The News From Fukushima Just Gets Worse, and the Japanese Public Wants Answers

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A Tokyo Electric Power Company employee in protective clothing works around tanks filled with radioactive water at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, June 12, 2013.

Earlier this month, at a symposium on the Fukushima nuclear disaster held at the Tokyo International Forum, an unlikely cast gathered to vent fears now gaining traction in Japan. The panel included a bank president, investigative journalist, world-renowned symphony conductor, teenage pop star and the mayor of a radioactive ghost town.  For all their obvious differences, this motley crew agreed on one thing: that the damage being caused by the crippled No. 1 nuclear plant is far worse than government officials cared to acknowledge.  “It’s time we faced the danger, ” said Takashi Hirose, a writer shocked by the under-reported radiation levels he found on recent trip into the evacuation zone. “So many terrible things are not being reported in the news.”

But now it seems that the bad news keeps coming. Just weeks after the Tokyo Electric Power Co. admitted that 300 tons of radioactive water has been leaking from the crippled nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean each day, the utility is saying that as many tons of highly toxic water have seeped out of a large storage tank, without identifying the source. After months of denials, Japan is about to designate the leak as a “serious incident.” It is the gravest setback yet in the effort to contain the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. On Wednesday, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Shunichi Tanaka, ominously told reporters that “more surveillance won’t be enough to keep the accidents from happening.”

(MORE: More Than Two Years After Meltdown, Doubt and Fear Remain Over Fukushima’s Safety)

There’s no more hiding the fact that TEPCO has botched attempts to manage the massive amount of contaminated water plaguing the facility since a powerful March 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused three reactors to meltdown. An underground barrier built to stop the leakage was breached, and storage tanks designed to hold up to 1,000 tons of toxic water for at least five years have degraded within two, drawing criticism that they were poorly constructed and vulnerable to spillage should another earthquake strike — entirely possible in such an active zone. Then there are the nearly 2,000 people who have worked at the plant. According to some experts, they are at high risk for thyroid cancer despite company attempts to downplay their exposure.

Unfortunately for them, there are no quick fixes. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said the government will intervene and staunch the outflow of tainted water, without specifying how. Existing plans to release low levels of contaminated water into the ocean are fraught with technical problems and gathering resistance from area fisherman, who have seen livelihoods slashed by consumer fears about food safety.  Another proposal to surround the plant with a subterranean ice wall would cost some $400 million of public money to complete, part of a cleanup expected to take four decades at a cost of $11 billion.

(PHOTOS: Too Close to Fukushima — Inside the Exclusion Zone)

Building public consensus on any costly clean-up measures is sure to become a tougher proposition following TEPCO’s latest embarrassing admissions. For those who still have doubts about the social and health-related costs of the disaster, Tsunehiko Kawamoto of Green Cross Japan, an environmental group working to phase out all nuclear power in the country, says the staggering price of a clean up with no end in sight, along with the indefinite loss of farmlands, property, and jobs, should act as a “wake-up call” for those who have taken official pronouncements at face value. “There are a lot of hidden facts that are now being revealed,” he says.

Back at the packed auditorium in downtown Tokyo, Tsuyoshi Yoshihara, president of the Johnan Shinkin Bank, stood on stage and made a similarly passionate appeal to practicality. Today nuclear power provides just two percent of Japan’s electricity, down from thirty percent at full capacity pre-Fukushima. While supporters say it’s the only option given rising energy import costs, the dapper executive said an honest analysis must take into account the long-term costs of Fukushima, which continue to multiply.  Addressing the notion that country’s economy will fail without nuclear energy, he boomed into the microphone: “This is a kind of mythology, and it must be defeated before we defeat ourselves.”

MORE: Amid Economic and Safety Concerns, Nuclear Advocates Pin Their Hopes on New Designs