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Japan's Nuclear Accident Worse Than Reported
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 7, 1999; 1:00 p.m. EDT
TOKYO, Oct. 7 – As the investigation continues into Japan's worst nuclear accident a week ago, the government and environmental activists are increasingly concerned that it may have been more serious and affected more people than was initially reported.
The government decided to expand its examination of people possibly exposed to radiation near the uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, about 75 miles northeast of Tokyo, according to a spokesman for the Science and Technology Agency. A total of 63 people have been identified so far as having been exposed to radiation, including 14 workers who went briefly onto the plant site to try to stop the nuclear reaction occurring inside, and the three who were involved in the accident. Two workers are in serious condition.
"Initially we did not see the accident as being so serious," Masaru Hashimoto, governor of Ibaraki Prefecture, said today.
Officials also said they are likely to raise the Sept. 30 accident's rating from level four to five on the international scale of seven, the same as the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979. Such a move would indicate they believe the risk of contamination outside the plant was extensive.
The environmental group Greenpeace said today that, based on its own analysis of samples taken about 500 yards from the plant, beyond the area evacuated by the government, the number of people exposed to radiation was certainly higher than government estimates.
Jan Rispens, an energy specialist with Greenpeace, said the government should be testing people more thoroughly. "It's not enough to run Geiger counters over their arms and their feet," he said.
Extraordinary details of safety violations have come out daily since the accident. Officials of JCO Co., which operates the plant, have told reporters and admitted to investigators that workers used an illegal procedure for the past seven or eight years. Other plant employees did not understand "criticality" – the combination of conditions that produces nuclear fission – according to Japanese newspaper reports. Company officials also said they had not made any preparations for this kind of a nuclear accident – in which an excess of uranium poured into a mixing container triggered a nuclear chain reaction – because they did not expect one.
The workers used buckets to transfer the uranium mixture from one tank to another, bypassing a cylinder that would have limited the amount of uranium they could use. The resulting nuclear reaction apparently continued for 17 to 20 hours, until workers succeeded in emptying water from the tanks and pouring in boric acid.
Families close to the plant were evacuated, while more than 300,000 other people were asked to stay indoors for more than 24 hours.
Rispens said the plant "had the safety standards of a bakery and not a nuclear facility. It was just a normal building."
Police searched JCO's Tokyo headquarters and its office in Tokaimura on Wednesday and carted off boxes of documents. The search warrants cited suspicion of professional negligence, a police spokesman said.
Japan relies on nuclear power for about a third of its energy needs, but the nuclear industry has been plagued by a series of accidents.
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has reaffirmed in recent days the government's determination to push ahead with its nuclear power program, even visiting Tokaimura and eating the local produce to demonstrate his faith in its safety. But he also said he would seek a new law to spell out a response to nuclear disasters.
"I want to restore trust in our nuclear energy policy," he said today.
The Tokaimura plant was producing fuel for an experimental fast-breeder reactor.
Government inspectors began examining the operating procedures of 20 nuclear facilities around the country this week, to make sure they were not taking the kind of shortcuts that led to last week's accident.
Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company