Japan is hit by yet another nuclear accident. Low safety standards and tardy government action aggravates the situation
in one of the worst nuclear accidents in Japan's history, on September 30, high levels of radiation leaked from a uranium processing plant at Tokaimura, some 140 kilometres from Tokyo, exposing around 50 people to radiation, three of whom are said to be in a serious condition. Prior to this accident, there have been five other instances of radiation leaks since 1995.
The accident occurred when workers at the test facility of a Sumitomo Metal Mining Company subsidiary, mixed 16 kg of uranium oxide -- instead of the stipulated 2.4 kg -- with nitrate solution and transferred it to a precipitation tank. This error reportedly caused a flash of blue light inside the plant. Scientists say that the flash may have been the result of a fast chain reaction.
The accident has triggered off a chain reaction of alarm. About 313,000 people, who live within 10 km radius of the plant, were told to stay in their homes, and all inhabitants living within a 350-metre radius were evacuated the same day. Japanese newspapers say that farm produce from the area, which supplies one per cent of the Tokyo market, is being shunned by retailers despite government assurances of safety.
Says Chihiro Kamisawa, an anti-nuclear activist: "So much has been made of Japan's sophisticated technology that supposedly makes nuclear energy safe. The accident proves it is absolutely not true." Commentators are already predicting a strong backlash in public opinion against the industry and perhaps against a deeply embarrassed government whose response to the emergency was slow. Firstly, the company took one hour to report the accident. After 12 hours of the accident, prime minister Keizo Obuchi came out with a statement that the radiation leak may still be continuing inside the plant, causing further panic among the residents of the area. The leakage continued for around 20 hours before it was stopped. Admitting that his government was slow in taking decisions, Obuchi said, "we must make sure that this never happens again."
The International Atomic Energy Agency ( iaea) in Vienna has said that the radiation appeared extremely dangerous. Some reports say that the radiation round the plant could have been up to 20,000 times the normal level.
Meanwhile, the government launched an investigation into the accident after a plant operator admitted that the company had used illegal standards for uranium processing for four years. "We set up a special investigation team for the case, considering the operator is suspected of committing professional negligence," said a spokesperson for the police department. The Japanese Science and Technology Agency also raided the company's headquarters in Tokyo and its facilities in Tokaimura to seize documents, officials said.
The company changed its procedure manual without government approval, allowing workers to transfer the uranium processed at the plant in stainless steel containers similar to buckets. But it is not certain whether the violation caused the accident.
Experts said that although the use of stainless steel containers may not be directly related to the accident, the violation reflects on the unit's insufficient attention to safety.
The accident could not have come at a worse time for Japan's nuclear industry, which supplies one-third of the country's electricity needs. Many experts are already calling for a sweeping re-evaluation of the country's nuclear energy programme. Greenpeace, the environmental pressure group, has called for a closure of the country's nuclear facilities, saying that commercial pressures were being put ahead of safety and health. Meanwhile, some nuclear scientists fear that the accident may put a halt on research to improve the production of reactor fuel that was being carried out at the plant.
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