1st Dec 2021

Japan steps up nuclear crisis rating to Chernobyl level

  • A warning sign at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine (Photo: Ratcliff, Trey)

Japanese officials have increased the severity rating at the Fukushima power plant to seven, the maximum level, only previously seen after Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986.

The decision by the country's nuclear regulator on Tuesday (12 April) came after radiation levels of 10,000 terabequerels per hour had been estimated for several hours, posing a greater risk for human health and the environment. Radiation levels are then reported to have dropped back.

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Japan had earlier classified escaped radiation at the crisis-stricken Fukushima plant at level five on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (Ines).

Despite the maximum severity rating, officials stressed that radiation was roughly one tenth of what was seen at Europe's own nuclear disaster.

"There are still major differences from Chernobyl," said Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. "In terms of volume of radioactive materials released, our estimate shows it is about 10 percent of what was released [after the accident in Ukraine]."

The explosion of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl spread radioactive material over a wide area, something which had not happened at the Fukushima power plant, stressed Nishiyama.

Traces of radioactive materials have been detected in Europe however, following the 11 March earthquake and subsequent tsunami which led to the Japanese crisis.

French research body CRIIRAD published a document last week in which it said the risks associated with iodine-131 contamination in Europe were no longer "negligible".

The NGO advised pregnant women and young children against the consumption of fresh milk and vegetables with large leaves, but health agencies in various member states have so far stressed that detected quantities of radioactive material are too small to pose a threat to human health.

As a "precaution", the EU on Friday reduced the thresholds of radioactive materials allowed in food and animal feed imports, previously set 24 years ago after the Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union.

At a meeting of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH), EU member states endorsed a commission proposal that lowers the acceptable maximum levels of iodine-131, caesium-134 and caesium-137, bringing them into line with stricter Japanese standards.

The Japanese nuclear crisis comes as Ukraine prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown, with Kiev inviting world leaders to a conference on 19 April to mark the world's worst nuclear accident, which caused the evacuation of over 350,000 people.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is set to open the event, but a diplomatic row broke out last month when it was made known that Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko was also planning to attend.

Belarus was one of the country's worst effected by the Chernobyl accident, but Lukashenko is on a Western human rights blacklist and it now looks like a senior government official will replace him at the conference instead.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests 4,000 deaths may have been caused as a result of escaped radiation in Chernobyl, while others such as Greenpeace say the figure is much higher.

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