Crisis at stricken Japan nuclear plant escalates to level of Chernobyl; six killed in aftershock

The crisis at a stricken nuclear plant on the northeast coast of Japan is now as severe as the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, officials have said. Radiation is continuing to leak from the plant, which was damaged during the devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami last month, which left thousands dead. Japanese authorities have warned the crisis is now a “major accident” with “wider consequences” than previously thought.

A spokesperson for NISA, the Japanese government nuclear authority, said officials had upgraded the crisis to a level seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale—the same applied to the Chernobyl disaster—because of a number of factors, including the detection of radiation in crops. “We have upgraded the severity level to seven as the impact of radiation leaks has been widespread from the air, vegetables, tap water and the ocean,” he said.

A new magnitude 6.6 aftershock yesterday triggered a mudslide which left six people dead. Image: United States Geological Survey.

 TEPCO, the operator of the plant, has warned radiation was continuing to leak from the site and the magnitude of the crisis could exceed that of Chernobyl. Despite this, Japanese nuclear safety officials have insisted the leakage of radiation was small compared to the devastated plant in the former Soviet Union. “In terms of volume of radioactive materials released, our estimate shows it is about ten percent of what was released by Chernobyl,” one nuclear official said.

The news comes as a new blow after another powerful aftershock yesterday which left at least six people dead after they were killed in a mudslide in the city of Iwaki. The landslide, which destroyed numerous homes, was triggered by a magnitude 6.6 aftershock which came exactly a month after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Fire officials in the city said three people had already been rescued and taken to hospital, and emergency workers were working to free an unknown number of others.

The devastated Fukushima I nuclear power plant pictured five days after the initial earthquake. Image: DigitalGlobe.

Workers at the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant returned after they were briefly evacuated following the earthquake, and officials issued tsunami warnings for the northeast coast which were later cancelled. Workers have been fighting a desperate battle to prevent the reactors from overheating and entering meltdown. Raging fires burned into the night after the earthquake, and TEPCO reported widespread power outages; hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses had power cut off.

Reports of the change in severity at the damaged nuclear plant followed the announcement that the exclusion zone around the site was to be expanded. A spokesperson for the government confirmed the radius of the zone would be expanded to include another five communities over the next several weeks. He stressed there was “no need to evacuate immediately” but said concerns had been raised over health risks from the leaking radiation.

The International Nuclear Events Scale; the accidents at the Fukushima I have been elevated to level seven, the highest level on the scale, putting it on par with the Chernobyl disaster, originally the accidents were rated at level five, the same level of the Three Mile Island accident. Image: Silver Spoon.

 The new development at the plant and the aftershock are new blows to a country wounded after the massive earthquake in March, which caused a tsunami that washed away whole towns and villages along the country’s northeast coast. Thousands of bodies have been recovered, and many more are still unaccounted for, many left under mounds of rubble or washed out to sea. More than 150,000 people remain displaced, living in emergency shelters.

Before the aftershock struck yesterday, survivors of the first earthquake marked the time it hit a month ago with a moment of silence across the country. Writing to seven international newspapers, Naoto Kan, the Japanese prime minister, expressed his gratitude to people globally for their support. “Through our own efforts and with the help of the global community, Japan will recover and come back even stronger. We will then repay you for your generous aid,” he wrote. “With this in our hearts, we now stand together dedicated to rebuilding the nation.”

Situation at damaged nuclear power plant remains ‘very grave’, says Japanese Prime Minister

Two weeks after a disastrous earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, the situation at the severely damaged Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant has been described by the Prime Minister as “very grave and serious”. In a nationally televised report to the nation on Friday, Naoto Kan said the Japanese government was “not in a position where we can be optimistic.”

Radiation is reported to still be leaking from the plant, in Fukushima prefecture. “The source of the radiation seems to be the reactor core,” said Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama, adding that radiation was “more likely” coming from the core than from the reactor’s spent fuel pool.

The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant pictured five days after the earthquake by Digital Globe.

On Thursday three workers stepped into contaminated cooling water in the reactor’s turbine room while trying to replace cables at reactor No. 3, Nishiyama said. The water seeped into the the boots of two of the workers, touching their skin and causing lesions; the third worker’s clothing protected him from the water. The two workers with skin lesions were hospitalized for radiation exposure. The radiation level of the contaminated water measured 10,000 times the level of cooling water in an undamaged reactor.

Work has been stopped on attempts to reattach a permanent power line to the cooling system in reactor No. 3, and the building has been evacuated. Nishiyama could give no predictions of when work would resume. The possibility that water is leaking from the core of reactor No. 3 increases the danger for workers who attempt to cool the crippled plant. The reactors must be cooled before more safety work can begin.

Japan had been using seawater for cooling since the disaster crippled the power plant’s cooling systems, but U.S. officials were concerned that saltwater could harm the equipment, causing it to seize up and corrode, thereby worsening the situation.

Japan facing ‘most severe crisis since World War II’, says prime minister

Amongst the aftermath of a magnitude 8.9 earthquake which struck on Friday, followed by a tsunami, Naoto Kan, the current prime minister of Japan, has claimed that the country is experiencing its largest difficulties since the end of World War II in 1945.

“The current situation of the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear plants is in a way the most severe crisis in the past 65 years since World War II,” Kan stated. Speaking on television, he stated that “[w]hether we Japanese can overcome this crisis depends on each of us. I strongly believe that we can get over this great earthquake and tsunami by joining together.”

Sendai City after Tsunami.

Kan reported that there were limited supplies of electricity due to the closure of numerous power stations, including a nuclear power plant located in Fukushima Prefecture. According to NHK, a broadcasting organization in Japan, approximately 310,000 individuals have been transported to safety in shelters that, in various cases, do not contain electricity.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

The Government of Japan has reported the deaths of one thousand individuals, although thousands of others have not been taken into account. The police have claimed that the death toll in the Miyagi Prefecture as a result of the earthquake and tsunami could be in excess of ten thousand. 100,000 troops – which equates to approximately 40% of the country’s armed forces – are said to have been committed to assisting with the survivors of the disasters.

The nuclear agency of Japan consider the circumstances at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant to be Level 4 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, which is an accident with local consequences. According to BBC News Online, incidents like this usually cause one person to die from causes related to radiation. No individuals from the power plant are reported to have died.

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