By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Japan’s Nuclear Safety Agency has raised the severity level of the Fukushima nuclear accident from a four to a five (on a scale to seven), making it equivalent to the Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979 and affirming the urgency of Japan’s nuclear crisis.
Japanese workers are battling to restore power at the damaged power plant, while the half-million people left homeless are attempting to keep warm as snow blanketed towns and villages.
Police said the death toll from the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, which occurred a week ago and today was marked by a moment of silence, reached 6,539, with some 10,259 people missing.
More than 300 workers are racing against the clock, struggling to restore power and the cooling systems to the six reactors at Fukushima. Cloaked in protective suits, masks, and goggles, they are battling to prevent a major radiation leak.
‘Race Against Time’
Japan has reached out to the United States for help in stabilizing the site — a battle now described by Yukiya Amano, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog, as a “race against time.”
If the fuel from the fuel storage tanks, or containment pools, is exposed to air, it could degrade further and emit dangerous levels of radioactivity.
The workers brought a power cable into the site to restore the water pumps and cool the plant.
“The power cable is near. We would like to speed up this operation as we can then use it to speed up the rest of what we have to do,” said chief government spokesman Yukio Edano.
A man cries next to his destroyed house, where his dead mother is still buried in the rubble, in Onagawa town in Miyagi Prefecture on May 17.
Nuclear expert John Price, formerly of the Safety Policy Unit of Britain’s National Nuclear Corporation and now a professor at Australia’s Monash University, told the French news agency AFP, however, that restoring power could be difficult.
The problem, he said, “is that we don’t know whether connecting up those wires is actually going to make a difference. There’re other failures in the area as well.”
Not Out Of Control, But Not Yet In Control
Price said the situation is not yet out of control, but he said officials haven’t gained full control yet.
Many foreign nationals have left, with the governments of Britain, France, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand advising their citizens to leave Tokyo as well as the northeastern region.
Many countries have shifted their embassies from Tokyo, while airports in other Asian capitals are checking people arriving on flights from Japan for radiation contamination.
Testing earlier this week revealed slightly elevated levels of radiation in Tokyo, located 220 kilometers from the plant. But authorities have said that radiation levels from the plant do not pose an immediate health threat outside of the 20-kilometer exclusion zone.
That message was underscored in Beijing by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) China representative, Michael O’Leary.
“To date,” O’Leary said, “we don’t have any information that there is significant spread of radioactive material beyond that zone. Of course, we’re all watching this.”
The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency is starting to measure radiation levels in Tokyo as early as today, its visiting chief Amano said, according to Jiji Press.
Sendai Airport, which was flooded by the tsunami, has been reopened to emergency airplanes and helicopters, as have some damaged ports and a major road running through the northeast region of the country.
Shortages of fuel, however, are hindering relief efforts, including the distribution of food. About 380,000 people are still staying in 2,200 shelters set up after the disasters.