The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex has been upgraded from a level 5 to a level 7 on the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES), one month after the earthquake and tsunami that first damaged the Japanese power plant.
The decision, announced by Japan's nuclear safety agency today, makes the Fukushima disaster the second nuclear accident to ever be rated this most severe level. The other is the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.
"We have upgraded the severity level to 7 as the impact of radiation leaks has been widespread from the air, vegetables, tap water and the ocean," Minoru Oogoda of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (Nisa), was quoted as saying.
While the amount of radiation is much less than that released in the Chernobyl disaster, the impact on people and environment is now being acknowledged by the authorities as far more severe than previously thought.
Sadly, the decision was not much of a surprise. "The history of the nuclear industry is littered of cover-ups and underplaying of the consequences of nuclear accidents," says Thomas Breuer, head of the Greenpeace Climate and Energy team in Germany. Tomas has been in Japan as a member of the Greenpeace radiation monitoring team in Fukushima since March.
"The industry both inside and outside Japan have again been underplaying the human consequences of this terrible tragedy, and only now after a month has this disaster been accepted for what it is - the worst on its scale,” he points out.
On the INES scale, created by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be universal method for assessing nuclear events, levels 1-3 are 'incidents', and levels 4-7 ‘accidents’, of increasing severity. Level 5, the previous official rating of the Fukushima disaster, means an 'accident with wider consequences.' Level 7 describes a 'major accident,' involving 'a major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects.' (1) The scale is designed as logarithmic, rather than linear, so each increase from one level to the next denotes an event of ten times the severity of the previous one.
Greenpeace first called for the level of the accident to be upgraded over two weeks ago (2).
“The Japanese government has finally acknowledged how serious the situation is," says Thomas. "Now it must fast track additional measures – such as the evacuation of pregnant women and children from densely populated areas like Fukushima City and Koriyama (3) - to protect the health and livelihoods of those affected by this disaster.”
Meanwhile, vigils were held in eleven cities across India last night to mark the passing of a month since the Fukushima crisis began. Crowds held candles to mourn victims of the disaster in Japan, and expressed their opposition to the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Maharashtra. The 9900 MW Jaitapur plant will, if built, be the largest nuclear power generation in the world at a single site. The government is pushing ahead with the project, despite accusations of a botched and biased environmental impact assessment, and the fact that the type of nuclear reactor being imported for the project is currently not in operation anywhere in the world. The selected site, in Ratnigiri district, is also a seismically active zone four of a possible five. It was an uncomfortable parallel for those who attended the vigils, as the Fukushima plant was first damaged by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
"Fukushima drives home just how tragic, severe and long-lasting the effects of nuclear accident can be,” said Karuna Raina, a nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace India who joined the protests in Delhi. “The Indian government is gambling with lives by pushing forward with the Jaitapur project, especially when on seismically active ground. Their blinkered determination makes a mockery of the suffering going on in Japan right now. Our thoughts are with the victims of the Fukushima disaster, and firmly against the construction of new and untested nuclear reactors in our country."