The utility company that operated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan — the one that went into triple meltdown after the enormous 2011 earthquake and tsunami — has radiation levels off the chart.

The radiation level in the containment vessel of reactor two has reached as high as 530 sieverts per hour, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) said last week. This far exceeds the previous high of 73 sieverts per hour recorded at the reactor following the March 2011 disaster.

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That was the world’s worst nuclear disaster since the one at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, in 1986. Almost 16,000 people died along Japan’s northeastern coast in the tsunami, and 160,000 more lost their homes and livelihoods. In addition, the cleanup is taking much longer than expected.

To put the new high numbers in perspective, at this level of radioactivity, a person could die from the briefest of exposures.

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Tepco recorded the radiation near the reactor core, suggesting some melted fuel escaped, using a long, remote-controlled camera and radiation measurement device. It was the first time this kind of device has been able to get into this part of the reactor. There, it found a three-foot-wide hole in a metal grate in the reactor’s primary containment vessel.

At this level of radiation, a robot would be able to operate for less than two hours before it was destroyed, Tepco said.

And Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences said medical professionals had never even thought about encountering this level of radiation in their work.

The institute estimates exposure to one sievert of radiation could lead to infertility, loss of hair and cataracts, while four sieverts would kill half of the people exposed to it.

This measuring device hasn’t even gone into reactors one and three yet.

Although the radiation level is “astoundingly high,” it doesn’t necessarily signify any alarming change in radiation levels at Fukushima, said Azby Brown of Safecast, a citizen science organization that monitors radiation levels. It’s simply the first time they’ve been measured that far inside the reactor.

Tepco had been hoping to start taking out the fuel out in 2021. 

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