The JCO plant sits among houses and schools in Tokaimaru, a town of 33,000 people 87 miles northwest of the capital Tokyo. There are at least 14 other major nuclear-energy-related plants in the area. The government issued no response to the radiation release until initial efforts to stop it failed. Officials then ordered 300,000 people in the surrounding area to stay indoors, close their windows, and avoid contact with well water or rain, though such steps offer virtually no protection from radiation. The following morning, workers finally stopped the radiation by smashing a pipe to drain water accelerating the reaction. That afternoon, officials declared the emergency over. Scientists in Japan state that with such high radiation levels, the plant may never reopen.
Initial reports laid responsibility for the accident on the workers on the scene. The reaction occurred while uranium fuel was being poured from steel buckets. Injured workers have reported that among a number of departures from "safe" procedures, they used their hands in the operation, rather than measuring devices, and mixed nearly six times the recommended amount of uranium.
JCO management, while saying that the company faces intense foreign competition, initially denied that they pressed workers to skip safety measures., One injured worker, however, reported on October 4 that he routinely used shortcuts laid out in an illegal company manual. The police now say they will pursue criminal charges against the plant's operators.
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi apologized for the government's slow response, and postponed the announcement of a new cabinet. A debate has opened up on the country's nuclear industry. At least two previous serious accidents have occurred in the last three years, including an explosion at another plant in Tokaimura. Fifty-two nuclear power plants, all but one of them privately-operated, generate one-third of the country's power. Only the United States and France have more such installations.
The JCO plant turned uranium into pellets that are used as nuclear fuel. Shaun Barrie of Greenpeace Japan said "there are probably hundreds of these facilities handling nuclear materials throughout Japan, and in terms of [government] inspections, there's practically nil." Japan's nuclear industry is developing a particularly dangerous type of "fast-breeder" technology that produces more plutonium that it burns. Plutonium is the essential element in building nuclear weapons. "In Japan … we have no energy resources." commented Dr. Keiji Miyazaki, a nuclear reactor designer, "so we must develop the fast-breeder reactor."
U.S. President William Clinton ordered a review of civilian nuclear-fuel processing on October 1, the day after the JCO leak. The Department of Energy (DOE) operates a number of plants vulnerable to a similar accident. At least 21 such "inadvertent criticalities" have occurred in the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, according to the DOE. Such incidents took five lives in the United States from 1958 to 1978. Four days after the accident in Japan, radioactive water leaked inside a nuclear power plant in south Korea, exposing 22 workers.
"So much has been made of Japan's sophisticated technology that supposedly makes nuclear energy safe," anti-nuclear activist Chihiro Kamisawa told the Associated Press. "The accident proves that's absolutely not true."
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