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An aerial view shows Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and its contaminated water storage tanks (bottom) in Fukushima, in this photo taken by Kyodo August 20, 2013.

An aerial view shows the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and its storage tanks for contaminated water (bottom) August 20. Leakage from a temporary storage tank has raised new concerns about the ongoing problems at the plant.

Photograph by Kyodo/Reuters

Patrick J. Kiger

For National Geographic

Published August 21, 2013

In the latest crisis to strike the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has discovered that 300 tons (nearly 72,000 gallons) of highly radioactive water has leaked from a holding tank into the ground over the past month.

The development comes on top of TEPCO's admission last month that an estimated 300 tons of radioactive groundwater, which picks up small amounts of contamination when it flows through the damaged reactor buildings, has been leaking into the Pacific Ocean every day.  (See related story: "Fukushima's Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know.")

The new storage tank leak presents a different and potentially more serious problem than the ongoing groundwater flow leaks. The water from the leaking tank is so heavily contaminated with strontium-90, cesium-137, and other radioactive substances that a person standing less than two feet away would receive, in an hour's time, a radiation dose equivalent to five times the acceptable exposure for nuclear workers, Reuters reported. Within ten hours, the exposed person would develop radiation sickness, with symptoms such as nausea and a drop in white blood cells.

A More Hazardous Leak

The latest leak comes from one of the massive array of 1,000 above-ground storage tanks built inside the plant by TEPCO, which store water that deliberately has been pumped into the damaged reactors in an effort to cool the nuclear fuel inside and prevent a meltdown. Such water is heavily contaminated and dangerous compared with the larger radioactive groundwater flow problem, which scientists say does not pose an immediate health hazard to humans (though it has made some types of fish from the area unsafe for consumption).

The Japanese government's Nuclear Regulation Authority is calling the leak a "serious accident" and wants to raise the official threat level from 1 to 3 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale—the highest level since the level 7 rating given when the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami severely damaged the facility. (See related "Pictures: The Nuclear Cleanup Struggle at Fukushima.")

While about two-thirds of Fukushima's storage tanks are welded steel vessels, the leaking tank is one of about 350 improvised temporary tanks that TEPCO has employed to augment its capacity. The temporary tanks are made of steel plates bolted together with plastic packing materials to seal the seams, and apparently are more vulnerable to leaks. A TEPCO official told The Japan Times, an English-language daily, that there have been four previous leaks in the temporary tanks. Unlike the previous ones, this leak somehow went undetected by plant workers for as long as a month. During that time, it leaked an estimated ten tons (about 2,400 gallons) of highly radioactive water per day. (See related photos: "A Rare Look Inside Fukushima Daiichi.")

TEPCO hasn't yet found the precise leakage spot or spots on the faulty tank, which according to Reuters is located just 550 yards from the ocean. But the company said that workers have pumped all of the water from inside a small concrete containment area where the leaking tank is located. In the event of rain, they plan to continue running the pump, which they say is powerful enough to keep rainwater from flowing out of the containment.

"We apologize again for creating anxiety among the public," TEPCO executive Masayuki Ono told reporters on Tuesday.

TEPCO said on Wednesday that tests of seawater from a ditch near the leaking tank didn't show any significant increase in the amount of cesium-137 and other radioactive materials, suggesting that the highly radioactive water isn't directly reaching the ocean. However, the possibility remains that the contaminated water might be mixing into groundwater that flows through the plant site into the ocean. In mid-July, levels of radioactive cesium-137 and cesium-134 from monitoring wells inside the plant unexpectedly surged nearly 15-fold, a phenomenon that scientists have been unable to explain. (See related story: "One Year After Fukushima, Japan Faces Shortages of Energy, Trust.")

Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts who has studied radiation leakage from the Fukushima plant, said he is concerned about the lack of data on levels of strontium-90 in the waters off Fukushima. He said that the groundwater now leaking into the Pacific—including, possibly, some contamination from leaking tanks—might now have much higher levels of that particular substance. Strontium-90 has potentially greater health risks than cesium isotopes because it becomes concentrated in the bones of fish and humans, he said.

'No Time to Waste'

The new problem further escalates the dilemma faced by TEPCO, which already has been struggling to find a way to deal with massive amounts of water contaminated with various radioactive substances at the site. When the company belatedly revealed last month the daily leakage of radioactive groundwater into the Pacific Ocean, a problem that outside scientists have long suspected, public confidence in TEPCO's ability to manage the cleanup threatened to erode further.

The development prompted Japanese government officials to step in and take a more direct role: The government announced last week that it is considering spending 50 billion yen ($410 million) to finance construction of a frozen soil barrier—also known as an ice wall—in an effort to block the groundwater from the plant from reaching the ocean.  (See related story: "Can an Ice Wall Stop Radioactive Water Leaks From Fukushima?") That technology has long been used in the mining and construction fields, and reportedly performed well in containing radioactive water in a U.S. government test project in the early 1990s, but has never been used on a large scale at a nuclear power plant.

"This leak is very serious," said Dr. Janette Sherman, an Alexandria, Virginia-based physician who specializes in radioactive and toxic exposure. Dr. Sherman, who edited an in-depth study of health effects on cleanup workers in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union, said she is concerned that the cleanup crew at Fukushima Daiichi may face long-term health risks. She also raised the prospect of the radiation's as-yet unknown effects on fish and other marine life in the Pacific.

Buesseler said he was concerned that the high level of radiation from the leaking tank might just be a harbinger of what is to come if more of the other temporary tanks begin to fail.  But he's even more worried by revelations of leaks and other problems at the plant, which lately have been coming with dismaying frequency. "There is still a lot of contamination at Fukushima—in the land, in the buildings, and now from these tanks," Buesseler said. "Every bit of news that we've been getting is that the [radioactivity] numbers are going up."

"I'm becoming less confident that [TEPCO] can contain the problem," he said.

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority shares Buesseler's concern, warning that the latest leakage problem might be beyond TEPCO's ability to cope. "We should assume that what has happened once could happen again, and prepare for more," watchdog chairman Shunichi Tanaka told a news conference, BBC News reported. "We are in a situation where there is no time to waste."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

43 comments
Anita Botn-Eidem
Anita Botn-Eidem

I hear that the contamination has reached Hawaii and it will hit our west coast eventually.  Is that true?  Does anyone know.

Lawrence Lapadat
Lawrence Lapadat

God gave us brains no lets start using them instead of selling truth to the highest bidder go inside your inner self conscious knowing of right and wrong and get off our outer ego  liar self serving evil side and wake up to beautiful love instead of the cover guilt most carry in self denial to their unhappy graves. I fear nothing because love truth and God are inside me join me as such. It is free.

Lawrence Lapadat
Lawrence Lapadat

Lawrence John Lapadat  It is time Ladies and Gentlemen for every   Nation on this planet to drop there petty war and greed games and pitch in to save the life forms on this planet. We must apply every effort to this cause until we are sure we have stopped and contained this global threathttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlmAZd8b6Yo&sns=fbhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XT6ZCxzW8K4

Zack Tyler
Zack Tyler

As for an update, evidently since this article was posted, it has been discovered that the leak has been more massive and more catastrophic than was ever reported. Current reports state that about 450 tons of nuclear waste has been flowing into the Pacific daily for 2 1/2 years now.

Zack Tyler
Zack Tyler

So Boehner and Obama are both big supporters of nuclear energy and want to support and fund nuclear power plants in the USA, which explains why they would want to bicker and argue and shut down the gov. to keep the focus of attention off of these 450 tons of nuclear active waste that is spilling into the Pacific every day. Everything makes sense now.

Peace Seeker
Peace Seeker

The film tells the story of the Japanese nuclear plant meltdown in 2011 and the cover-up by the Japanese government and TEPCO. The film documents how the nuclear energy program for "peaceful atoms" was brought to Japan under the auspices of the US military occupation. It explores the criminal cover-up of the safety dangers of the plant by TEPCO and GE management, which built the plant in Fukushima. Included is an interview with Kei Sugaoka, the GE nuclear plant inspector from the bay area who exposed cover-ups in the safety at the Fukushima plant and was retaliated against by GE.

The film features the voices of the people and workers about the reality of the disaster. It shows what this means not only for the people of Japan but the people of the world as the US government and nuclear industry continue to push for more new plants and government subsidies. This film breaks the information blockade and the cover-up by the corporate media in Japan, the US and around the world that seeks to convince the public that Fukushima is over. 

www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/11961

Scots John
Scots John

The number one priority is for real experts to take over the disaster site and kick TEPCO out. Then we need to get containment beneath the reactor vessels were meltdown has occurred.

If critical mass is achieved in these areas then we will have a disaster of incomrehensible proportions on our hands. Normal nuclear fuel takes 5 years to cool down before it can be dry casked. Melted fuel rods cannot be contained, the core elements have potentially come together in an unknown way and must be retreived and contained. It is my opinion that Chernobyl presents the same scenario.

Since Fukushima, there is difficulty finding funds to complete Chernobyl -

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-17/chernobyl-leak-forces-ukraine-to-seek-1-billion-after-25-years.html

http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/nuclear_power_risk/safety/nuclear-crisis-in-japan.html

In the USA there are many station which present a real risk to the US, the UCS have made the following recommendations, this is a pdf file from UCS -

http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/ucs-rpt-nuclear-safety-recs.pdf

RC Warwick
RC Warwick

such a buzz kill whats next, oceans truning to blood! How far does science have to go to kill all of mankind.

Al Postle
Al Postle

   Fukushima, as well as Tokyo, lies at the interestion of three tectonic plates Movement of these plates created the earthquake and tsunami which caused the current disaster at Fukushima. Another larger earthquake could devastate the entire region and sweep the TEPCO facility out to sea. Has anyone done a study of the impact of so much nuclear waste being dumped in the ocean?

robert rowley
robert rowley

despite these seemingly constant disasters 

nuclear power is the future, 

if more care was taken by these companies it wouldnt shake everyones confidence so much

sure solar power can heat the odd water tank, or light the odd light bulb,

but the industries need vast amounts of power day and night.

a company in mexico that analyzes seawater for gold extraction has found it to be increasingly radioactive possibly because of these japanesee nuclear disasters

http://revistaera.com/index.php/new-solar-powered-device-extracts-gold-from-sea-water

Tim Smyth
Tim Smyth

Here is an idea:  Use horizontal drilling to create a barrier under the plant. Just keep drilling and fill with concrete. The drill next to it and fill. Continue with multiple layers.

Michelle Jones
Michelle Jones

NATIONAL GEO!!

There is a much more horrifying issue around the corner which hardly ANYONE has revealed to the public-- 

WHY the cover up on something this serious??  Please have the independent nuclear experts confirm--- The world needs to know!!

Can you please comment on the latest reports regarding moving these spent fuel rods??   

Multiple sources are now confirming the possibility of a global catastrophe which will be unstoppable once event the smallest accident takes place..


http://rt.com/news/fukushima-apocalypse-fuel-removal-598/

Mike Stone
Mike Stone

Japan's problem is now the world's (at least the pacific ocean's) & needs more help from the international body-perhaps, the UN, IAEA, and the people who have been working on Hanford, Wash. site for years and have more experience with this type of problem-as the article stated "time is running out!!"

Tzeitel Sorrosa
Tzeitel Sorrosa

We will finally stop over-fishing and depleting our oceans, and that's because there will be nothing left to fish. Moreover, this could lead to a new generation of species that are resistant to radiation. Interesting experiment for the human species too. Let's wait and see who/what survives this disaster as we could turn out to be the next gen with 5 arms and 2 heads! Time to go to Mars, maybe? Yes, definitely. You were right, Mr. Stephen Hawkins. The human species will be the cause of it's own extinction.

Byron Alexander
Byron Alexander

Why the lack of discussion about Thorium as an energy source?

Thomas Lynch
Thomas Lynch

What if another tsunami rolls in and bowls over all those tanks?  Looking at the picture .. there is no sea wall.   What happens if an earthquake shakes this place up?  It has been over two years since the last one ..  why isn't there a sarcophagus like for Chernobyl?

Frank Shore
Frank Shore

Sadly, the US public is not aware of alternative energy solutions that deliver greater bang for the buck and much faster return on investment, then the well-known alternative energy solutions everyone talks about. 

Solar collectors for heating hot water are more cost effective than solar panels. Solar collectors are especially cost effective for heating hotel, apartment, condo, and other commercial swimming pools. 

"Cool Roof" technology simply entail coating roofs with a coating that reflects sunlight.

Hospitals could use their air conditioning systems to preheat their hot water at no cost. 

Commercial businesses could use more energy efficient lighting, and more energy efficient light fixtures. Light trails off a the inverse square. If you halve the distance  of light source to the target area, you need 75% fewer light fixtures to generate the same amount of light intensity. 

I have dozens of energy solutions that are more cost effective than the ones we all know about.

We could encourage businesses to correct three-phase electrical imbalances. This would save businesses a great deal of money. Sadly, business CEOs don't understand this problem, nor do they understand how it could improve their bottom line. Three-phase electrical imbalances also halve the life of expensive motors. 

We need zoning codes that penalize buildings constructed with thermal bridges. Thermal bridges cause buildings to consume two-to-four times the energy they would if they were limited. 

My AOL email address is: advanpropcons

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

OH joy more good news from the "safest" energy production industry.

Seriously I would rather just deal with raising oceans, at least the survives would have a livable world once the dust settled. 

Elp Tique
Elp Tique

Nuclear energy anyone? Pollution from all kinds of sources like this Shell sponsored article?

Still we are so dumb no to see the IMPERATIVE of solar energy. We are a bastard race.

Polaris Rider
Polaris Rider

@Zack Tyler Where are you getting your numbers, I am curious. I know that the INL (Idaho National Laboratory) a group have been able to process the waste and reuse it as fuel and greatly decrease the waste. The radiation produced is no more than the sun gives off or the Radon from the Earth. And Nuclear power only counts for 17% of the power in the world. Also oil and coal release carbon emissions which according to the government, is the cause for "Global Warming". 

Michael Davidson
Michael Davidson

@robert rowley 

Incorrect. Nuclear power will not be able to compete economically with renewable sources; wind and solar. Costs are dropping, efficiencies are being found. As the costs drop and output increases, adoption increases leading to more investment, better returns, and so on. At this point Utility companies are already worried about the viability of their businesses. The expense of nuclear will not be competitive.

http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2013/08/14/utilities-challenged-solar

Jeffrey Pokorny
Jeffrey Pokorny

@robert rowley I don't want to insult, but your are so incorrect.  The fact is that humans will ALWAYS continue to make these mistakes.  How can this not be clear to you or anyone else. Nuclear is NOT safe, nor is it the wave of the future.  A track record of 1 spill every 100 years is too much as radiation bioaccumulates for thousands and in some cases Millions of years.  We're still living with globally increased back-ground radiation levels from Chernobyl and especially the cold war... and now this.  Nuclear is the wave of arrogance, and a destructive, unsustainable power source.  Also, solar is extremely viable.  Anyone reading this, please research the feasibility of solar and learn the facts.  Don't listen to people who preach such propaganda.  Our home is run on 100% renewable energy, and we have energy to spare (we sell back to the grid and actually make money).  Solar will only improve, and makes complete sense. Not to mention both Nuclear and Oil are MASSIVELY subsidized by our government.  Big oil and the Nuclear lobby apparently have it all tied up, convincing people that it's the ONLY way to go, all they while they reap their profits forgoing truly sustainable energy options. Lastly, people unnecessarily waste massive amounts of energy simply because it's relatively EXTREMELY cheap so they put little thought into saving it.  Wake up and see the light people.  Nearly 50% of all energy consumed by homes is needlessly wasted.  Incandescent light, leaving them on when not necessary, windows/doors open during heating/cooling seasons, using A/C instead of fans or night time outdoor cooling fans, heat pumps, passive solar, improper use of window blinds, incorrect roof shingles, poor insulation, lack of bike commuting, horribly fuel inefficient cars and massive unnecessary trucks, and the list goes forever on.  Anyone who thinks nuclear is a good answer needs to look at the big picture, and think about the future, not just today, and how happy it make you feel lumbering along in a 7,000 lb truck needlessly wasting fuel, and come to a rational conclusion.  Radiating an entire ocean is acceptable?  Huh???  Same goes for oil.  Severely contaminating an entire eco-system (remember the gulf oil spill anyone?  This burden is still with us and has been another massive cover up.  Think this is a conspiracy theory?  RESEARCH IT for yourself)... and this is one of thousands of oil spills, directly correlated to our wasteful consumption of fossil fuels.  A 5,000 lb vehicle to transport a 150 lb person?  Really?? At a cost of only $4/gallon, which has enough energy to provide the equivalent labor of over 160 man hours of heavy labor... for $4.00?  Can no one else see the lunacy is this short-sighted waste?

If looking at a 10,000 year time line, we are very quickly elimination ourselves from the planet, as we've already done to countless other species over the last 100 years.  We are in the midst of the first ever mass extinction in the history of the earth that has been caused by a species itself, and not a geologic force, or extra-terrestrial body.  

Is this something to be proud of?  Are there enough thinking people out there to use their grey matter to turn this thing around, or do most of us just care about being happy today... damn our offspring?

I feel like I was watching this grand experiment and I accidentally fell into, and got stuck in, the tank. 

No wonder why Elon Musk is trying to invest in inhabiting mars.  Pretty cool.  Another planet that we can severely mess-up :-(


Donnie McBee
Donnie McBee

@Tim Smyth That is very similar to what the Russians did at Chernobyl.  That was before horizontal drilling.  They used miners to mine under the plant and installed a concrete barrier.

The original plan was to install a giant cooling system to keep the radioactive substances cool, but once the miners finished the hole they discovered that cooling wasn't needed.

Donnie McBee
Donnie McBee

@Tzeitel Sorrosa Mars?  you don't need to go quite that far.  Anyone who lives in the southern hemisphere should be fine, radiation will not cross the equator.

Jeffrey Pokorny
Jeffrey Pokorny

@Byron Alexander Because that's too rational. Seriously, humans are so slow to adopt new, intelligent options is insane. I'm not sure about you, but I'm disgusted that my life, and the lives of every other intelligent, thinking human (and it's the minority let me tell you) have to be so negatively affected by the greedy, short-sighted bunch.  Disturbing.  The earth used to be so big... now it's like we're trapped on this little sphere.

Jeffrey Pokorny
Jeffrey Pokorny

@Thomas Lynch Exactly.  Utter devastation.  Wait, make that utter, utter devastation.  We already have the first utter in place.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

@Thomas Lynch: You're hoping that people will plan for worst-case scenarios, which rarely seems to happen when the scenarios are indeed worst-case! The entire location of that reactor was dubious to begin with. It goes without saying, I know.

Another intractable mess brought to you by the species that "can't be causing global warming," per the so-called skeptics aka criminals.


Thomas Lynch
Thomas Lynch

During Katrina ships were bowled into chemical facilities.  It doesn't look like this place could deal with that.

Jeffrey Pokorny
Jeffrey Pokorny

@Frank Shore Double BINGO!  But humans can't accept change. It scares them, and they just push it away so they don't have to think.  I tell people the stuff above and it falls on deaf ears 99.9% of the time, unless it's someone that's already done the research themselves. They tell me what they hear on T.V. "Uh, solar is only like 3% efficient.  You couldn't heat a cup of tea with a square yard solar panel. All they see on the media is how great nuclear is, so they don't believe anything else.  T.V. is to blame for much of our evils.  If only we had intelligent media.  The exact opposite of what we have now.  The U.S. media breeds stupidity by herding the sheople and telling them what and how to think.

Jeffrey Pokorny
Jeffrey Pokorny

@Elp Tique Gosh it's generally so refreshing to read the comments on this blog.  Why can't all of us somehow get together and start guiding the human race down the right path? The path of sustainability where we take care of not only ourselves, but of the environment and all of the biodiversity that comes with it?  The only thing I can conclude is that we are the small, ethical, thinking minority.  I so wish we could put all the stupids on their own planet.  Then I wouldn't give a darn what they did.  Just watch em annihilate themselves.  

James Neufeld
James Neufeld

@Jeffrey Pokorny @robert rowley 

The say the half life of plutonium is 10000 years . I guess that we have to deal with all the new reactors that Obama wants to commission as well. I just wonder how to do anything about the situation. they say that only robots can be used to repair the reactor. What about the loss of steam in a nuclear reactor? Can they really make a perfect seal in the reactors? Maybe just a certain amount is acceptable to the regulators? Is man  his own worst enemy then?

I'd hope that others would do like you have done with solar energy. Jim

Jeffrey Pokorny
Jeffrey Pokorny

@Donnie McBee @Tim Smyth Gee, why don't short-sighted humans have a plan incorporated before such disasters occur?  I really wish that there was a separate planet for the thinking so-called "Idealists" to live on.  It's just not fair that we have to go down with the rest of them, when our portion of the species could otherwise persist.

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