Leaking radioactive water at Japan’s failed Fukushima nuclear plant is raising worries over whether attempts to stabilize the facility are instead creating a new disaster. This week Japan’s nuclear watchdog classified leaking water from a holding tank as a “serious incident.”
Workers at the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant have been building hundreds of tanks to hold many thousands of tons of radioactive water on the site. But this week regulators discovered that 300 tons of water has leaked, raising concerns about the rest of the holding tanks.
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka compares the situation with the tanks to a haunted house at an amusement park, where alarming things can happen in rapid succession.
“We have to look into how to reduce the risk and how to prevent it from becoming a fatal or serious accident," he said.
This photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. shows the storage tank that workers determined was overfilled, causing a leak of toxic water, Fukushima, Japan, Oct. 3, 2013.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (in red helmet), wearing a protective suit and mask, is briefed about tanks containing radioactive water by Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant chief Akira Ono in Okuma, Sept. 19, 2013.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) is briefed about water treatment equipment during his inspection tour of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Sept. 19, 2013.
An aerial view shows the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and its contaminated water storage tanks (top), August 31, 2013. (Reuters/Kyodo)
Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka is seen in front of a screen showing the current situation of the contaminated water leakage at Fukushima Daiichi, Sept. 2, 2013.
An aerial view shows workers wearing protective suits and masks working atop contaminated water storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in this photo taken by Kyodo, August 20, 2013.
Members of a Fukushima prefecture panel, which monitors the safe decommissioning of the nuclear plant, inspect the construction site of the shore barrier, August 6, 2013.
An aerial view shows the No.3 reactor building at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, July 18, 2013. (Reuters/Kyodo)
A worker takes radiation readings on the window of a bus at the screening point of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, June 12, 2013.
Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, wearing a protective suit and a mask, inspects contaminated water tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, August 26, 2013.
A former resident walks past an overgrown garden during a visit to his home in the abandoned town of Namie, just outside the 20 kilometer exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Nov. 20, 2011.
Mourners in protective suits hold flowers at a memorial ceremony for residents from the town of Okuma, inside the contaminated exclusion zone near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, July 24, 2011.
Interior of No. 4 reactor building at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear power plant, Nov. 8, 2011.
Japanese police officers wearing suits to protect them from radiation carries a victim as another group carries another body while searching for missing people in Minami Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, April 8, 2011.
Smoke rising from Unit 3 of the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, March 21, 2011.
Earlier this week, the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), announced that the 300 tons of water that leaked from one tank was so contaminated that a person standing nearby would receive a 100 millisieverts dose of radiation in one hour, five times the annual limit for nuclear workers.
TEPCO said the cause of the leak is unknown.
Greenpeace Japan spokesperson Hisayo Takada said the greatest long-term concern is the possibility for groundwater contamination. Some 400 tons of groundwater flow through the plant every day. She said that so far, the containment strategies for irradiated material at Fukushima are temporary and do not prevent radiation from spreading.
"The Tepco solution so far, but it's now maybe no longer working or no longer possible to begin with. So, A: stop the current leaking. 2: to make that leaking not to go into the ocean, second thing. Third stop the ground water, find a way to stop the groundwater," Takada said.
William Saito, a member of the national diet’s Fukushima investigation committee, said the challenge of disposing of the enormous amount of contaminated water is unprecedented. But he said they must be more transparent about the cleanup effort.
"To be fair to TEPCO most companies in a similar situation would be overwhelmed. The problem that they're suffering that's making things worse is that because of a lack of transparency, they're trying to internalize these issues. Whereas if you're a little more forthcoming and asking for help, whether it's the national government or from other perhaps professionals from around the world this might have been handled differently," he said.
This incident marks the first warning on the International Nuclear Event Scale since an earthquake and tsunami caused three reactors to melt down in 2011, which was rated the maximum level, seven, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986.