Radioactive Water Is Leaking Into the Ground at Fukushima

And the situation is turning from bad to worse.

Officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. and members of media look at TEPCO's tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant outside of the bus during a press tour in Fukushima prefecture, Monday, Feb. 20, 2012. Japan next month marks one year since the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, which triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
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Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Aug. 21, 2013, 10:28 a.m.

Ja­pan’s Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­la­tion Au­thor­ity an­nounced Wed­nes­day that it will raise the threat level at the Fukushi­ma Daii­chi nuc­le­ar-power plant fol­low­ing rev­el­a­tions that ra­dio­act­ive wa­ter has leaked out of stor­age fa­cil­it­ies nearby. The event marks the first time the nuc­le­ar reg­u­lat­or has de­clared a ra­di­olo­gic­al re­lease at the site since an earth­quake and a tsunami caused three of the plant’s nuc­le­ar re­act­ors to melt down in 2011.

For the past two years, Tokyo Elec­tric Power Com­pany, the plant’s op­er­at­or, has been work­ing to stop the spread of nuc­le­ar con­tam­in­a­tion. Each day, plant work­ers in­ject mass quant­it­ies of wa­ter in­to the failed re­act­ors to pre­vent them from over­heat­ing. This has, however, cre­ated a new set of haz­ards.

Wa­ter used to cool the re­act­ors be­comes con­tam­in­ated with ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­al as soon as it passes through their cores. So what has Tepco been do­ing with the wa­ter? It’s stor­ing it in close to 1,000 tanks built on the grounds of the power plant. For a long time, this was as­sumed to be safe. But now, one of the tanks is leak­ing. 

Tepco con­firmed Tues­day that 300 tons of ra­dio­act­ive wa­ter have seeped out of one of the stor­age tanks. Ac­cord­ing to Re­u­ters the wa­ter “is so con­tam­in­ated that a per­son stand­ing close to it for an hour would re­ceive five times the an­nu­al re­com­men­ded lim­it for nuc­le­ar work­ers.” In oth­er words, the situ­ation is crit­ic­al. Plant work­ers re­spon­ded by pil­ing sand­bags around the leak­ing con­tain­er. But most of the wa­ter had already seeped in­to the ground by the time the ef­fort got un­der­way.

The coun­try’s nuc­le­ar reg­u­lat­or was quick to re­act — though so far only with words. The NRA ini­tially de­scribed the event as a “Level 1” on the In­ter­na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Event Scale. A Level 1 sig­ni­fies a minor re­lease of ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­al. But on Wed­nes­day, the body re­con­sidered, say­ing it plans to up­grade the site to a Level 3. (For the sake of com­par­is­on, the triple melt­down at Fukushi­ma was a Level 7). The scale is log­ar­ithmic, which means that each ad­di­tion­al level rep­res­ents a ten­fold in­crease, and the NRA’s de­cision to up the level points to evid­ence of a nuc­le­ar emer­gency.

Part of the reas­on for the in­creased threat level is that NRA of­fi­cials be­lieve oth­er stor­age tanks may be com­prom­ised. The tanks, now dan­ger­ously full of ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­al, were hast­ily con­struc­ted fol­low­ing the 2011 dis­aster and have not proven as sturdy as Tepco au­thor­it­ies had hoped. A spokes­man for the com­pany told The New York Times that small amounts of con­tam­in­ated wa­ter have spilled out of stor­age tankers on at least four oth­er oc­ca­sions.

The event comes on the heels of a series of mis­for­tunes at the plant and botched at­tempts by Tepco of­fi­cials to save face. In Ju­ly, the com­pany con­ceded that ad­di­tion­al un­der­ground stores of con­tam­in­ated wa­ter were leak­ing in­to the Pa­cific Ocean — after first deny­ing that any­thing was amiss. It also fol­lows a string of re­ports that ra­dio­act­ive particles have been de­tec­ted on plant work­ers leav­ing the site.

As the situ­ation turns from bad to worse, nuc­le­ar reg­u­lat­ors say they are con­cerned that Tepco may not be able to con­tain the dam­age. Ac­cord­ing to Re­u­ters, the NRA Chair­man de­scribed the situ­ation as something of a night­mare. “I don’t know if de­scrib­ing it this way is ap­pro­pri­ate, but it’s like a haunted house and, as I’ve said, mis­haps keep hap­pen­ing one after the oth­er,” he com­men­ted. 

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