Kiran Stacey Fukushima’s upgrade matters more to public perception than scientific understanding

Radiation testing in JapanHow significant is it that Fukushima is now rated as a level seven nuclear accident, the highest level, and on a par with Chernobyl?

To an extent, it is not: the upgrade reflects a fresh analysis of historical radiation data rather than a worsening of the current situation. Nothing new has happened overnight to transform this from a level five accident to a level seven.

And many in the nuclear industry are understandably keen to play down the comparison with Chernobyl, which was the only other accident to reach level seven.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said Fukushima and Chernobyl were still “very different” events. He said Fukushima had released only 10 per cent of the radiation as seen at Chernobyl.

But the move is very significant in the public understanding of its seriousness and the likely impact on attitudes to nuclear power.

Firstly it tells us that an accident on a par with Chernobyl can happen in a modern, industrialised country: a serious problem for the industry’s reputation, as flagged up by UBS in a report last week.

Secondly, the fact that officials were suggesting just days ago that there was no need to upgrade the accident from a level five highlights the opaqueness from some in the industry, which triggers critics’ frustration. The steady upgrading of the accident (from level four in the immediate aftermath of the quake and tsunami, then five and now seven) is reminiscent of BP’s initial attempts to play down the Gulf of Mexico spill, which were soon abandoned when the true scale of the accident became clear.

Nuclear advocates know the damage this could have on the industry’s reputation. Murray Jennex, associate professor at San Diego university and a former nuclear engineer, told the Guardian:

I think raising it to the level of Chernobyl is excessive. It’s nowhere near that level. Chernobyl was terrible – it blew and they had no containment, and they were stuck.

The [Japanese] containment has been holding, the only thing that hasn’t is the fuel pool that caught fire. I don’t see those as the same event. If they want to do that, that’s fine. I think they’re being overly pessimistic.

But what the upgrade really reflects is how slowly we come to understand the damage being done by a nuclear accident. Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, experts are still arguing about the number of deaths triggered by that accident, with estimates ranging from a potential 4,000 to 980,000.

The biggest difficulty with judging how fatal an accident like this is that it can take a long time for cancer symptoms to start to show, and even then, it is nigh on impossible to tell what exactly was the cause.

The problem for governments is that they need to make decisions about their own nuclear programmes now, with differing public reactions to the Japan crisis and unclear information on its long-term effects.

In Germany, the lack of clear understanding about the seriousness of Fukushima may be further fuelling fears about nuclear power. In the UK, it seems to be more a case of “What we don’t know can’t hurt us”: Monday’s protest against EDF brought only a handful of protesters onto the streets of London.

Perhaps this is why, when I met a senior nuclear exec later that day, he admitted he was sanguine about the prospects of nuclear power in the UK. A small delay to the ongoing UK nuclear programme was all he expected to see.