The Japan nuclear crisis took an ominous turn yesterday, with officials declaring that the emergency at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was now as severe as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. According to a report on MSNBC, nuclear regulators in Japan have raised the severity rating from 5 to 7, the highest level on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) scale, after new assessments of radioactive material leaking from the damaged reactors.
The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale defines a Level 7 Accident as a major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures. Chernobyl marks the only other time a nuclear disaster has been declared a Level 7 Accident.
The Fukushima Daiichi plant was damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11. Several reactors there have been leaking radiation ever since. Japan’s misery continued yesterday, as an aftershock measuring 6.3 magnitude hit the country. The aftershock forced crews working to cool and stabilize the Fukushima reactors to temporarily abandon their efforts. The same aftershock caused a fire to break out at the plant’s Number 4 nuclear reactor, but it was later extinguished.
According to MSNBC, the Fukushima plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, appears to be no closer to restoring cooling systems at the damaged reactors, something that is sorely needed to stabilize overheated nuclear fuel rods and prevent a meltdown.
Despite the declaration of a Level 8 Accident at Fukushima, some experts told MSNBC that the Chernobyl accident was still 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. Jennex noted that the containment at Fukushima is still holding, and the “the only thing that hasn’t is the fuel pool that caught fire.”
According to MSNBC, the Chernobyl accident contaminated large areas of the Ukraine, Belarus and neighboring regions. It also led to the evacuation of well over 100,000 people and affected livestock as far away as Scandinavia and Britain.
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) of Japan have been measuring emissions of radioactive iodine-131 and cesium-137 from the damaged reactors. According to MSNBC, the reactors have released the equivalent of about 500,000 terabecquerels of radiation from iodine-131 has been released into the atmosphere since the crisis began, which exceeds the IAEC’s threshold for a Level 7 Accident. However, the Chernobyl disaster released 10 times more, roughly 5.2 million terabecquerels.
As we’ve reported previously, the radioactive material leaking from the Fukushima reactors has been detected in air, rainwater, drinking water and even milk in several U.S. cities. However, U.S. regulators continue to insist that the levels detected so far do not pose a human health threat.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is now reporting that three sites in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had a higher level of radioactive iodine-131 than water in other cities. The city is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to determine the cause. While the Japan nuclear crisis is obviously a suspect, the Inquirer noted that Philadelphia’s water department recently received data showing high levels of Iodine-131 in water back in August, suggesting there may be another cause.
The Inquirer said the higher levels of Iodine-131 were found April 4 in samples from treated water at the Queen Lane, Baxter, and Belmont water treatment plants. The EPA also contends the water from the three sites does not pose a health threat, noting that the elevated levels still fall within federal safety standards.