JAPAN’S nuclear crisis has escalated to its worst level since a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant more than two years ago, with the country’s nuclear watchdog saying it feared more storage tanks were leaking contaminated water.
The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency said yesterday it viewed the situation at Fukushima “seriously” and was ready to help if requested, while neighbouring China said it was “shocked” to hear contaminated water was still leaking from the plant.
“We hope the Japanese side can earnestly take effective steps to put an end to the negative impact of the after-effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident,” said China’s foreign ministry.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, described the situation as “deplorable”, and the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said it feared the disaster – the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986 – was “in some respects” beyond the plant operator’s ability to cope.
Fukushima’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, or Tepco, has been criticised for its failure to prepare for the disaster and has since been accused of covering up the extent of the problems at the plant.
After months of denial, it recently admitted the plant was leaking contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean from trenches between the reactor buildings and the shoreline.
It said on Tuesday that contaminated water with dangerously high levels of radiation was leaking from a storage tank – the most serious problem in a series of recent mishaps.
Japanese officials also yesterday revealed that workers at the plant apparently missed several signs indicating leaks. They failed to monitor water levels inside tanks, had missed a puddle forming at the bottom of the tank, and had kept open a valve on the anti-leakage barrier around the tanks.
The NRA said it was worried about leakage from other similar tanks that were built hastily to store water washed over melted reactors at the station to keep them cool. Water in the latest leak is so contaminated that a person standing close to it for an hour would receive five times the annual recommended dose for nuclear workers.
A spokesman for the NRA said the agency plans to upgrade the severity of the crisis from a Level 1 “anomaly” to a Level 3 “serious incident” on an international scale for radiological releases. An upgrade would be the first time Japan has issued a warning on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) since the three reactor meltdowns at Fukushima, home to six reactors, in March 2011. Explosions then led to a loss of power and cooling, triggering a maximum INES Level 7 at the plant.
NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka said: “Mishaps keep happening one after the other.
“We have to look into how we can reduce the risks and how to prevent it becoming a fatal or serious incident.”