After what now looks like significant foot-dragging, for fully one month, Japanese authorities have finally admitted the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is undergoing a level 7 nuclear emergency, the worst possible. There is still an effort to slow-walk this news, with repeated claims the radiation release has not been as significant as Chernobyl, also a level 7, but the Fukushima disaster involves 6 reactors, with at least 4 considered to be at ongoing risk of meltdown.
Last week, radiation levels in water leaking from the plant were found to be at 7.5 MILLION times the legal limit, and it was acknowledged that officials had been deliberately dumping highly radioactive water directly into the Pacific Ocean. The news that, on day one of this emergency, there may have been as much as 10% of the Chernobyl event’s radiation released suggests the still mounting crisis is far from contained, and the evacuation area should be expanded.
There is concern authorities are still making an effort to obscure the true extent of the disaster, and many question why if the American nuclear agency was prescient enough to extend the recommended exclusion zone to a wider radius than what currently surrounds Chernobyl, weeks ago, the Japanese authorities appear to have been cooperating with Tokyo Electric in downplaying the gravity of the crisis.
“At Chernobyl, the reactor itself exploded while still active, which is completely different from the situation at Fukushima,” Hidehiko Nishiyama said.
He added that the decision had been taken a month after the accident because experts needed time to analyse the data.
Japan’s nuclear safety commission estimated that the Fukushima plant’s reactors had released up to 10,000 terabecquerels of radioactive iodine-131 per hour into the air for several hours after they were damaged in the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.
The pattern of underreporting, adjusted reporting, and moving from aggressive downplaying to ever more contrite admissions, seems for many to parallel the reaction of BP to its own industrial disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year, the single worst release of oil in world history, aside from Saddam Hussein’s military attempt to destroy Kuwait’s oil infrastructure during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
To this day, much of what BP knew about how much oil was released during last summer’s catastrophic blowout remains unknown to the public, and the oil giant is now suing to avoid paying the $20 billion it agreed to pay as restitution to the region and for cleanup.
There is good reason to scrutinize the reporting coming from Japan, as both the plant operator and the government appear to view it as in their interest to underreport the magnitude of the catastrophe.
If as much as 10% of the release of just one isotope from the Chernobyl disaster was released just on the first day of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, and we are now at day 32, and at least 4 o ut of 6 reactors —and/or their exposed spent-fuel cooling pools— are at risk of meltdown, and they have not yet found a way to contain the radioactive water pooling around the reactors, the ultimate release from Fukushima could be far worse.
We do not yet have adequate information to make that determination, but are being given a model whereby the authorities slow-walk the crisis response, downplay the official emergency rating, and appear to be imposing an inadequate radius of exclusion, while scientists study the data, in hopes of being able to produce a less than worst-case reading of the history of this crisis.
That is not adequate effort to protect the local population, the wider public, the human food, water and air supply, beyond Japan’s borders, or the future stability of the Japanese economy. The situation in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture may yet be the most grave, costly, and consequential nuclear disaster in world history, and local officials and world authorities need to organize their response as if it were so.