Doctors have tried everything they could think of to keep Hisashi Ouchi alive during these past two months. But they are not hopeful he will make it.
Ouchi was standing at a tank, holding a funnel while another worker poured in a highly enriched uranium mixture from a steel bucket. Suddenly a flash of blue light appeared, the telltale sign of a nuclear chain reaction. Ouchi had never been trained for this possibility and didn't realize at first that he was witnessing the start of Japan's worst nuclear accident.
The workers quickly left the room, but Ouchi almost immediately lost consciousness and began to vomit. He suffered severe radiation burns, and his chances of recovery are "very slim," Dr. Kazuhiko Maekawa of Tokyo University Hospital said this week.
The man with the bucket also received a high dose of radiation, but he was about 1 1/2 feet away from the tank's deadly liquid, just enough that he is given a chance of surviving. A third worker in the room on Sept. 30 was standing about four feet away and is expected to live.
The men's struggle for life is one among many dramas taking place in the aftermath of the accident at a nuclear processing plant in the town of Tokaimura, 75 miles northeast of Tokyo. The 69 people exposed to radiation--workers who tried to halt the 20-hour chain reaction by cutting water pipes and pouring in boric acid, along with people nearest the plant--will be monitored for years. More than 75,000 people have received contamination checks, and about 1,800 people have undergone blood and urine tests; three required further testing.
Many other residents worry about the accident's long-term effect, especially on their children, despite assurances that the amount of radiation carried beyond the plant was not enough to be harmful. They also are trying to cope with the loss of confidence in their town and destructive rumors about it.
Farmers strip the Tokai-region label from sweet potatoes, green onions and other crops they grow, and mark down prices of their products because of persistent rumors of radiation contamination. Businesses have stopped boasting of being in the home of nuclear power, and instead suffer under Tokaimura's new image as a zone of pollution.
JCO Co. the Tokyo-based company responsible for the accident, no longer processes uranium for nuclear power plants. Its workers spend their days monitoring radiation levels, apologizing for what it has admitted were illegal shortcuts in their procedures, answering questions in the community and helping people fill out compensation request forms.
The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded after an investigation that the accident did not release a significant amount of radioactive material. The accident has been rated Level 4 on the international scale of seven; the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 was Level 5. Although the chain reaction continued for 20 hours, once it was stopped and shields were put in place, radiation levels beyond the site returned to normal, the IAEA said in a preliminary report issued Nov. 15. The nearby farms and family gardens were then declared safe.
But it takes more than official statements to restore confidence.
The Tani sushi shop across the street from the plant now finds its only customers are the regulars. "People who don't know us don't stop by," said Mai Sumiya, 24, who runs the restaurant with her parents.
Rumors, town residents said, have caused the most damage.
"The direct effect of radiation was not found in any agricultural produce," said Tsuyoshi Terunuma, head of the local farmers' cooperative. But they are being forced to accept 10 to 20 percent less for their current crops. "Even if brokers want our produce, they'll hammer down the price," Terunuma said. "Our next crop will be carrots. We've already been advised to erase the name of Tokai from the carrots."
People said they are resigned to the existence of the nuclear power facilities--there are 15 in Tokaimura. A third of the households in the town of 34,000 have some connection to the plants, and residents are not clamoring for their removal.
Many blame accident on the government and lax enforcement of safety regulations more than JCO Co. for taking illegal shortcuts.
"This is nothing but sloppy," said Kazuko Hagiya, a physician at the Tokaimura Hospital. "I feel that in everything, including society as a whole in every field, things are being handled sloppily."
JCO Co., a subsidiary of Sumitomo Metal and Mining, has stopped its operations while the government considers whether to revoke its license.
The plant is quiet. The only workers in view during a recent visit were adjusting barriers at the accident site--a small building that looks like a prefabricated warehouse. A series of 12-inch-thick concrete walls have been added along parts of the building where radiation levels were detected higher than normal.
A block from the train station, JCO has opened an office in a shabby second floor room. Every day from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. several JCO employees wait in an atmosphere of penance. They are among 20 employees working in shifts to take questions and help people fill out compensation request forms for business losses.
Farmers and businessmen have filed $13 million in requests; a survey by the prefecture government estimated the economic damage at nearly $150 million.
"I am very sorry for the residents," said Makoto Morita, a managing director of the plant. "We betrayed the confidence they had given us."
The JCO facility is primarily used to process low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants. But a few times a year one building is used to process highly enriched uranium for an experimental, fast breeder reactor.
A nuclear reaction is prevented by limiting the amount of uranium handled at one time. A buffer cylinder prevents too much from being processed in one batch and is thus a safeguard against criticality--the point at which a nuclear chain reaction starts. But the workers bypassed the buffer on Sept. 29 and 30. They used steel buckets to pour a uranium solution into a precipitation tank, starting with four batches on the 29th and continuing the next morning, according to the IAEA.
When yet another bucketful passed through Ouchi's funnel and raised the tank volume up to about 35 pounds, a critical mass was reached and the nuclear fission chain reaction began, causing the blue flash.
At mid-afternoon about 150 residents closest to the plant were asked to evacuate, although not everyone did. Sumiya of the sushi shop said she and her parents stayed in their house which adjoins the restaurant. "The accident happened at 10:30, they told us about it at 12 o'clock and at 3 o'clock told us to leave. We figured that by then we might as well just stay here," she said.
More than 300,000 people living within six miles were advised to stay indoors with windows shut tightly until the following day. The evacuation order was lifted two days after the accident.
The government is scheduled to finish its investigation by month's end. The IAEA and other preliminary reports have emphasized that the workers did not understand the danger of the material or the meaning of the word criticality.
The company said that it believed a nuclear chain reaction was not a possibility. "If you ask, 'Do you teach employees about criticality?' we haven't been teaching employees how to handle the material with the possibility of criticality in mind," said Morita. "We teach them rules and the procedure. Our factory is more like a chemical factory. So we teach everything, including how to lift heavy objects."
JCO modified its work procedures in 1996 to allow the use of steel buckets as a shortcut, without permission of authorities, and that method had been used several times before the accident. This time, the workers took an added shortcut to speed up the process and skipped the buffer cylinder.
Researcher Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.
CAPTION: The building where Japan's worst nuclear accident took place Sept. 30 has been declared safe, but rumors of the area's contamination persist.
CAPTION: Mai Sumiya stands in the door of the sushi restaurant she runs with her parents. She says only regular customers have visited the restaurant since the Tokaimura reactor accident.