Japan raises nuclear crisis to same level as Chernobyl
Japan put its nuclear calamity on a par with the world's worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, on Tuesday after new data showed that more radiation leaked from its earthquake-crippled power plant in the early days of the crisis than first thought.
Japanese officials said it had taken time to measure radiation from the plant after it was smashed by March 11's massive quake and tsunami, and the upgrade in its severity rating to the highest level on a globally recognized scale did not mean the situation had suddenly become more critical.
"The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is slowly stabilizing, step by step, and the emission of radioactive substances is on a declining trend," Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a press briefing on Tuesday.
He also called on opposition parties, whose help he needs to pass bills in a divided parliament, to take part in drafting reconstruction plans from an early stage.
"Our preparations for how to measure (the radiation leakage) when such a tsunami and earthquake occurred were insufficient and, as a result, we were late in disseminating information internationally," said a senior official in Kan's office.
Hidehiko Nishiyama, a deputy director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), said the decision to raise the severity of the incident from level 5 to 7 -- the same as the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 -- was based on cumulative quantities of radiation released.
As another major aftershock rattled the earthquake-ravaged east of the country a fire broke out at the plant, but engineers later extinguished the blaze.
However, the operator of the stricken facility appears to be no closer to restoring cooling systems at the reactors, critical to lowering the temperature of overheated nuclear fuel rods.
No radiation-linked deaths have been reported since the earthquake struck, and only 21 plant workers have been affected by minor radiation sickness, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.
"Although the level has been raised to 7 today, it doesn't mean the situation today is worse than it was yesterday, it means the event as a whole is worse than previously thought," said nuclear expert John Price, a former member of the Safety Policy Unit at the UK's National Nuclear Corporation.
"Nowhere Near Chernobyl"
A level 7 incident means a major release of radiation with a widespread health and environmental impact, while a 5 level is a limited release of radioactive material, with several deaths, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Several experts said the new rating exaggerated the severity of the crisis, and that the Chernobyl disaster was far worse.
"It's nowhere near that level. Chernobyl was terrible -- it blew and they had no containment, and they were stuck," said nuclear industry specialist Murray Jennex, an associate professor at San Diego State University in California.
"Their containment has been holding, the only thing that hasn't is the fuel pool that caught fire."
The blast at Chernobyl blew the roof off a reactor and sent large amounts of radiation wafting across Europe. The accident contaminated vast areas, particularly in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus, led to the evacuation of well over 100,000 and affected livestock as far away as Scandinavia and Britain.
Nevertheless, the increase in the severity level heightens the risk of diplomatic tension with Japan's neighbors over radioactive fallout, with China saying on Tuesday it was still concerned about the calamity.
"If Japan mishandles this issue, especially if, to solve its own problems, it affects the safety of neighboring countries, then that will have a bad effect on relations at the government and public levels," said Sun Cheng, a professor specializing in Japanese politics and Sino-Japanese relations at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing.
Chinese worries have not reached that point yet, he said.
"We hope that the Japanese side will provide swift, comprehensive and accurate information," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news conference, restating China's position.
China has so far been sympathetic rather than angry, though it and South Korea have criticized the plant operator's decision to pump radioactive water into the sea, a process it has now stopped.
"Raising the level to a 7 has serious diplomatic implications. It is telling people that the accident has the potential to cause trouble to our neighbors," said Kenji Sumita, a nuclear expert at Osaka University.
Huge Economic Damage
The March earthquake and tsunami killed up to 28,000 people and the estimated financial cost stands at $300 billion, making it the world's most expensive disaster.
Japan's economics minister warned the damage was likely to be worse than first thought as power shortages would cut factory output and disrupt supply chains.
The Bank of Japan governor said the economy was in a "severe state," while central bankers were uncertain when efforts to rebuild the northeast would boost growth, according to minutes from a meeting held three days after the earthquake struck.
NISA said the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere from the plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, was around 10 percent that of Chernobyl.
"Radiation released into the atmosphere peaked from March 15 to 16. Radiation is still being released, but the amount now has fallen considerably," said NISA's Nishiyama.
Lam Ching-wan, a chemical pathologist at the University of Hong Kong and member of the American Board of Toxicology, said this level of radiation was harmful.
"It means there is damage to soil, ecosystem, water, food and people. People receive this radiation. You can't escape it by just shutting the window," Lam said.
[Source: By Shinichi Saoshiro and Yoko Nishikawa, Reuters, Tokyo, 12Apr11]
Informes sobre DESC
|This document has been published on 14Apr11 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.|