Japan raised the severity rating of its nuclear crisis to the highest, matching the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, as increasing radiation prompts the government to widen the evacuation zone and aftershocks rocked the country.
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency raised the rating to 7, a spokesman said at a news conference in Tokyo today. The accident at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi station was previously rated 5 on the global scale, the same as the 1979 partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
The stricken nuclear plant, located about 220 kilometers (135 miles) north of Tokyo, is leaking radiation in Japan’s worst civilian nuclear disaster after a magnitude-9 quake and tsunami on March 11. Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s plant has withstood hundreds of aftershocks, and the government widened the surrounding evacuation zone yesterday.
The government “is at last beginning to wake up to the reality of the scale of the disaster,” said Philip White, International Liaison Officer at the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a Tokyo-based group opposed to atomic energy. “Its belated move to evacuate people from a larger area around the nuclear plant, likewise, is a recognition that the impact on public health is potentially much greater than it first acknowledged.”
The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale rates nuclear accidents in terms of their effects on health and the environment, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which helped set up the system. Each of its seven steps represents a ten times increase in the severity of the incident or accident, according to the INES factsheet.
Levels 1 through 3 are classified as incidents and those from 4 to 7 are defined as accidents. Level 7 means there has been a “major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures,” the factsheet says.
The March 11 earthquake, the nation’s strongest on record, and tsunami left about 27,500 dead or missing, according to Japan’s National Police Agency. The government has estimated the damage at 25 trillion yen ($295 billion). Tepco may face claims of as much as 11 trillion yen, according to one estimate.
A magnitude-6.2 earthquake struck off the coast of Chiba, the prefecture east of Tokyo, at 8:08 a.m. local time today, swaying buildings in the capital, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. This followed a 6.6-magnitude temblor yesterday and a magnitude 7.1 aftershock on April 7.
No Aftershock Damage
There was no damage at the Fukushima plant after the latest earthquake, company spokesman Takashi Kurita said. There were no blackouts at the station, Tepco, as the utility is called, said in a flash statement on its website.
Tepco rose 7.8 percent to 539 yen at 11 a.m. in Tokyo. The stock has slumped 75 percent since March 10, a day before the crisis began.
Today’s quake briefly shut runways at Narita International Airport and halted bullet train services and subways in Tokyo.
The two runways at Narita reopened after checks were completed following the latest earthquake, Masaru Fujisaki, a spokesman for Narita International Airport Corp., said by telephone. East Japan Railway Co.’s bullet train services and all subway lines operated by Tokyo Metro Co. have resumed, according spokesmen for the companies.
A fire at the sampling building near the No. 4 reactor at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi station was extinguished this morning, after the blaze was discovered at 6:38 a.m., spokesman Motoyasu Tamaki said at a press conference today. The fire wasn’t related to this morning’s quake, he said.
Tepco is using emergency equipment to cool reactors damaged at the atomic station after backup generators were knocked out by the tsunami.
The utility is trying to remove highly contaminated water that’s holding up efforts to get the cooling pumps working and prevent further explosions after blasts damaged reactor containment vessels, releasing radiation into the air and sea and tainting food. Yesterday’s earthquake halted the pumping of contaminated water from the No. 2 reactor, Tepco said.
About 60,000 metric tons of contaminated water lies in the basements of turbine buildings and trenches around the No. 1, 2 and 3 reactors, the company said last week.
“If it doesn’t find a long term solution to the large quantities of highly radioactive water flowing out of the reactors, the scale of the disaster could end up exceeding Chernobyl,” White, from the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, said by telephone today.
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