EU expert says Fukushima is out of control as UK and France advise their citizens to leave Tokyo because of radiation fears
International concern that Japan has lost control over the nuclear crisis is escalating as Britain, France and other countries advised their citizens to “consider” leaving Tokyo because of heightened radiation levels.
Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he would visit the Japanese capital to gather information about the “very serious” situation at the Fukushima plant.
Conflicting reports from the damaged nuclear plant have deepened alarm over Japan’s management of the crisis, leading to charges that the authorities are actually making the situation worse.
Gregory Jaczko, who heads the US nuclear regulator, said Japan had failed to order a big enough evacuation. He told Congress the public should get at least 50 miles away from the stricken plant. The Japanese cleared a radius of 12 miles.
He raised further fears by saying that all the water had evaporated from one of the spent fuel pools at the nuclear plant, so there was nothing to stop the fuel rods from getting hotter.
Jaczko said officials believe radiation levels are extremely high, which could affect workers’ ability to stop temperatures rising.
The EU’s energy chief, Günther Oettinger, told the European parliament the situation was out of control. “We are somewhere between a disaster and a major disaster,” he said. “There could be further catastrophic events, which could pose a threat to the lives of people on the island.” He said it was impossible to “exclude the worst”, adding: “There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen.”
The partial meltdown at Fukushima appeared more serious than the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the US energy secretary, Steven Chu, told Congress.
China, which had been driving a global revival of the nuclear industry, announced it was putting construction on hold, and ordered safety reviews at existing facilities. The heightened concerns – six days after a devastating earthquake and tsunami plunged Japan into a humanitarian as well as a nuclear emergency – brought criticism of the authorities’ management of the situation at Fukushima.
Yuli Andreyev, former head of the agency tasked with cleaning up after Chernobyl, told the Guardian the Japanese had failed to grasp the scale of the disaster. He also said the authorities had to be willing to sacrifice nuclear response workers for the good of the greater public, and should not only be deploying a skeleton staff. “They don’t know what to do,” he said. “The personnel have been removed and those that remain are stretched.”
Kenneth Bergeron, a physicist who has done research on nuclear accident simulation, said Three Mile Island had shown the importance of bringing in outside experts. “I am concerned that the management of this accident was left to very local hands for a very long time,” he said. “Sometimes the managers and operators in place when the accident has taken place are not well qualified. They may have the inability to see the big picture.”
He criticised the rescue effort for not immediately working to restore the power to the reactors’ cooling systems. “What was really needed at Fukushima was restoration of the AC power to the emergency cooling system, and instead we saw them running fire hoses from the ocean. A jerry-rigged arrangement like that sounds to me like a move of real desperation.”
The Japanese did not assemble a dedicated crisis management team until Monday morning, Bergeron said. “You need a different kind of person and a different kind of training, and I didn’t see any evidence of that until it was very late.”
The decision to evacuate personnel when radiation levels spiked also attracted criticism. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, said: “How long can 50 workers last in trying to manage a disaster in four reactors?”
However, as Chu told Congress: “If workers have to be permanently evacuated from the site it is unclear if the damage can be effectively contained.”
The slow and limited information from the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, also came under attack. Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, erupted in front of reporters at the company’s lack of transparency.
Jim Riccio of Greenpeace said: “I can understand why they would not want to cause panic in the population. But in a disaster of this magnitude timely and accurate information is of the utmost importance.”
Andreyev accused Japan’s regulators of sacrificing safety for profits. “Producers always try to hide the danger. After Chernobyl happened, they also tried to hide it.”