The Japanese government has changed the severity rating of the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant to the highest level of 7 — meaning that the disaster is on a par with that at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union. Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times raised concerns about the Japanese government’s changing reports about the severity of the disaster, noting that authorities spoke defensively “about whether they have delayed or blocked the release of information to avoid alarming the public.”
The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant occurred in the wake of a massive 8.9 earthquake and tsunami on March 11th. These knocked out the plant’s power and cooling systems, with the result that several of the reactors overheated.
At a news conference on Tuesday morning, Junichi Matsumoto, a senior nuclear power executive from the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, said:
“The radiation leak has not stopped completely, and our concern is that it could eventually exceed Chernobyl.”
But later on Tuesday evening, Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of Japan’s nuclear regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said “I cannot understand their position,” in regard to the company’s estimate.
The Japanese government appears to be going to some lengths — even straining — to explain the upgrading of the severity of the Fukushima crisis. In a nationally televised speech and a different press conference on Tuesday, President Naoto Kao defended how the government handled the communication of information about the accident:
“What I can say for the information I obtained — of course the government is very large, so I don’t have all the information — is that no information was ever suppressed or hidden after the accident,” he said. “There are various ways of looking at this, and I know there are opinions saying that information could have been disclosed faster. However, as the head of the government, I never hid any information because it was inconvenient for us.”
Other officials emphasized the complexity of the calculations used to determine the amount of radiation released by the nuclear reactors, as a reason for the change in the rating of the severity of the crisis. Initially, the Japanese government had said that the Fukushima disaster had a rating of 5, compared to the level 7 severity of Chernobyl.
Fukushima and Chernobyl Compared
As the Wall Street Journal notes, the Chernobyl disaster, which happened on April 26, 1986, occurred almost exactly 25 years ago.
The Guardian details the effects of the disaster so far at Fukushima:
The death toll from the tsunami is more than 13,000, but no radiation-linked deaths have been reported and only 21 plant workers have been affected by minor radiation sickness, according to Japanese officials. About 70,000 people living within a 12-mile radius of the plant have been evacuated, while 130,000 living between 12 and 20 miles from the plant have been told to leave voluntarily or stay indoors. The government’s chief spokesman, Yukio Edano, said the current evacuation zone would be extended to five other communities, including the village of Iitate, which lies 25 miles from the plant. Some experts have criticised the raising of the severity level. “I think raising it to the level of Chernobyl is excessive,” said Murray Jennex, associate professor at San Diego state university. “It’s nowhere near that level. Chernobyl was terrible – it blew and they had no containment and they were stuck. Their [Fukushima] containment has been holding, the only thing that hasn’t is the fuel pool that caught fire.”
At Chernobyl, explosions destroyed a nuclear reactor, which released a cloud of radiation that contaminated many parts of Europe. Some of the effects of the Chernobyl disaster were:
Fifty emergency rescue workers died from acute radiation syndrome and related illnesses, 4,000 children and adolescents contracted thyroid cancer, nine of whom died. More than 100,000 people were immediately evacuated, and the total number of evacuees from contaminated areas eventually reached 350,000. The explosions that destroyed the unit four reactor core released a cloud of radionuclides, which contaminated large areas of Europe and, in particular, Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, and affected livestock as far away as Scandinavia and Britain. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to substantial radiation doses, including workers who took part in efforts to mitigate the consequences of the accident.
On Monday 7.1 magnitude quake in central Fukushima temporarily shut down the power supply and makeshift cooling systems to three reactors at the plant while workers were evacuated, the Wall Street Journal reports. The system was shut down for nearly an hour before workers could turn on emergency reactors.
According to the Guardian, while radiation from the Fukushima plant is spreading, the amount of radiation released around the world via the air and the sea, the threat to the rest of the world is low.
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