Japan’s reactor crisis hits maximum level

JAPAN will upgrade the rating of the Fukushima nuclear crisis to the same level as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, as aftershocks continue to rock the country.

News of the re-rating of the nuclear crisis came as Japan was hit by a series of major tremors today.  A 6.3-magnitude tremor hit Fukushima prefecture 70km south of Fukushima city, following a 6.2-magnitude tremor that hit in the morning 77km east of Tokyo.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano confirmed that the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant would be upgraded from a level 5 to a level 7, which is the maximum, on the international scale.  He said the decision was made by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and it would announce the details at a press conference.

The regrading to a “major accident” puts Fukushima on a par with the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, the world’s worst ever peacetime nuclear event.  The meltdown at Chernobyl in the then Soviet Union spewed a large volume of toxic radiation, poisoning large areas of land and affecting thousands of lives.

Radiation emissions were equal to 10 per cent of those produced by Chernobyl, Japan’s nuclear safety watchdog said.  Earlier today, the nuclear power plant operator said workers discovered a small fire near a reactor building at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex but it was extinguished quickly.

Tokyo Electric Power Company said the fire at a box that contains batteries in a building near the No. 4 reactor was discovered at about 8.38 AEST today 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 this morning.  The cause of the fire is being investigated.

It’s believed the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency estimated the amount of radioactive material released from the Fukushima plant reached 10,000 terabecquerels per hour for several hours following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.  That level of radiation places the Fukushima incident at the maximum rating on the INES scale, developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which rates incidents from one to seven.

The Fukushima crisis had previously been compared to the Three Mile Island incident in the US, which rated a five on the INES scale.  The strongest of series of aftershocks that hit Japan yesterday swayed buildings in Tokyo and temporarily stopped subway services and appeared to start a small fire at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which was quickly extinguished.

The 9.08am quake hit off the coast of Chiba prefecture, east of the capital. The US Geological Agency put the magnitude at 6.4, at a depth of 13.1km, 77km east of Tokyo. The Japan Meteorological Agency had measured it at 6.3.  The runways of Tokyo’s Narita Airport were temporarily closed for checks but have since reopened.

Another strong aftershock of magnitude 7.0 hit Japan last night killing two people and blacking out more than 220,000 homes.  Its epicentre was north of the capital near Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture.  Frayed nerves were strained further yesterday when coastal areas were put on alert for a possible tsunami after a 6.6 magnitude quake that killed three people in a landslide in Iwaki city, Fukushima.

Japan has experienced more than 400 aftershocks stronger than magnitude 5.0 since March 11 and authorities have warned of more large follow-up quakes.

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