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Japan Raises Severity Level At Nuclear Plant

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Japan Raises Severity Level At Nuclear Plant

Japan Raises Severity Level At Nuclear Plant

Japan Raises Severity Level At Nuclear Plant

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/135354910/135354887" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Japanese nuclear authorities have elevated the disaster at Fukushima to level 7, the same as the meltdown at Chernobyl 25 years ago. But level 7 in Japan is not the same as it was in Russia. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Richard Harris, who explores the differences between the two biggest nuclear accidents in history.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Japanese authorities have upgraded the severity of the nuclear accident there to a Level 7. That's the highest step on an international scale. It puts the situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in the same category as the Chernobyl accident in 1986, even though the consequences in Japan have been much less severe.

Here to explain is NPR's Richard Harris. And Richard, let's explain, first of all, that previously, Japan had rated this a Level 5. Now it's up to seven. Does that mean that the accident is more serious than they had thought?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, the number is not a reflection of the current conditions at the plant. That's important to say. But what it does do is it puts a number on the total radiation that's been emitted over the past month, and it is a lot.

According to calculations just released by the Japanese authorities, it's about one-tenth of what came from Chernobyl. Apparently, most of it came out during the first few days of the accident, and in fact, radiation levels have generally been declining.

And the International Atomic Energy Agency says the plant is generally becoming more stable, but the situation is not fully under control. So we should remember that it's still possible we could still see some big releases.

BLOCK: Now, the earthquake and the tsunami happened one month ago. Japan's just now coming up with this new rating, Level 7. Does that affect how Japan deals with the crisis at the plant?

HARRIS: Well, the international rating scale is intended to be used to communicate the severity of an event, but it's not actually linked to actions. So in Japan, those actions were based on conditions that they actually measured on the ground.

For example, the evacuation zone that they established was primary to move people who were closest to the reactor to a safer distance in case things got worse. And in the early days, when the disaster was still unfolding in particular, restrictions on food and water were based actually on the measurements that they made of the food and the water and the milk and so on, the radiation levels in those products.

And incidentally, the latest survey finds no food contamination or high levels in the water except in just one town in an area that's been known to be a hotspot.

And I should also add that yesterday, Japan asked a few more towns outside this 12-mile evacuation zone to prepare to move because the radiation levels there, for someone who spent many months, would exceed the government standards.

So - but the contamination is spotty, and most of the areas surveyed, it's not a concern. Of course, let's remember there are a still 150,000 people who are homeless as a result of the tsunami, and that is a big issue up there still.

BLOCK: Sure. There is an apparent contradiction here, isn't there, Richard? This new rating, as we said, puts the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in the same category as the Chernobyl plant. But as you've been explaining, the radiation released from Chernobyl was much, much worse. So how does that compute?

HARRIS: Well, the international guide, in part, sets the accident scale based on how much radiation goes into the environment. And both Chernobyl and the Japanese plant have exceeded that limit that defines a Level 7 accident.

But Chernobyl was 10 times worse in terms of the amount of radiation that was released. And let's not forget it's not just the total amount of radiation that we care about. But it's what the effects were. And at Chernobyl, 28 workers were killed there right at the plant. There have been no reports of death from the workers in Japan right now.

Also, critically, the Soviets didn't stop people from drinking the milk, and that ended up causing a lot of thyroid cancer. So, Japan has responded a lot differently than that, and that really affects the response that we've seen.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Richard Harris, thank you.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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