TOKYO – Japan declared the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant a top-scale event on the international system for rating nuclear accidents Tuesday, putting it on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, CNN informs. The decision to bump the accident up to level 7 – a “major accident” – on the International Nuclear Event Scale came after a review of the amount of radiation released in the month since the crisis began, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, chief spokesman, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Fukushima Daiichi now sits at the top of that scale, two notches higher than the rating Japanese officials assigned to it before Tuesday.
“Right at this moment, we are still trying to control this accident, and the nuclear reactors are not stable yet,” Nishiyama said. “We are dealing with all our might and resources and try to minimize the impact of the radiation to the people around this nuclear plant.”
Tetsunari Iida, a former nuclear engineer-turned-industry critic, told CNN the declaration has no immediate practical impact on the crisis. But it’s a sign that Japanese regulators have rethought their earlier assessments of the disaster, said Iida, who now runs an alternative energy think-tank in Tokyo.
Scientists believe the amount of radiation released is only a tenth of what was released at Chernobyl, Nishiyama said. But the levels for radioactive iodine and cesium that have been spewed into the air, water and soil around the plant are in the tens of trillions of bequerels — 15 times higher than the threshold for a top-scale event, according to figures released by the safety agency Tuesday morning.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said the designation indicates “a major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects, requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures.”
A fresh round of tremors, including one with a magnitude of 6.3, shook northern Japan on Tuesday afternoon, the Japan Meteorological Agency reported.
The quake was centered in Fukushima Prefecture, near Japan’s Pacific coast and about 64 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Workers retreated to earthquake-resistant shelters during the event, but there was no loss of power at the plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company told CNN. It followed a magnitude-6.4 quake Tuesday morning that killed at least six people when it triggered a landslide in Iwaki, north of Tokyo.
The earlier quake buried three homes, the Iwaki fire department said. Three people were rescued and hospitalized, and fire officials were working to rescue an unknown number of others believed to be trapped, the department said.