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Japan Increases Nuclear Crisis Level At Power Plant

Callie Schweitzer |
March 18, 2011 | 7:44 p.m. PDT


Japan's nuclear safety agency raised the crisis level of the country's disaster from a 4 to a 5 on Friday, ranking it on par with the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. Only two events have ever ranked higher on the scale, which goes from 1 to 7. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was ranked a 7.

But some experts are saying the new ranking may be misleading.

The New York Times reports:

"The consensus among nuclear safety experts outside Japan is that the situation there is already worse than Three Mile Island, where a partial fuel meltdown at one reactor was contained with a relatively small release of radioactivity.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which developed the ratings, says it is not meant to be used to compare events in different countries and at different times. Still, the Fukushima event has involved a significant release of radiation, along with damage in several reactors and spent-fuel storage pools. How could it be given the same rating as Three Mile Island?

The answer lies in the nature of the ranking system and in who is doing the ranking."

The formula for calculating the crisis level of a nuclear event is much more complicated than for other kinds of events like hurricanes and can vary greatly. 

The Washington Post reports, "Japan says that Level 5 emergencies are characterized by large quantities of radiation release and a likelihood of 'significant' public exposure or several deaths."

Another key issue in Japan has been communication from public officials, which was highlighted Friday when "a top international nuclear official appealed to the Japanese government to be more forthcoming with information about the crisis."

“The international community’s view is that they want more volume of accurate information more quickly,” said International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano.

"The statement underscored growing anxiety and frustration in Japan and elsewhere about the dearth of information about the stricken plant...Asked about public doubts that the government is telling the whole truth about the nuclear crisis, Kan said later: 'We have been disclosing all facts that I and the cabinet secretary are able to get hold of regarding the power plant accident,'" the Washington Post reports.

Meantime, Tokyo Electric Power said early Saturday that "new power lines were connected to the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant" and electricity can now be supplied. 

"Once we have an electric power supply, we will go slowly and carefully through the plant checking the various machines to see what is working and to also avoid short-circuiting them," an official from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said at a briefing.

USA Today reports:

"Agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said workers were trying to restore power to the plant's No. 1 and No. 2 reactors Saturday and at the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors by Sunday, Kyodo News says.

Some of the plant's power distribution boards are covered with water from the tsunami caused by last Friday's magnitude-9 earthquake, and TEPCO will use makeshift replacement equipment. Even with electricity restored, it is unlikely devices will be reactivated at least until Saturday as equipment needs to be checked.

The cores of the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 reactors may have partially melted, and radiation leaks continue from the reactors and spent fuel pools.

Nishiyama noted the difficulty in assessing radiation data to determine the effectiveness of airborne water drops and water cannons to douse exposed spent-fuel rods. ''We need to observe the situation a little more to determine whether the mission was a success or not,'' he said."

Elsewhere in Japan, reports of unrest are surfacing.

"[P]ublic anger is starting to rise, with reports of fights at petrol pumps over government-ordered rationing," according to Al Jazeera English, whose correspondent Steve Chao notes, "[This is] unheard of in a nation where politeness is an institution."

Japanese public broadcaster NHK reports that about 200 "temporary dwellings" will be set up on campus grounds of a junior high school in the town of Rikuzentakata.

"Doctors in the disaster area are reporting cases of influenza. Other risks to those living in evacuation shelters include hypothermia and DVT," AJE reports.



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