TOKYO - Japan's nuclear regulator on Wednesday upgraded the rating of a leak of radiation-contaminated water from a tank at its tsunami-wrecked nuclear plant to a "serious incident" on an international scale, and it castigated the plant operator for failing to catch the problem earlier.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority's latest criticism of Tokyo Electric Power Co. came a day after the operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant acknowledged that the 300-ton (300,000-liter, 80,000-gallon) leak probably began nearly a month and a half before it was discovered Aug. 19.

In a meeting with agency officials and experts Tuesday night, TEPCO said radioactivity near the leaky tank and exposure levels among patrolling staff started to increase in early July. There is no sign that anyone tried to find the source of that radioactivity before the leak was discovered.

On Wednesday, regulatory officials said TEPCO has repeatedly ignored their instructions to improve their patrolling procedures to reduce the risk of overlooking leakages. They said TEPCO lacked expertise and also underestimated potential impact of the leak because underground water is shallower around the tank than the company initially told regulators.

"Their instructions, written or verbal, have never been observed," Toyoshi Fuketa, a regulatory commissioner, said at the agency's weekly meeting Wednesday.

TEPCO acknowledged recently that only two workers were assigned to check all 1,000 storage tanks at the plant during their twice-daily, two-hour walk without carrying dosimeters, and their inspection results were not adequately recorded. TEPCO said it will increase patrolling staff to 50 from the current eight.

Earlier this week, Japan's industry minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, said the government will take over cleanup efforts and allocate funding for long-term contaminated water management projects.

The nuclear authority originally gave a Level 1 preliminary rating — an "anomaly," to the tank leak. Last week the authority proposed raising that to Level 3 — a "serious incident" — and it made that change after consulting with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The IAEA's ratings are designed to inform the international community, and changing them does not affect efforts to clean up the leak by the government and TEPCO. The 2011 Fukushima disaster itself was rated the maximum of 7 on the scale, the same as the 1986 Chornobyl accident.

"What's important is not the number itself but to give a basic idea about the extent of the problem," authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka said at a news conference after the agency's meeting. "I've seen reports that this is a dire situation but that's not true."

Tanaka said there is a much larger ongoing problem at the plant: massive amounts of contaminated ground water reaching the sea. But that problem cannot even be rated under the IAEA's International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale because it is unknown exactly how much ground water is escaping, how contaminated it is and what effect it is having on the sea and marine products.

Tanaka said TEPCO's handling of the water leaks was slow, illogical and lacked risk management. TEPCO has yet to determine the cause of the latest leak.

"I'm baffled," he said. "It may take time to stabilize the plant but we must put it on a right track."

TEPCO has recovered some of the water that leaked from the tank but says some of it may have reached the sea through a rainwater gutter. It says most of the leakage is believed to have seeped into the soil, triggering fresh concern of further contamination of underground water downstream.

TEPCO has built hundreds of tanks to hold radioactive water, some of which is ground water that made its way to the plant, but hundreds more tons of contaminated water are believed to be entering the sea each day.

The plant suffered triple meltdowns after the massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. TEPCO is putting tons of water into its reactors to cool them and is struggling to contain the resulting waste water.

___

AP writer Elaine Kurtenbach contributed to this report.

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  • JAPAN-DISASTER-ANNIVERSARY-TSUNAMI

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    Tractors damaged by the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake are stacked in a pile in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, on Sunday, March 10, 2013. Japan's economy grew at an annualized 0.2 percent last quarter after shrinking 3.7 percent the three previous months, the worst since the 2011 earthquake, revised government data show. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

  • Second Anniversary Of 2011 Earthquake And Tsunami

    People walk along a street in an area damaged by the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, on Sunday, March 10, 2013. Japan's economy grew at an annualized 0.2 percent last quarter after shrinking 3.7 percent the three previous months, the worst since the 2011 earthquake, revised government data show. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

  • Second Anniversary Of 2011 Earthquake And Tsunami

    Boats damaged by the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake are stacked in a pile in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, on Sunday, March 10, 2013. Japan's economy grew at an annualized 0.2 percent last quarter after shrinking 3.7 percent the three previous months, the worst since the 2011 earthquake, revised government data show. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

  • JAPAN-DISASTER-ANNIVERSARY-TSUNAMI

    A woman prays for her relatives killed by the 2011 tsunami at a cemetery in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture on March 11, 2013. Japan on March 11 marked the second anniversary of a ferocious tsunami that claimed nearly 19,000 lives and sparked the worst nuclear accident in a generation. AFP PHOTO/ Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

  • JAPAN-DISASTER-ANNIVERSARY-TSUNAMI

    A woman prays for relatives killed by the 2011 tsunami at a cemetery in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture on March 11, 2013. Japan on March 11 marked the second anniversary of a ferocious tsunami that claimed nearly 19,000 lives and sparked the worst nuclear accident in a generation. AFP PHOTO/ Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

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    CORRECTION-DATELINE A man prays for tsunami victims in front of a Buddhist statue in the Arahama district in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture on March 11, 2013, the second anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. Japan on March 11 marked the second anniversary of a ferocious tsunami that claimed nearly 19,000 lives and sparked the worst nuclear accident in a generation. AFP PHOTO / Toru YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CORRECTION-JAPAN-DISASTER-ANNIVERSARY-TSUNAMI

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  • JAPAN-DISASTER-ANNIVERSARY-TSUNAMI

    Flowers are offered for victims killed by the 2011 tsunami in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture on March 11, 2013. Japan on March 11 marked the second anniversary of a ferocious tsunami that claimed nearly 19,000 lives and sparked the worst nuclear accident in a generation. AFP PHOTO/ Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

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    A family prays for their relatives killed by the 2011 tsunami at a cemetery in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture on March 11, 2013. Japan on March 11 marked the second anniversary of a ferocious tsunami that claimed nearly 19,000 lives and sparked the worst nuclear accident in a generation. AFP PHOTO/ Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

  • JAPAN-DISASTER-ANNIVERSARY-TSUNAMI

    A couple visits a cemetery to pray for victims killed by the 2011 tsunami in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture on March 11, 2013. Japan on March 11 marked the second anniversary of a ferocious tsunami that claimed nearly 19,000 lives and sparked the worst nuclear accident in a generation. AFP PHOTO/ Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

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    Buddhists pray for tsunami victims on the seashore in the Arahama district in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11, 2013, the second anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. Japan on March 11 marked the second anniversary of a ferocious tsunami that claimed nearly 19,000 lives and sparked the worst nuclear accident in a generation. AFP PHOTO / Toru YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

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    Buddhists pray for tsunami victims on the seashore in the Arahama district in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11, 2013, the second anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. Japan on March 11 marked the second anniversary of a ferocious tsunami that claimed nearly 19,000 lives and sparked the worst nuclear accident in a generation. AFP PHOTO / Toru YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

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    Police officers walk on a mud-covered riverside field near the Okawa elementary school to start a tsunami victim search operation in Ishinomaki city, Miyagi prefecture on March 11, 2013. March 11, 2013 marks the second anniversary of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that sent a huge wall of water into the coast of the Tohoku region, splintering whole communities, ruining swathes of prime farmland and killing nearly 19,000 people. AFP PHOTO / TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA (Photo credit should read TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

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    Police officers walk on a mud-covered riverside field near the Okawa elementary school to start a tsunami victim search operation in Ishinomaki city, Miyagi prefecture on March 11, 2013. March 11, 2013 marks the second anniversary of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that sent a huge wall of water into the coast of the Tohoku region, splintering whole communities, ruining swathes of prime farmland and killing nearly 19,000 people. AFP PHOTO / TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA (Photo credit should read TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

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    Police officers (R) search for tsunami victims two years after, at a mud-covered riverside field near the Okawa elementary school in Ishinomaki city, Miyagi prefecture on March 11, 2013. March 11, 2013 marks the second anniversary of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that sent a huge wall of water into the coast of the Tohoku region, splintering whole communities, ruining swathes of prime farmland and killing nearly 19,000 people. AFP PHOTO / TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA (Photo credit should read TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

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  • JAPAN-DISASTER-ANNIVERSARY-TSUNAMI

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  • JAPAN-DISASTER-ACCIDENT-NUCLEAR-ANNIVERSARY

    People offer silent prayers for victims of the tsunami at Arahama district in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture on March 11, 2013. Japan on March 11 marked the second anniversary of a ferocious tsunami that claimed nearly 19,000 lives and sparked the worst nuclear accident in a generation. AFP PHOTO/Toru YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • JAPAN-DISASTER-ANNIVERSARY-TSUNAMI

    Wrecked vehicles remain in a field of reeds in Namie, two years after the March 11, 2011 tsunami and earthquake, near the striken TEPCO's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture on March 11, 2013. March 11, 2013 marks the second anniversary of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that sent a huge wall of water into the coast of the Tohoku region, splintering whole communities, ruining swathes of prime farmland and killing nearly 19,000 people. AFP PHOTO / YOSHIKAZU TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

  • JAPAN-DISASTER-ANNIVERSARY-TSUNAMI

    An elderly man sits as he and with his wife (not pictured) visit a cemetery to pay respects to their son who was killed in the March 2011 tsunami, in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture on March 11, 2013. March 11, 2013 marks the second anniversary of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that sent a huge wall of water into the coast of the Tohoku region, splintering whole communities, ruining swathes of prime farmland and killing nearly 19,000 people. AFP PHOTO / YOSHIKAZU TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A boy prays for the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami victims after offering a flower in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, northern Japan Sunday, March 10, 2013. Japan will mark the second anniversary of the disaster on Monday. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, HONG KONG, JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA AND FRANCE

  • Residents pray in front of a memorial for the victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami as they make a brief visit to a caution zone in Namie, Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan Sunday, March 10, 2013. Japan will mark the second anniversary of the disaster on Monday. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, HONG KONG, JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA AND FRANCE

  • Cars stop at a traffic signal in a snow covered deserted port area, which was engulfed by a tsunami after the March 11, 2011 earthquake, in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, at dawn on Monday, March 11, 2013. Japan is marking the second anniversary of its earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe. Memorial services are planned Monday in Tokyo and in barren towns along the battered northeastern coast to coincide the moment the magnitude-9.0 earthquake — the strongest recorded in Japan's history — struck, unleashing a massive tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people. (AP Photo/Koji Ueda)

  • A man offers prayers in front of the main entrance of Okawa Elementary School where 74 of the 108 students went missing after the March 11 tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, Japan, Monday, March 11, 2013. The two-year anniversary Monday of Japan's devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe is serving to spotlight the stakes of the country's struggles to clean up radiation, rebuild lost communities and determine new energy and economic strategies. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

  • A woman prays during a rally against nuclear power plants as victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami are remembered, at a park in Tokyo, Monday, March 11, 2013. Japan marked the second anniversary on Monday of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

  • People observe a moment of silence for the victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami during an event at a park in Tokyo, Monday, March 11, 2013. Japan marked the second anniversary on Monday of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

  • Gathering around what is left of a disaster control center devastated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, people bow their heads Monday, March 11, 2013 in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, Japan, in a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m. when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off Japan's northeastern coast. Japan marked the second anniversary on Monday of a devastating disasters that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

  • 2

    People offer prayer in a moment of silence in front of what is left of a disaster control center in an area devastated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, Monday, March 11, 2013. Japan marked the second anniversary on Monday of the devastating disasters that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

  • People observe a moment of silence in front of what is left of a disaster control center in an area devastated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, in Japan, Monday, March 11, 2013. Japan marked the second anniversary on Monday of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing.(AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

  • People offer prayers in front of what is left of a disaster control center in an area devastated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, Monday, March 11, 2013. Japan marked the second anniversary on Monday of the devastating disasters that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

  • A worker walks behind a white plastic plate cutout of the words of a local businessperson, declaring determination to reopen the business, in a tsunami-stricken area in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan, Monday, March 11, 2013. Japan marked the second anniversary on Monday of a devastating earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing. The words mean; I will restart my business from zero like my ancestor. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

  • A man points to the name of one of the victims of the earthquake and tsunami inscribed in a cenotaph in Okawa district in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan, Monday, March 11, 2013. Japan marked the second anniversary on Monday of a devastating earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

  • People observe a moment of silence for the victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami during an event at a park in Tokyo, Monday, March 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

  • Aerial

    Red and white cranes stand by reactors of the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, Monday morning, March 11, 2013. The two-year anniversary Monday of Japan’s devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe is serving to spotlight the stakes of the country’s struggles to clean up radiation, rebuild lost communities and determine new energy and economic strategies. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, HONG KONG, JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA AND FRANCE

  • People offer prayers as a Buddhist monk chants a sutra for tsunami victims to mark the second anniversary of the 2011 earthquake an tsunami on a beach in Arahama in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, Monday morning, March 11, 2013. Japan marked the second anniversary of the disasters, that killed nearly 19, 000 people in areas along Japan's northeastern coast. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, HONG KONG, JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA AND FRANCE

  • An artificially-restored "miracle pine tree," that survived the March 11, 2011 tsunami, is silhouetted against the rising sun in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, Japan, Monday, March 11, 2013. Japan marked the second anniversary of its earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe, that killed nearly 19, 000 people in areas along Japan's northeastern coast. The 27-meter (88-foot and 7-inch)-tall tree, a single survivor among 70,000 trees in a forest along the coast, has just been restored in a project to preserve it. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, HONG KONG, JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA AND FRANCE

  • People offer prayers in front of a memorial cenotaph for tsunami victims on a beach in Arahama in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, Monday morning, March 11, 2013. Japan marked the second anniversary of its earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe, that killed nearly 19, 000 people in areas along Japan's northeastern coast. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, HONG KONG, JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA AND FRANCE

  • Police officers search for the remains of those who went missing in the March 11, 2011 tsunami on the coastline in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan, Monday, March 11, 2013. The two-year anniversary Monday of Japan's devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe is serving to spotlight the stakes of the country's struggles to clean up radiation, rebuild lost communities and determine new energy and economic strategies.(AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

  • Women approach Okawa Elementary School where 74 of the 108 students went missing after the March 11 tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, Japan, Monday, March 11, 2013. The two-year anniversary Monday of Japan's devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe is serving to spotlight the stakes of the country's struggles to clean up radiation, rebuild lost communities and determine new energy and economic strategies. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)