they figured Saddam Hussein would survive.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Let me ask you about the way that the Arab world works.  Why won‘t the Arab League step up and go beyond and say?  They say, we‘ll let the U.N. vote, knowing there may be a Chinese problem or Russian problem.  Why don‘t they say we will bankroll it and we will join it?  Why don‘t they say that in their resolution, the Arab League?

MACK:  Because the Arab League is not equal to the sum of its parts.  Each government will have to decide what role, if any, it plays.  The Saudis, the UAE, Qatar, they can help bankroll it.

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s got the guts to join this attack on Gadhafi?  Will the Saudis put pilots in their cockpits and attack Gadhafi?

MACK:  I don‘t know.  But they don‘t like Gadhafi.  The Egyptians will obviously be providing air bases.  We‘ll do—we‘ll do AWACS, which is probably more important than in anything else in helping the fighter planes being effective.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, they can target—

MACK:  But the problem is not the Libyan air force.  The problem is dealing with the tanks and artillery.  And for that, they need some real—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Will that resolution cover hitting the ground forces?

MACK:  The resolution that your—that Colum was talking about, yes.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  It‘s more than a no-fly.  It‘s a complete declaration of war, basically, against Gadhafi?

MACK:  It sounds to me like it‘s broad authorization.

MATTHEWS:  Well, at least it‘s doing it right if you‘re going to do it.  I‘m not sure it‘s a good idea, but if you‘re going to do it, knock them out of there!

Anyway, thank you, Ambassador.

MACK:  You‘re welcome.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s great to have some expertise on this on the region.

Up next: presidential politics.  Donald Trump is talking more like a candidate, and to my distress, talking more like a birther—but maybe that‘s his way of showing he‘s serious.  He‘s willing to talk like the people on the very far right to get those Iowa voters who think very far out.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she won‘t be part of President Obama‘s administration if he gets re-elected for a second term.  She says she doesn‘t want to be president, vice president or defense secretary.  That‘s surprising.  Here she is Wednesday on CNN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, CNN/WEDNESDAY)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN:  Do you want to serve a second term as secretary of state?

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE:  No.

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

CLINTON:  No.

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

CLINTON:  No.

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

CLINTON:  No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow!  Well, there‘s more to these stories than these nos.

Anyway, she told CNN that being secretary of state is the best job she could ever have and says she‘s had no intention or has no intention of ever running for president again.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, TRUMP ORGANIZATION FOUNDER AND CEO:  Part of the beauty of me is that I‘m very rich.  So, if I need $600 million, I can put up $600 million myself.  That‘s a huge advantage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That‘s, of course, Donald Trump, talking today with Ashleigh Banfield on ABC‘s “Good Morning America.”  He‘s rich, as he said—famous, as he says, and increasingly stealing the spotlight from the regular Republicans running for president.

Our latest NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” Poll found that the country has stronger feelings about Trump than either Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty.  Trump has higher positives and negatives than either of those other guys, Romney or Pawlenty, who trail way back in single digits, the others.

What does Trump‘s trumpeting of himself tell us about the state of the Republican field?  I think it tells us a lot.

Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” and MSNBC political analyst David Corn is the Washington bureau chief for “Mother Jones.”

Gentleman—and lady, I want to go with you.

Trump has something these other guys don‘t and he‘s bragging about it. 

Is that teaching us something?  What is that thing he has?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION:  Charisma, charisma. 

He‘s colorful.

Let‘s face it, Chris, the Republican field is pretty dull.  There are some tried and tested governors, former senators, but they‘re all—with the exception of, say, Sarah Palin—pretty dull folk, and the Republicans know it.  That‘s why he was listened to when he addressed CPAC about a month ago.  He actually got in several applause lines—

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TUCKER:  -- because they‘re desperate for somebody who‘s colorful.

MATTHEWS:  Charisma.

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, he has trumpability.  But I‘m not sure that‘s enough.  There have been charismatic—

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s not talk about him as a presidential candidate.

CORN:  OK.

MATTHEWS:  What is he teaching us about?  Let‘s hear this.  And then you come back to this.

CORN:  OK.  I‘ll come back.

MATTHEWS:  I want to talk—I want to debate you with this.

Here is Trump‘s take on the Republican field.  And, by the way, he does this commentary stuff better than I do because he has nothing to lose.  Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, ABC:  Mitt Romney?

TRUMP:  Well, he doesn‘t seem to resonate.

BANFIELD:  Tim Pawlenty?

TRUMP:  I don‘t think he‘s going to captivate the voters.

BANFIELD:  Jon Huntsman?

TRUMP:  When you work for somebody else, as he has worked for Barack Obama, you don‘t then leave and run against that person.  It‘s very disloyal.

BANFIELD:  Sarah Palin?

TRUMP:  She did fine as the governor.  I think personally she made a tragic mistake when she left early.  I think she‘s more qualified than Barack Obama was when he became president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I have a problem with that last.  Here he is saying nice things, however, about Huckabee and Gingrich, both birthers.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD:  Mike Huckabee?

TRUMP:  I really like him.  He‘s the kind of a guy that maybe could really get some votes.

BANFIELD:  Newt Gingrich?

TRUMP:  You know why I like Gingrich?  He just joined my club in Washington.  I‘m very happy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s where he loses all credibility when he says stuff like that.

Here is Trump on the birthers joining them.  Let‘s listen to how he joins the birthers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  Everybody that even gives any hint of being a birther—a word you didn‘t use—even a little bit of a hint like, gee, you know, maybe, just maybe this much of a chance, they label them as an idiot.

Let me tell you—I‘m a really smart guy.  I was a really good student at the best school in the country.  The reason I have a little doubt, just a little, is because he grew up and nobody knew him.

When you interview people—if I ever got the nomination if I ever decide to run, you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten.  They‘ll remember me.

Nobody ever comes forward.  Nobody knows who he is until later in his life.  It‘s very strange.  The whole thing is very strange.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  He didn‘t do his homework, first of all.  We got pictures of Barack Obama in grade school.  We got pictures of him in his basketball uniform.  We got him in high school winning—

CORN:  Yes.

TUCKER:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  -- being on the team that wins the statewide championship in basketball.  We got his pictures, we got interviews with his grade schoolteachers.  We got all of it.  We could write autobiography before he ran for president.  We got it all.

So, this is absolutely malarkey that Donald is sowing here.  Why is he selling it?  Who‘s he playing to?

(CROSSTALK)

CORN:  This may be the only indication that he‘s really thinking of running for president.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what our executive producer believes because why would he get in this ditch?

CORN:  Why get into this?  You know, this is the purest form of pandering to the far right of the primary election.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Why is he going primate, if you will?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Why is he doing this?  That‘s a good phrase, going primate.  Why is he going out there and selling this malarkey?  We know everything—birth announcements in the (INAUDIBLE) newspaper this guy born.

TUCKER:  Come on, it‘s no more malarkey than the stuff Trump usually sells.

MATTHEWS:  Why is Trump selling the fact this guy maybe an imposter, not really an American, not really who is, but somebody who stepped in mysteriously in his teenage years to take on this Manchurian candidate role.  Was he implying doubt?  What is this doubt about?  Doubt of what?

TUCKER:  Well, because—as David just said, he wants to play to the far right of the Republican Party.  He wants to stay in or pretend to stay in as long as he possibly can.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  June, he‘s playing these wonderful card saying—

David, he‘s playing this wonderful card saying, I‘ll tell you in June, because that‘s when “The Apprentice” season runs out.  Then he‘s going to around for a couple of months.  Does he get in the debates?  Will he try to get—probably miss the Reagan debate (INAUDIBLE).

CORN:  Well, I think you have to—

MATTHEWS:  Does he get in the debates?

CORN:  Well, that predisposes he‘s actually going to announce and run.

MATTHEWS:  We start peeling off the money.

CORN:  This guy is not a natural fit with the social conservative base of the party.

MATTHEWS:  He says pro-life.

CORN:  Well, yes, he says that.  Does anyone believe that?

MATTHEWS:  Well, he said it.

CORN:  Anyway, he‘s not—

MATTHEWS:  He‘s a birther and a pro-lifer.

(CROSSTALK)

CORN:  He‘s trying very hard.  But right now, I think there‘s more bluster than reality here.  You know, he said in the same interview, I‘m friends with more poor people than rich people.

MATTHEWS:  I know.  He has a good line.  But he‘s a great salesman.

I love the show puts—I like the guy personally and he puts on a great show.  He‘s very likeable in person.  But I don‘t—I guess I don‘t like the fact he plays this card about birther because it has an ethnic aspect to it.  He wouldn‘t be doing this to another candidate who wasn‘t named Barack Obama.

TUCKER:  Well, of course, nobody would.

MATTHEWS:  Cynthia, thank you.  That‘s the bottom line.  He wouldn‘t be doing this to a Bush.

Thank you, Cynthia Tucker and David Corn.  I‘m not even sure he‘s a Republican.

When we return, “Let Me Finish” with St. Patrick‘s Day and the role it plays in my little family.

You‘re watching HARDBALL—It‘s not a little family—you‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  “Let Me Finish” tonight with this day, March 17th, St.

Patrick‘s Day—also, my parents‘ anniversary.

They were married on this day back in 1942 for two very basic reasons.  One, it was St. Patrick‘s Day.  And, two, it was the day church gave dispensation from Lent.  There was no fasting are or giving up things.

I‘m remembering this because the power of history has on people.

I started today at the vice president‘s house hearing him talk about the ongoing effort to keep peace in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and the Protestants.

I have an interest in that peace because I‘m the result of a more limited peace between the two religions over there.  My mother was Catholic and my father was Protestant when he married.  My mother‘s parents were the Shields and the Conroys and the Quinlins—I favor the Quinlins, my aunts tell me.

My father‘s mother—Grandmon in Chestnut hill we call her—was from Northern Ireland and was as orange as you can get.  Think Mrs.  Doubtfire—only in this case for real.

We grew up with grandmom‘s brogue and mom taking shots at it from the other side, but only on occasion—like when grandmom became a citizen of the United States just so she could vote for Eisenhower, a fellow Presbyterian.

Well, I‘m lucky to have had such parents from either side of that old fight over there—and over here in the old days, my mom would remind us.

She‘d tell us she couldn‘t get a job with the milk company in Philadelphia before the war—that‘s World War II—if you didn‘t fill out the application that included the religion question.  The right answer on that application was Episcopalian or Presbyterian or something along that line.  Writing in Catholic was the wrong answer.

When mom and dad got married, it didn‘t go over well with either family, not back then.  It was a rather small wedding, I hear.

Well, as things happen in this country, it all worked out.  We were totally, utterly, wonderfully loved by our grandparents and aunts and uncles on both sides.  Whatever difficulty there was in getting their parents to accept their marriage, there was no trouble.  In fact, the opposite from them about us.  You couldn‘t ask for greater relatives than my four brothers and I had.

I have a cold.

So, sometimes it‘s good, I think, to remember where you came from.

Happy St. Patrick‘s Day to both my parents and to all of them.

That‘s HARDBALL for now.  Thanks for being with us.

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

           

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