Sub crash, waste leak shake Japan's trust in A-power

Japanese public confidence in nuclear energy -- never great to start with -- has been badly undermined by a recent spate of bizarre incidents and attempted cover-ups.

On April 9, a small Japanese freighter sank in the East China Sea after a collision with an American nuclear submarine, the George Washington.

Public opinion has been aroused by allegations the submarine made no attempt to rescue the 13 members of the freighter's 15-man crew who survived, as well as the fact that the United States delayed notifying Japan of the accident for more than 30 hours.

At the same time, details of the country's worst-ever radioactive leak at a nuclear power plant are emerging.

Fear of radioactivity is never far from the surface in this country that suffered two atomic bombings 36 years ago.

And the two accidents, although basically different, could not have been designed better to revive that feeling.

A succession of radioactive leaks at the Tsuruga power station, about 200 miles west of Tokyo, has prompted the government to order a safety review of all the nation's 22 nuclear power plants.

The Tsuruga plant was closed down on April 1 after its operator, the Japan Atomic Power Company, belatedly revealed details of two minor leaks of contaminated water in January.

Last week, checks of the water and seabed mud nearby revealed abnormal radioactive levels.

The final blow came this week when the company confessed it had kept secret a more serious leak of more than 40 tons of highly contaminated sludge and water on March 8.

Public faith in the supposedly high technology of nuclear power plants was shattered by descriptions of workers frantically cleaning up the mess with plastic buckets and mops, as one antinuclear critic put it, "like bunch of charwomen."

There is strong suspicion some of the bucketfuls of waste were tossed into a rainwater drain leading to the sea.

In addition, 56 members of the cleanup brigade received abnormal doses of radiation. Health officials insist these were well within safety limits, much less than a normal X-ray.

But to the layman, the message is clear: Nuclear power ism dangerous. No matter how small the dose, the 56 men were still contaminated because of human error, a key valve being left open.

The Tsuruga case in fact highlights Japan's biggest headache -- safe disposal of fast-growing stockpiles of nuclear waste.

Antinuclear groups have begun gathering their forces for a showdown on government plans to double nuclear power output by 1990.

Several demonstrations have been staged and at least one public hearing into the proposed siting of a power plant was canceled this week for fear of violence.

Panic has quickly set in. All marine products from the Tsuruga area have been banned from fish markets even though health officials insist there is no danger.

The George Washington incident equally arouses public fears, especially as it occurred less than 22 miles from land.

Initially there were fears the sub reactor leaked, contaminating the sea, but this proved to be unfounded. Such reaction is fairly typical.

In the past, there have been riots over the visits to Japanese ports of American nuclear-powered ships and submarines because of the deep-seated public fear of contamination.The government says such fears are irrational and emotional, but that doesn't make them go away.

Judging from a flood of letters to newspapers and impromptu posters on Tokyo streets, the public regards the lack of contamination this time as a bit of American luck.

The two most common questions now being asked are:

* With all the advantages of modern technology, how could the George Washington surface right under a passing ship? (Navy sources here in fact say it can happen quite easily.)

* While the Americans say the submarine was not carrying its compliment of 16 Polaris missiles with multiple nuclear warheads, what would have happened if it had and if the collision had been much harder?

Just like the bizarre image of the powerplant workers mopping up nuclear waste with plastic buckets, the rogue elephant-like behavior of the George Washington adds to a public impression of science gone mad.

As one leading critic commented: "They have been telling us years nuclear power is perfectly safe. I cannot see how anyone could believe that now."

A government spokesman concurred: "We have a public relations disaster on our hands."

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