Japan's nuclear crisis now rivals Chernobyl: Widespread radiation prompts higher rating

Kiyoko Takahashi, 81, participates in a moment of silence at a burial ground at 2:46 p.m. Monday, exactly one month after a massive earthquake struck the area in Higashimatsushima, northeastern Japan. Takahashi lost her sister in the March 11 quake.

TOKYO — Japan's nuclear regulators raised the severity level of the crisis at a stricken nuclear plant Tuesday to rank it on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, citing the amount of radiation released in the accident.

The 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. However, there was no sign of any significant change at the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

The new ranking signifies a 'major accident' with 'wider consequences' than the previous level, according to the Vienna-based IAEA.

'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,' said Minoru Oogoda of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

NISA officials said one of the factors behind the decision was that the cumulative amount of radioactive particles released into the atmosphere since the incident had reached levels that apply to a Level 7 incident.

The revision was based on cross-checking and assessments of data on leaks of radioactive iodine-131 and cesium-137, said NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama.

'We have refrained from making announcements until we have reliable data,' Nishiyama said.

'The announcement is being made now because it became possible to look at and check the accumulated data assessed in two different ways,' he said, referring to measurements from NISA and the Nuclear Security Council.

Nishiyama noted that unlike in Chernobyl there have been no explosions of reactor cores at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, although there were hydrogen explosions.

'In that sense, this situation is totally different from Chernobyl,' he said.

He said the amount of radiation leaking from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant was around 10 percent of the Chernobyl accident.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the plant, is still estimating the total amount of radioactive material that might be released by the accident, said company spokesman Junichi Matsumoto.

He acknowledged the amount of radioactivity released might even exceed the amount emitted by Chernobyl.

The company, under fire for its handling of the accident and its disaster preparedness before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, issued yet another apology Tuesday.

In Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, a reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing a cloud of radiation over much of the Northern Hemisphere. A zone about 19 miles (30 kilometers) around the plant was declared uninhabitable, although some plant workers still live there for short periods and a few hundred other people have returned despite encouragement to stay away.

A magnitude-6.3 earthquake shook the Tokyo area Tuesday morning.

A month after the disaster, more than 145,000 people are still living in shelters, and the government on Monday added five communities to a list of places people should leave to avoid long-term radiation exposure.

A 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius has already been cleared around the plant.

In Iwaki, a city close to the epicenter of a magnitude-7.0 temblor Monday, 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.