While nuclear energy experts disagree on just how bad the situation is at Japan’s stricken nuclear plants, there is one thing that they are all certain of: things could get worse. Over the last few days, various media reports about the nuclear crisis have shown that the only certainty is uncertainty. Yesterday’s explosion and fire at Fukushima Dai-ichi heightened concerns and precautions, but the long term effects are still hard to pin down.
The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) ranks incidents from Level 1 — the lowest, meaning their is very little threat to the general population — to Level 7, the highest, meaning that a major accident has occurred, large amounts of radioactive material have been released, and their will be widespread health and environmental issues.
A French nuclear official told CNN that he believes yesterday’s complications put the situation just below Chernobyl on the INES, making it a “serious accident” with major concerns. “It’s clear we are at Level 6, that’s to say we’re at a level in between what happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl,” said Andre-Claude Lacoste, president of France’s nuclear safety authority.
In 1986, a nuclear reactor at a plant in Chernobyl exploded. Thirty people died and hundreds more became sick. It should be made clear, though, that the reactor had no protective vessel like the plants do in Japan. The meltdown at Three Mile Island caused no sickness, and only trace amounts of radiation were found in plants and animals.
Immediately after the earthquake hit and the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant experienced problems, the International Atomic Energy Agency said the situation was a Level 4, which classifies as a minor release of radioactive material and only food should be tested for contamination. After yesterday’s development, the IAEA did not give a rating, but the Japanese chief of the IAEA insisted there was no comparison to Chernobyl.