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A graffiti is pictured on a wall in the ghost city of Pripyat near the fourth nuclear reactor (background) at the former Chernobyl Nuclear power plant, site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, on April 4, 2011. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
A graffiti is pictured on a wall in the ghost city of Pripyat near the fourth nuclear reactor (background) at the former Chernobyl Nuclear power plant, site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, on April 4, 2011. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Mark MacKinnon

Japan haunted by spectre of Chernobyl Add to ...

When Japanese officials Tuesday raised their assessment of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant to the highest rating on the international scale, they put it nominally on par with the meltdown at Chernobyl 25 years ago.

But Fukushima isn't Chernobyl. At least not yet.

I have the little-sought-after distinction of having been to both places. The situation in Fukushima is dire - and terrifying for those who live in the region - but we're not yet at the stage where an entire region of Japan needs to be written off for decades or centuries to come, as with Pripyat, the city closest to the Chernobyl reactor in what is now northern Ukraine. Pripyat remains a ghost town, with "April 26, 1986" still written on classroom chalkboards and envelopes left in people's mailboxes. After being left to stare at the sky in confusion for several hours after the nuclear disaster that day, the 47,000 residents of Pripyat were hastily ordered out of the city and never allowed to return.

The tens of thousands of Japanese evacuated from the 20-kilometre zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant into makeshift shelters are temporarily sharing that fate - video taken inside the exclusion zone shows cows and dogs wandering abandoned and earthquake-damaged streets - but for Fukushima to truly move alongside Chernobyl on the scale of nuclear disasters, the situation would have to deteriorate for some time.

The radiation released since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is still only about 10 per cent of that spewed into the air when Chernobyl Reactor No. 1 exploded. The key difference between the two disasters remains that the four troubled nuclear reactors at Fukushima shut down, while Chernobyl exploded with the reactor still running, causing a catastrophic chain reaction that shot radiation into the upper atmosphere.

"Chernobyl exploded while the reactors were still active, which is completely different from the situation at Fukushima," said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. On Tuesday, that Japanese government body raised the severity of the Fukushima disaster to a seven out of seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Nuclear incidents classified as Level 7 involve a major release of radiation with widespread health and environmental effects, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Fukushima is reported to have thus far released between 370,000 and 630,000 terabecquerels of iodine-131. (A terabecquerel is a unit of measurement of radioactivity equivalent to 1 trillion becquerels; a becquerel is the quantity of a radionuclide that undergoes one decay a second.)

While that's a high number (the permissible level for vegetables and fish is 2,000 becquerels a kilogram), it remains far below the 5.2 million terabecquerels released from Chernobyl. Japan's nuclear safety commission said Tuesday that most of the radiation escaped in the first hours and days after the tsunami. It estimates the release of iodine-131 has now come down to less than one terabecquerel an hour.

The Japanese government's handling of the announcement Tuesday was typically confusing - news that the disaster had been upgraded to Level 7 came just hours before Prime Minister Naoto Kan went on television to say the crisis was easing.

But Tokyo's response to the nuclear crisis is still leagues better than how the Soviet Union dealt with Chernobyl. Moscow spent two days denying anything was going on, and only admitted an accident had taken place when radiation was detected in faraway Sweden.

It could, of course, still get worse. There are four reactors in trouble at Fukushima, rather than just the one that melted down at Chernobyl. There's also the unpredictability of the ongoing aftershocks following the initial earthquake. There have been more than 400 tremors of magnitude 6.0 or greater since then, including a 6.3 magnitude quake that hit Fukushima prefecture on Tuesday, briefly forcing the evacuation of those working to cool the troubled reactors.

But while the worst-case scenarios linger as possible, some of those who live closest to the Fukushima reactor were also being allowed to briefly go home this week to collect their belongings. Japan's Kyodo news service reported that those who returned to their shelters after the day trip into the hot zone tested negative for radiation exposure.

It was surely a nervous and hurried trip home for those who went, and no one yet knows when they can go back for good. But unlike those who lived in the shadow of Chernobyl, they've already had a chance to collect their mail.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

 

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