For decades, Chernobyl was a byword for a nuclear worst-case scenario, a uniquely terrible accident. But now the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster has officially been declared to be equally serious.
On Tuesday, Japanese officials raised the level of severity of the Fukushima disaster to 7, the highest on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) scale. That decision puts Fukushima on the same level as the April 26, 1986 reactor explosion in present-day Ukraine.
"The radiation leak has not stopped completely and our concern is that it could eventually exceed Chernobyl," an official from TEPCO, the power company which operates the reactors at the Fukushima site, told reporters on Tuesday.
Both TEPCO and representatives of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) were quick to add that the new designation was the result of a new analysis of the amount of radiation that has been released in recent weeks. It did not, they stressed, signify a worsening of the current situation at the plant.
Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director of NISA, said that the amount of radioactivity released by Fukushima is currently roughly 10 percent of the total spilled into the atmosphere during the Chernobyl disaster.
Japanese officials also announced earlier this week that the evacuation zone surrounding the plant was to be widened beyond the current 20 kilometer (12 mile) radius.
Japan had previously rated the Fukushima disaster as a 5 on the International Atomic Energy Agency's INES scale, which corresponds to an "accident with wider consequences." A rating of 7 denotes a "major accident" with far-reaching effects for health and the environment. The ultimate scope and long-term effects of the disaster remain unclear, however.
On Wednesday, German commentators take a look at the Japanese government's decision to raise the level.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Strictly speaking, Fukushima has not yet reached the scale of the Chernobyl disaster. … So far, only one-tenth of the radioactive material from Chernobyl has been released. But in terms of the political damage, both disasters are now unequivocally on the same level. That applies particularly to the (Japanese government's) communication strategy."
"If you look at the radiation measurements, the suspicion arises that those in power could have already recognized the scope of the disaster three weeks ago. Most of the radiation had already escaped and been measured by the end of March. The Japanese government naturally wanted to avoid panic. Using the same argument, they also refused for a long time to expand the evacuation zone. … But can the government now expect that people will believe them when they once again try to sound the all-clear? Not likely."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"With the expansion of the evacuation zone and the reclassification of Fukushima, Japan's government has finally admitted the seriousness of the nuclear disaster. Why this is happening now is not clear. Japan, which did not even have contingency plans to deal with a nuclear disaster, would never admit that it has responded to pressure from abroad. After all, the government rejected outside help for far too long. There is no rational explanation for the decision."
"The earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters -- the country had no choice but to accept them. The nuclear catastrophe could have been avoided, however. The operating company TEPCO and the Japanese government -- not only the current administration, but also their predecessors -- bear responsibility."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The reactor accident in Fukushima has now reached the top level of the official scale. That doesn't change anything for local people or the contamination of the Pacific, but it is highly symbolic. After all, the classification of incidents and accidents after the Chernobyl disaster had been specifically created to highlight the uniqueness of that catastrophe. Now Fukushima is officially the second 'major accident' in the history of nuclear energy, and not an 'anomaly,' 'incident' or 'serious accident,' as the other levels of the INES scale put it."
"The effect that Fukushima will have on society is still unclear. Apart from a few explosions in the beginning, it's been a creeping catastrophe which lacks the drama of Chernobyl. There are no opposing camps in the form of the Soviet Union and the Western industrialized countries, and no soaring radiation levels in Europe. Every day a bit of radiation escapes or is released, every day a few hundred workers are contaminated by radiation. Now and then the wind direction changes from the sea to the land, but Tokyo, let alone Japan's main island, could not be evacuated even if it was necessary, unlike a few small cities in Ukraine and Belarus. The millions of people living in the region are trapped."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"The nuclear disaster in Fukushima has now been officially classified by the Japanese authorities as the highest category on the INES scale. In recent weeks, hardly anyone believed that it would remain a level 5 accident. It is certainly not the case that the situation in Fukushima has worsened dramatically in recent days, for example because of the recent aftershocks. It would have been better if (the Japanese authorities) had adopted the current classification earlier."
"Perhaps it is part of the Japanese mentality to include something positive and a ray of hope in any piece of bad news. Hence there was talk of the level 7 classification only being 'temporary,' implying that the situation could improve significantly and lead to a downgrading. But this hope is likely to prove illusory. According to official Japanese estimates, 10 percent of the amount of radioactive substances that was released at the time of Chernobyl has already entered the environment as a result of Fukushima. That total can not decrease -- it can only grow larger."