Video: Japan nuke crisis now equal to Chernobyl

  1. Closed captioning of: Japan nuke crisis now equal to Chernobyl

    >> upgraded the severity of the nuclear crisis to the highest level equal to the 1980 chernobyl disaster . john yang has the latest from tokyo. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning. officials say this change doesn't mean things have gotten worse at the fukushima plant. it just means they have a better sense of how much radiation has been released and is being released. experts say while this puts it in the same category as chernobyl , there are important differences. for instance, the amount of radiation released in fukushima so far is about 10% of the radiation released at chernobyl . on the other hand, they say chernobyl was a one-time massive explosion. the fukushima plant has been leaking now for about a month and there is no end in sight. officials acknowledge that if the leak continues unchecked, the amount of radiation could exceed the amount of radiation at chernobyl . tamron?

    >> all right, john yang live for us in tokyo. thank

msnbc.com news services
updated 4/12/2011 6:09:40 AM ET 2011-04-12T10:09:40

Japan raised the severity level of the crisis at its crippled nuclear plant Tuesday to rank it on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, citing cumulative radiation leaks that have contaminated the air, tap water, vegetables and seawater.

Japanese nuclear regulators said the rating was being raised from 5 to 7 — the highest level on an international scale overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency — after new assessments of radiation leaks from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant since it was disabled by the March 11 tsunami.

The new ranking signifies a "major accident" that includes widespread effects on the environment and health, according to the Vienna-based IAEA.

"Our preparations for how to measure (the radiation leakage) when such a tsunami and earthquake occurred were insufficient and, as a result, we were late in disseminating information internationally," said a senior official in Prime Minister Naoto Kan's office.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, a deputy director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), said the decision to raise the severity of the incident from level 5 to 7 — the same as the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 — was based on cumulative quantities of radiation released.

"Even before this, we had considered this a very serious incident so, in that sense, there will be no big change in the way we deal with it just because it has been designated level 7," an agency official said.

Continued aftershocks following the 9.0-magnitude megaquake on March 11 have impeded work in stabilizing the Fukushima plant — the latest a 6.3-magnitude one Tuesday that prompted plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, to temporarily pull back workers.

Image: Fire and smoke at a building near the No.4 reactor of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant
TEPCO via Reuters
A fire broke out at a building for sampling seawater near the No.4 reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on April 12, 2011.

The aftershock caused a fire to break out at the plant, but engineers later extinguished the blaze.

Video: Aftershock in Japan unnerves traumatized nation (on this page)

However, the operator of the stricken facility appears to be no closer to restoring cooling systems at the reactors, critical to lowering the temperature of overheated nuclear fuel rods.

The official in Kan's office said that the prime minister would instruct plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) to set target dates for when it would halt the radiation leakage as well as restore the cooling systems.

No radiation-linked deaths have been reported since the earthquake struck, and only 21 plant workers have been affected by minor radiation sickness, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

'Nowhere near' Chernobyl
A level 7 incident means a major release of radiation with a widespread health and environmental impact, while a 5 level is a limited release of radioactive material, with several deaths, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Several experts said the new rating exaggerated the severity of the crisis, and that the Chernobyl disaster was 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.

Story: Chernobyl tours offered 25 years after blast

"Their (Japan's) containment has been holding, the only thing that hasn't is the fuel pool that caught fire."

The blast at Chernobyl blew the roof off a reactor and sent large amounts of radiation wafting across Europe. The accident contaminated vast areas, particularly in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus, led to the evacuation of well over 100,000 and affected livestock as far away as Scandinavia and Britain.

Nevertheless, the increase in the severity level heightens the risk of diplomatic tension with Japan's neighbors over radioactive fallout. China and South Korea have already been critical of the operator's decision to pump radioactive water into the sea, a process it has now stopped.

"Raising the level to a 7 has serious diplomatic implications. It is telling people that the accident has the potential to cause trouble to our neighbors," said Kenji Sumita, a nuclear expert at Osaka University.

NISA and the NSC have been measuring emissions of radioactive iodine-131 and cesium-137, a heavier element with a much longer half-life. Based on an average of their estimates and a formula that converts elements into a common radioactive measure, the equivalent of about 500,000 terabecquerels of radiation from iodine-131 has been released into the atmosphere since the crisis began.

That well exceeds the Level 7 threshold of the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale of "several tens of thousands of terabecquerels" of iodine-131. A terabecquerel equals a trillion becquerels, a measure for radiation emissions.

The government says the Chernobyl incident released 5.2 million terabecquerels into the air — about 10 times that of the Fukushima plant.

Both Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Kawauchimura Village in the Radius of 20-30 km from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
    Koichi Kamoshida / EPA
    Above: Slideshow (9) Devastation in Japan after quake
  2. Image: Magnitude 8.9 Strong Earthquake Jolts Northern Japan
    Xinhua via Getty Images
    Slideshow (46) Triple tragedy for Japan

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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