Tokyo (CNN) – Japan’s nuclear and industrial safety agency on Friday raised the level for the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant from a 4 to 5 – putting it on par with the 1979 incident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island.
According to the International Nuclear Events Scale, a level 5 equates to the likelihood of a release of radioactive material, several deaths from radiation and severe damage to a reactor core.
Chernobyl, for example, rated a 7 on the scale, while Japan’s other nuclear crisis a 1999 accident at Tokaimura in which workers died after being exposed to radiation – was a 4.
In Pennsylvania, a partial meltdown of a reactor core was deemed the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.
This development came as Japanese authorities under fire Friday from within and abroad over the lack of timely information on the unfolding nuclear situation as they battled for a second week to contain the crisis.
People near the embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are increasingly frustrated, not just with the prolonged fight to curb radioactive emissions, but also the lack of immediate information from authorities, a local government official said.
“Evacuees, and that can be said of myself as well, are feeling anxious since we are not getting the needed information from the government in a timely manner,” said Seiji Sato, a spokesman for the government of Tamura City, about 20 kilometers from the nuclear facility.
The head of the U.N. atomic agency, Yukiya Amano, pressed the Japanese prime minister to open up lines of communication about the crisis during a meeting in Tokyo.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan vowed to do as much, according to Japan’s Kyodo News, saying he’d push to make more information available to the international community and release more detailed data about the nuclear situation.
“The Japanese government and IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) should work doubly hard to pacify the great angst among the international community over this issue,” Amano told reporters.
The comments came as the effort to prevent further crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant entered its second week Friday.
Friday afternoon’s mission was the fourth, by air and ground, to douse the fuel pool of the facility’s No. 3 reactor over two days. It comes after primary and then back-up generators that powered this and other reactors’ cooling systems had failed.
The aim is to cool down the reactor’s spent fuel pool. Experts believe that vapors rising from that pool, which has at least partially exposed fuel rods, may be releasing radiation into the atmosphere.
It has not been determined how effective the first four missions to douse the reactor’s pools from the ground and the air have been, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.But, Edano added, “We observed vapor after the water was (shot in), so we believe that water did reach the pool, for sure.”
Earlier, on Thursday, one of the atomic agency head’s top aides Graham Andrew said there appeared to be “no significant worsening” at the plant, located about 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Tokyo.
Still, no one is close to claiming victory. The nuclear plant’s six reactors are in various states of disrepair and concerns are mounting over a potentially cataclysmic release of radioactive material.
Significant amounts of radiation have been released after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit on March 11, followed by a tsunami that swept away cars and houses along its path. The disasters spurred several explosions at the nuclear plant on the northeastern coast of Honshu.
Relatively high, but officially non-hazardous amounts of radiation have been detected in the air and water of Fukushima city, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the plant.
Wind patterns pushing radiation from the plant out to sea appear to be minimal for now.
But conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant itself remain very dangerous.
Radiation levels Thursday hit 20 millisieverts per hour at an annex building where workers have been trying to re-establish electrical power, “the highest registered (at that building) so far,” a Tokyo Electric official told reporters.
By comparison, the typical resident of a developed country is naturally exposed to 3 millisieverts per year.
The company said Friday afternoon, though, that radiation levels at the plant’s west gate, at .26 to .27 millisieverts, have been fairly stable over a recent 12-hour span
In part of the effort to prevent greater radiation emissions, Edano has said addressing issues at the nuclear facility’s No. 3 reactor – the sole damaged unit that contains plutonium along with the uranium in its fuel rods – remains the top priority.
Members of Tokyo’s fire department, Japanese self-defense forces and the Tokyo Electric Power Company are part of the team that has been, and will be, working to cool down the spent fuel pools at this reactor, he said late Friday afternoon.
Tokyo Electric workers will man a special fire truck brought in from the United States, Edano noted.
Authorities are assessing whether to also spray in and around the plant’s No. 1 unit, where seawater is being injected in even after a March 12 hydrogen explosion, Edano said.
But, he said, the situation there was not as serious as in the No. 3 reactor.
Units 1, 2 and 3 are “relatively stable,” despite the fact their “cores have suffered damage,” said Andrew, a top aide to International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Yukiya Amano.
He said No. 4 is a “major safety concern,” with the agency noting that no water-temperature data have been collected since Monday from its spent fuel pool.
Still, a Tokyo Electric spokesman said Friday that video of the No. 4 reactor’s pool appeared to show it still contained water — rebutting a claim Wednesday by U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Gregory Jaczko that it had run dry.
On Friday morning, Edano said temperatures in and around the Nos. 5 and 6 reactors have risen, though not enough to pose immediate danger, according to a report by Japan’s Kyodo News agency.
Water is being injected in and an emergency diesel generator has been connected to those two units to cool their spent fuel pools, a spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said.
A Tokyo Electric official said an external power source, using what amounts to 1.5 kilometers of cable, should be set up Friday to power cooling systems for the Nos. 1 and 2 reactors.
Still, the official admitted this effort – which had been scheduled to be completed Thursday – “has so far not progressed as fast as we had hoped.” Late Friday afternoon, Edano said that process was still ongoing.
This has been a common theme the past week, as plans to resolve various crises floundering even as new issues emerge daily. The lack of an apparent major setback Thursday hardly means that more problems might not arise, with one expert saying that the efforts to cool the spent fuel pools alone will be a long, dangerous process.
“It’s a 15-round fight, we’re probably in round three,” said Arnold Gundersen, a nuclear safety advocate with 39 years of nuclear engineering experience.
“With this nuclear fire, if you will, when pour water on it one day, you have to go back and do it the same the next and the same the next … It’s a real long slog.”