Following the "highly likely" meltdown of the uranium rods at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the French nuclear safety organization is accusing Japan of downplaying the importance of the crisis.
André-Claude Lacoste, president of France's national organization for nuclear safety—Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire—says that Japan may be underplaying the importance of the crisis, pointing out that we are "at least on level 5 and perhaps even level 6." Lacoste says that, despite what the the IAEA is saying, a potential Chernobyl cannot be ruled out. The IRSN is responsible for the safety of 58 nuclear reactors in French soil—three times more reactors than Japan.
An example of a level 5 nuclear event was the March 28, 1979 Three Mile Island in Harrisburg, PA, where design and operation errors lead to partial exposure of nuclear fuel rods and partial meltdown. As a result, radioactive gases were released to the atmosphere.
Nuclear Event Level 5
Impact on People and Environment
• Limited release of radioactive material likely to require implementation of some planned countermeasures.
• Several deaths from radiation.
Impact on Radiological Barriers and Control
• Severe damage to reactor core.
• Release of large quantities of radioactive material within an installation with a high probability of significant public exposure. This could arise from a major criticality accident or fire.
After keeping the crisis management at the national level, the Japanese government is now asking for help from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), according to Yukiya Amano, director of the United Nations atomic organization. Amano says that it can't go up to a level 7 because the reactor design makes this extreme case impossible.