The latest reports out of Japan about the leaks in the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant are extremely troubling. On Wednesday, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority officially raised its assessment of the latest leaks at Fukushima to level three — the highest warning given to any incident at the plant since the three reactor meltdowns in March 2011 — labelling it a "serious incident" on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale for the first time. The Nuclear Regulation Authority made a provisional upgrade last week; it then consulted with the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, which prompted the official announcement.
It's been almost 2 and a half years since a massive tsunami and earthquake hit Japan, but just last week, Tokyo Electric Power discovered that 300 metric tons of water was leaking from a storage tank and seeping into the ground. Upon further inspection, officials discovered a surge in radioactive levels at the bottom of two storage tanks at the facility. Nuclear Regulatory Authority inspectors reported the tanks were emitting radioactive levels at 100 millisieverts per hour and 70 millisieverts per hour, respectively. "One hundred millisieverts per hour is equivalent to the limit for accumulated exposure over five years for nuclear workers; so it can be said that we found a radiation level strong enough to give someone a five-year dose of radiation within one hour," Masayuki Ono, general manager of Tepco, told Reuters last week. But TEPCO's regular inspectors in charge of monitoring the tanks didn't report any changes in the water levels of the tanks, though, so there was some confusion.
Today, the Associated Press reports:
On Wednesday, regulatory officials said TEPCO has repeatedly ignored their instructions to improve their patrolling procedures to reduce the risk of overlooking leakages. They said TEPCO lacked expertise and also underestimated potential impact of the leak because underground water is shallower around the tank than the company initially told regulators.
The upshot of all this? The problems at Fukushima aren't going away anytime soon. "What's important is not the number itself but to give a basic idea about the extent of the problem," Nuclear Regulatory Authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka told reporters last night, while downplaying the severity of the situation: "I've seen reports that this is a dire situation but that's not true." Tanaka explained the biggest problem facing Fukushima is the "massive amounts of contaminated ground water reaching the sea," according to the AP. The only problem: they don't know how much is escaping, how radioactive it is, or what effect it is having on the local ecosystem. Tanaka also chastised TEPCO for its continued inept handling of every leak and crisis at the plant. "I'm baffled," he said.
This isn't the first time TEPCO has been accused of mishandling leaks, either. It's been a common criticism lobbed at the company, especially this summer, when two other major leaks were already discovered. Japan's industry minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, compared TEPCO's handling of the recurring leaks to playing "whack-a-mole" while announcing the government would play an increased role policing TEPCO's leak clean up.