Despite repeated denials from the operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, radioactive groundwater is reportedly defying efforts to contain it as it creeps closer to the sea.
A Japan Atomic Energy report found the groundwater contaminated with radioactive water seeping from under the turbine buildings has headed toward the sea at a rate of about 4 meters per month since the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The turbine buildings are situated 150 meters from the Pacific, and almost 30 months later, the problem has become critical.
“We believe it is still leaking at this moment,” said Tokyo Electric Power Company General Manager Masayuji Ono, adding that high levels of radiation -- about 100 millisieverts an hour -- were detected near where radioactive water has leaked.
That is equivalent to five times the acceptable annual exposure limit, which could cause radiation sickness after just 10 hours near the leak.
While Ono said TEPCO did not believe the contaminated water has reached the ocean yet, the operator has hardly inspired confidence as repeated leaks have thwarted efforts to keep the radioactive water contained.
"It is much worse than we have been led to believe, much worse," said Mycle Schneider, an independent consultant and lead author for the World Nuclear Industry status reports.
"There is absolutely no guarantee that there isn't a crack in the walls of the spent fuel pools," Schneider said. "If saltwater gets in, the steel bars would be corroded. It would basically explode the walls, and you cannot see that. You can't get close enough to the pools."
Shunichi Tanaka, the head of Japan's nuclear regulatory agency, agreed.
"We should assume that what has happened once could happen again, and prepare for more. We are in a situation where there is no time to waste," Tanaka said.
The repeated crises and TEPCO's inability to handle them has prompted one former Japanese ambassador to call for Tokyo to withdraw its bid to host the Olympics.
In a letter to UN Secretary Genearal Ban Ki-moon, Mitsuhei Murata, the former ambassador from Japan to Switzerland, said the TEPCO radiation figures could not be trusted and he feared the nonchalant approach to the crisis in Japan and abroad.
"The Japanese have a problem asking for help," Schneider said. "It is a big mistake; they badly need it."