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.”

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.

Japanese tsunami impacts California coastal town

The tsunami caused by Japan’s 8.9 quake on Friday destroyed the commercial fishing harbor of Crescent City, California, a coastal town still recovering from a devastating tsunami in 1964. Although most of the fishing boats were removed in advance, the 198 docking slips that the harbor had provided for boats, enabling the livelihoods of the fishing crews, were lost.

Harbormaster Richard Young said that the harbor is destroyed. “We’re facing not only physical but financial disaster,” he said during a briefing. “Our business activity came to a screeching halt yesterday, and that affects the entire community.” Councilwoman Kelly Schellong said, “This is going to have a trickle-down effect beyond the lost jobs.”

Crescent City, California harbor.

Crescent City’s unemployment rate was 13 percent before Friday’s tsunami destroyed its commerical fishing industry.

The 1964 tsunami that hit Crescent City killed 11, demolished the harbor and heavily damaged large portions of the business district. Although the city subsequently rebuilt, another tsunami again damaged the harbor in 2006. The city was in the midst of reconstructing the harbor when Friday’s tsunami hit. The harbor is surrounded by land and a breakwater built after the 1964 disaster. The tsunami’s huge waves entered through a small opening provided for the entrance and exit of boats.

Lori Dengler, director of the Humboldt Earthquake Education Center, says Friday’s tsunami was one of as many as 38 tsunamis to strike Crescent City within the last 78 years. She calls the city a “tsunami magnet” because of the topography of the ocean floor that contributes to its vulnerability. She also blames the breakwater built after the 1964 tsunami because it traps tsunami waves in the harbor, causing them to boil and churn.

A county supervisor found the view painful on Saturday as she surveyed the wreckage accompanied by state officials. She is hoping they will provide emergency assistance. “We don’t have the financial resources,” she said. “We need money. That’s what it takes to fix things…. Our poor little harbor.”

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