Image: Fire and smoke are seen at a building for sampling from seawater near No.4 reactor of the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant
TEPCO via Reuters
Fire and smoke are seen at a building for sampling from seawater near No.4 reactor of the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima Prefecture in this handout photo taken on Tuesday. A fire broke out at Japan's crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, operator Tokyo Electric and Power (TEPCO) said on Tuesday, although flames and smoke were no longer visible.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/12/2011 3:14:02 AM ET 2011-04-12T07:14:02

The Japanese government's nuclear safety agency raised the crisis level of the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant accident from 5 to 7, the worst on the international scale and on par with the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago.

The emission of radioactive substances from the stricken plant is about 10 percent of the amount that had been detected at Chernobyl, the agency said on Tuesday.

However, an official at Tokyo Electric and Power (TEPCO) said later Tuesday that they are concerned that the radiation leakage could eventually exceed the 1986 disaster.

"The radiation leak has not stopped completely and our concern is that it could eventually exceed Chernobyl," a TEPCO official told reporters.

Story: Chernobyl tours offered 25 years after blast

The Kyodo news agency said the agency estimated the amount of radioactive material released from the reactors in northern Japan reached a maximum of 10,000 terabequerels per hour at one point for several hours, which would classify the incident as a major accident, according to the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES).

The rating reflects the initial severity of the crisis, not the current situation, which has seen radiation levels drop dramatically.

"This is a preliminary assessment, and is subject to finalization by the International Atomic Energy Agency," said an official at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the government's nuclear watchdog, which made the announcement with the Nuclear Safety Commission.

Japan is struggling to regain control of the plant after a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated its northeast on March 11, and is facing a major humanitarian and economic crisis.

The INES scale is published by the IAEA.

Japan had previously assessed the accident at reactors operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co, at level 5, the same level as the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

Small fire extinguished
Also Tuesday, workers at Japan's tsunami-stricken nuclear power complex discovered a small fire near a reactor building Tuesday but it was extinguished quickly, the plant's operator said.

TEPCO said the fire at a box that contains batteries in a building near the No. 4 reactor was discovered at about 6:38 a.m. Tuesday and was put out seven minutes later.

It wasn't clear whether the fire was related to a magnitude-6.3 earthquake that shook the Tokyo area Tuesday morning. Kyodo said Japan's main international airport Narita closed runways for checks but later resumed flights. The cause of the fire is being investigated.

"The fire was extinguished immediately. It has no impact on Unit 4's cooling operations for the spent fuel rods," said TEPCO spokesman Naoki Tsunoda.

Aftershocks rattle nerves
There have been hundreds of aftershocks since March 11 when a massive 9 magnitude earthquake and 15 meter tsunami hit northeast Japan, plunging the country into its worst crisis since World War Two.

A second major aftershock measuring 6.3 rocked northeast Japan on Tuesday, swaying buildings in central Tokyo, shortly after the government upgraded its nuclear crisis.

The latest aftershock struck the area of Fukushima, near the crippled Dai-ichi nuclear plant, said the Japan Meteorological Agency. A 6.3 aftershock hit Chiba prefecture, neighboring Tokyo, earlier on Tuesday.

An aftershock measuring 6.6 quake hit Fukushima prefecture on Monday evening temporarily cutting power and forcing workers to evacuate the nuclear plant.

In Iwaki, a landslide brought down three houses, trapping up to seven people. Four were rescued alive, but one of those — a 16-year-old girl — died at the hospital, a police official said. He would not give his name, citing policy.

Around 210,000 people have no running water and, following Monday's aftershocks, more than 240,000 people are without electricity.

In all, nearly 190,000 people have fled their homes, the vast majority of whom are living in shelters, according to the national disaster agency. About 85,000 are from the cleared zone around the nuclear plant; their homes may be intact, but it's not known when they'll be able to return to them.

Yutaka Endo said he feels like his life has been put on hold because of the nuclear crisis.

He fled Minami Soma and has been living in a shelter in Fukushima city for three weeks with his family.

"I can't make any plans because of the nuclear crisis. My home was fine, but I can't go back there because it is in a restricted area," said the 32-year-old, who used to tend bar. "I need to find a new job and a place to live so that we can get out of here. But I can't do anything until these zones are lifted."

Ryokou Sasaki said he and his elderly parents are in the same position. They've applied for temporary shelters, and are waiting to hear back.

He recently moved back home — to the northeastern port city of Kamaishi — to help his parents' with their fishing business.

"We're not in a place yet where we can even think about rebuilding the business yet," said the 40-year-old. "They seem to have given up."

Both Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Aftershock in Japan unnerves traumatized nation

  1. Closed captioning of: Aftershock in Japan unnerves traumatized nation

    >> we turn back overseas for a moment. it's now been one month to the day since that 9.0 earthquake, the devastating tsunami hit northern japan, and that, of course, triggered a nuclear emergency still far from over. today, another strong aftershock that killed at looets two people. the official death toll now stands at more than 13,000 even though many are still missing and so many places now exist where life will not be the same. john yang has our report tonight from tokyo.

    >> reporter: at 2:46 p.m ., sirens marked the moment one month later. from evicuation centers to the prime minister to the search for the missing, japan paused. 3:30 later, another aftershock. 6.6, unnerving an already traumatized nation.

    >> my stress is at its limits, said this woman. earlier, the man who operated the plant made his first visit since the disaster. i am truly sorry, he said. local officials refused to meet with him. at the plant, mow questions about what to do with an estimated 14 million gallons of highly radioactive water. with no end to the crisis in sight, they expanded the evacuation zone around the plant to include five more communities. nearly 150,000 people are still without homes living in these evacuations centers. many have no idea where they'll go next. this man and his wife fled the evacuation zone, but their daughter, a nurse, and their sornl, a telecommunications worker, stayed.

    >> they're worried about radiation, he said, but they're also worried about losing their jobs.

    >> this man and his grandson lived outside of the expanded evacuation zone but still fear the radiation. if we don't find a new place, he said, there's no choice but to go back. adilemma thousands of others may face soon.

Photos: Triple tragedy for Japan

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  1. Office workers in Tokyo look at smoke rising over the skyline after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan's northeast coast on March 11, 2011. (Xinhua via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Waves pour over a seawall and roar into a seaside village near the mouth of Hei River on March 11 as the tsunami generated by the massive earthquake hits shore. (Mainichi Newspaper via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hotel employees squat around a pillar at the hotel's entrance in Tokyo after the powerful earthquake on March 11. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A tsunami wave sweeps away homes in its path in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. One house bursts into flames after the tsunami swept it and many of its neighbors off their foundations in Natori on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Shaken evacuees gather in Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial photo shows Sendai Airport being inundated by a tsunami on March 11. Later reports said the first wave hit 26 minutes after the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A swirling pattern is evident in this aerial photo of the tsunami as it hit a port in Oarai, Ibaraki prefecture on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Toya Chiba, a reporter for local newspaper Iwate Tokai Shimbun, is swept away while taking pictures at the mouth of the Owatari River during the tsunami at Kamaishi port, Iwate prefecture. Chiba managed to survive in the rush of water by grabbing a dangling rope and climbing onto a coal heap around 30 feet high after being swept away for about 100 feet, Kyodo News reports. (Kamaishi Port Office / Kyodo via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Natural gas containers burn in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, on March 11. The massive earthquake triggered many fires, posing additional problems for first responders. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Containers for cargo are strewn about like giant Legos in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People use a floating container to ferry survivors to higher ground in Kesennuma City, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cars swept into a jumble by the tsunami are seen in Hitachi City, Ibaraki prefecture, on March 12. (Yomiuri via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A line of residents seeking water snakes across the playground of a school in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13, two days after the earthquake. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Japanese firefighters rescue tsunami survivors in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Japanese home drifts in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sendai in this photograph taken on March 13. (Dylan McCord / U.S. Navy via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A woman cries while sitting on a road in the devastated city of Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (Asahi Shimbun / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. An "SOS" signal scrawled on the sports field of a high school beckons potential rescuers on March 13 in the town of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    The body of a victim of the twin disaster lays on the stairs of a destroyed house in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sixty-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa waves to members of Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force preparing to rescue him about 9 miles off Fukushima prefecture on March 13. Shinkawa survived by clinging to a piece of roof after the tsunami hit his hometown of Minamisoma. (Japanese Defense Forces via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People walk along a flooded street in Ishimaki City, Miyagi prefecture on March 13. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. An explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant sends a plume of smoke skyward on March 14. The blast was believed to have been caused by a buildup of hydrogen inside the reactor building, caused by the partial meltdown of nuclear fuel inside. The plant was crippled after the earthquake cut power to the station and tsunami waves knocked out backup generators. (NTV / FCT) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A 1-year-old boy is re-checked for radiation exposure after being decontaminated in Nihonmatsu, Fukushiima prefecture, on March 14. (Toru Nakata / Asahi Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Officers examine a Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force on March 14. The warplane was swept by the tsunami into a building at Matsushima base in Higashimatsushima, Iwate prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Japanese rescue team members carry the body of a man out of the village of Saito on March 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A woman survivor is reunited with her relatives at a shelter in Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, on March 15. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A bicyclist wheels across a hellish landscape in what was the city of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tsunami survivors cook on an open fire in front of their damaged house in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 15. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Vehicle headlamps illuminate a devastated section of Yamada town, Iwate prefecture, on March 16. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Evacuees carry bowls of pork soup from a soup kitchen to a makeshift shelter in Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 16. (Tsuyoshi Matsumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Refugees, including 53 people who were rescued from a retirement home during the tsunami, take shelter inside a school gym in the leveled city of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, on March 17. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Members of Japan Self-Defense Force pray over the body of a tsunami victim in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, on March 20. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Tomoko Yagi looks at two firetrucks that were tossed around like toys in the tsunami in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, on March 20. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Survivors relay boxes of relief supplies arriving at their evacuation center in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, on March 21. (Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A boat juts out from the top of a building in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, on March 22. (Hiroto Nomoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Manami Kon, 4, uses the Japanese "hiragana" characters she just learned to write a letter to her missing mother in the devastated city of Miyako, Iwate prefecture, on March 22 . "Dear Mommy. I hope you're alive. Are you OK?" read the letter, which took about an hour to write. Also missing were the little girl's father and sister. (Norikazu Tateishi / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers collect data in the control room for the Unit 1 and 2 reactors at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on March 23. (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. An aerial photo taken by an unmanned drone shows the damaged units of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on March 24. (Air Photo Service via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Two residents exchange words as they are reunited two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami in a makeshift public bath set up outside a shelter in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 25. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A Japanese funeral parlor worker shovels dirt onto the coffins of victims of the earthquake and tsunami at a mass funeral in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 26. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A lone pine tree stands in a devastated area iof Rikuzentakaka, Iwate prefecture, on March 27. It was the only one among tens of thousands of other pine trees forming "Takata Matsubara," or Takata seaside pine forest, standing after the March 11 tsunami washed away all the others, local media said. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A woman whose house was washed away loses control of her emotions on March 29 as she talks about the disaster that befell her hometown of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Kuni Takahashi) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, left, talk with evacuees at Tokyo Budoh-kan evacuation center on March 30. (Issei Kato / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., (TEPCO), including Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, center, Vice President Takashi Fujimoto, second from left, bow before a news conference at the company's head office in Tokyo on March 30. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A man rides a bicycle in between the ships that were washed ashore by the March 11 tsunami, on March 30, in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Eugene Hoshiko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. An elderly woman waves to her grandchildren in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on April 3, as authorities began a mass evacuation of approximately 1,100 homeless survivors to shelters elsewhere. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
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  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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  4. Editor's note:
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  1. Image: Magnitude 8.9 Strong Earthquake Jolts Northern Japan
    Xinhua via Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (46) Triple tragedy for Japan
  2. Image: Kawauchimura Village in the Radius of 20-30 km from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
    Koichi Kamoshida / EPA
    Slideshow (9) Devastation in Japan after quake

Timeline: Crisis in Japan

How events have unfolded since a 9.0 earthquake struck northeast Japan, triggering a deadly tsunami and nuclear power disaster.

  1. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Above: Timeline Crisis in Japan
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster

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