Japan at a Boil Over Nuclear Agency's Coverups

Officials admitted last week waiting 30 hours before reporting a leak; premier is 'disgusted.'

Satomi Oba, a one-time Hiroshima schoolteacher who campaigns against the use of plutonium in Japan's nuclear-energy program, isn't surprised by the tactics of the government-run corporation responsible for using the substance safely.

As a resident of a city nearly obliterated by an atomic attack, she can't understand why Japan pursues an energy program that features a growing reliance on plutonium, the key ingredient in nuclear weapons. "I think it's natural and essential for the PNC to cover up and delay," she sighs, using the acronym for the state-run Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp.

Even Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto is frustrated with the PNC's botched handling of some recent accidents. Last week he said he was "disgusted" when its officials waited 30 hours to report a radiation leak in Fugen to higher authorities.

Experts say that the PNC's troubles will bring long delays to Japan's plan to exploit plutonium as a renewable source of energy. These setbacks will in turn create a second problem: a growing stockpile of the substance that will conflict with a government policy not to store unneeded amounts of plutonium.

"There will be a long-term and far-reaching impact throughout Japan's nuclear program as a result of these accidents," says Kumao Kaneko, a nuclear-policy specialist.

The PNC is charged with addressing a fundamental concern of resource-poor Japan: developing an inexhaustible supply of energy. Since the arrival of the industrial age in this island nation, the Japanese have grappled with the uncomfortable truth that they are almost entirely dependent on the outside world for fuel.

Threats to Japan's supply of oil were one reason why Imperial Japan attacked the US Navy at Pearl Harbor in 1941. To this day, guaranteeing the security of shipping lanes to the Middle East is a major concern of Japanese military planners.

Japan has eagerly developed nuclear energy, and now some 50 reactors generate just under a third of its electricity, more than any country other than the US and France. All but one or two of these reactors burn uranium that Japan must import.

Since the founding of the PNC in 1967, its engineers and scientists have explored ways to extract the plutonium that is generated in certain types of uranium-burning reactors and developed ways to use the plutonium as fuel for other reactors. The idea is create a nuclear "fuel cycle" that will, in theory at least, provide a renewable source of energy.

The PNC's problems began in December 1995, when three tons of sodium spilled from the cooling system of a reactor called Monju on the west coast. The agency later misled the media about the severity of the leak and edited an official video to minimize scenes of damage.

Last month, a fire broke out at a PNC reprocessing plant in the village of Tokai, north of Tokyo. The agency reported that the fire was extinguished, but it later flared up, causing an explosion that exposed 37 workers to low levels of radiation. The incident is the worst accident in the history of nuclear-power development in Japan.

Official investigations revealed that PNC officials realized they hadn't confirmed whether the fire was out, despite an announcement saying so. Senior officials then pressured coworkers not to make a public correction.

These lapses have prompted the Science and Technology Agency, which oversees the PNC, to ask police to investigate the state-run corporation for violations of law. Top politicians have also called for the reform and possible breakup of the PNC.

On April 15, the PNC admitted that it waited just over a day to report a leak of radiation at its Fugen reactor, also on Japan's west coast, prompting the harsh remarks from Mr. Hashimoto.

As a result of these incidents, all three facilities have been shut down, along with a PNC plutonium-fuel production plant where gauges reported faulty readings on March 17. The PNC's credibility is at record low levels, and activists are seizing the day. "Now is a significant opportunity to ask the government to make a thorough review" of its nuclear policy, says Hideyuki Ban of the Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center.

Japan's attempt to create a self-sustaining nuclear fuel cycle has already been hampered by delays and controversy, and mishaps of the past 16 months are certain to slow the program further. Ms. Satomi says she has never seen the news \media so intent in its criticism of Japan's nuclear program. "That will lead people to reconsider the policy," she adds.

Mr. Kaneko worries that the furor will affect what he says is the positive aspect of Japan's nuclear program - the dozens of uranium-burning reactors that have safely provided Japan with energy for decades.

And despite the PNC's problems, he adds, "We must establish the nuclear-fuel cycle.... We cannot afford to abandon the program halfway.... We have no other alternative sources of energy."

In the meantime, Japan will have to manage an ever-increasing supply of plutonium, which will raise suspicions in countries that question the sincerity of its antinuclear-weapons policy.

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