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. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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.