Is nuclear disaster looming in Japan?

Japan's nuclear watchdog members, including Nuclear Regulation Authority members in radiation protection suits in Fukushima
AFP | AFP | Getty Images
Japan's nuclear watchdog members, including Nuclear Regulation Authority members in radiation protection suits in Fukushima

As the world watches Syria amid concerns of a U.S.-led military intervention, halfway across the globe a nuclear disaster could be unfolding with the potential for years of economic and social repercussions in Japan.

On Wednesday, nuclear regulators in Japan officially raised the severity rating of the latest radioactive water leak at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, which was severely affected by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The situation has now been classified at Level 3 on an international scale for radiological releases, making the leak a "serious incident."

U.K.-based nuclear energy expert Antony Froggatt told CNBC that the problem at the Fukushima plant was growing – and could haunt Japan's nuclear regulators for a number of years.

"There are many problems ahead and you can look to Chernobyl that happened in 1986 and see that they're still trying to deal with containing radioactivity around the site," said Froggatt, who is a senior research fellow at Chatham House think tank.

Level 3 ratings from regulators were rare, he said, adding that if the problem deteriorated, the authorities may need to appeal for international assistance.

Following the plant's meltdown in 2011, the situation was classified at Level 7, the highest rating on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale.

"What we're seeing now is that the problems at the plant haven't been resolved over the last two years," Froggatt, who contributes to the closely watched "World Nuclear Industry Status Report," said.

"There is the growing problem of waste water…they've been trying to stop this and now the regulators seem to have fully admitted that there is a problem."

The Fukishima plant's operator said 300 tons of highly radioactive water had leaked from a storage tank at the facility, but added that it was not sure how long the water had been leaking or whether it had reached the Pacific Ocean.

Peter Storey, a professor in Nuclear Policy and Regulation at a the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K., who was part of an international mission to advise Japan after the Fukushima disaster, told CNBC that the Japanese regulators and operators have waited "weeks and weeks" to attempt to solve the plant's waste water problem.

"It does their credibility no good and will have a massive impact on public confidence. Something must be failing if they're not on top of these problems - removing waste water is not rocket science," he told CNBC on Wednesday.

He said the Japanese government was "acutely embarrassed" by the leak, adding the country needed to pay more attention to the global media and Japanese public. In the meantime, the leak would impact the whole Japanese economy as the government continued to import fuel, he said.

The leak could further damage local industries already impacted by the disaster, according to the experts, and could cause a shutdown of the fishing industry around Japan if fish are found to be radioactive

Fishermen are catching fish in the area, not to sell to the Japanese public but to take to laboratories to be tested for radiation, according to the Associated Press.

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt