For Japanese, the news of a nuclear accident yesterday provoked an uncomfortable sense of dj vu.
Helicopters, fire engines, and police rushed to seal off parts of the northern industrial town of Tokaimura in the sixth nuclear mishap in Japan during the past two years.
Workers at a local uranium processing plant saw a blue glow yesterday morning and reported feeling ill shortly thereafter. About 150 nearby homes were evacuated. Students and residents in schools and homes farther away were instructed to close their windows and stay indoors.
By early afternoon, local officials acknowledged that a spill at the plant had boosted radiation levels to 10,000 times above safety levels.
At press time, the seriousness of the accident and the injuries remained unclear. Some officials here say it could result in Japan's worst injuries from a nuclear accident to date.
For a nation that gets nearly one-third of its electricity from nuclear power, this latest leak underscores the tension between government plans to boost nuclear-energy output and the industry's poor safety record.
Troubled nuclear past
Accidents and controversy have dogged the nuclear industry here for years. In some past accidents, officials have attempted to downplay or cover up damage. Despite this history, widespread public concern, and the uncertainty of building nuclear plants on an island chain highly prone to earthquakes, Japan's commitment to developing nuclear energy remains strong.
Energy needs historically have driven Japan to take risks. But in this resource-poor archipelago, even those who oppose nuclear power admit that for now, it seems to be the only way that the nation can establish greater energy self-sufficiency.
"If there was a strong policy for safe, sustainable, renewable energy, many people would choose it instead of nuclear power," says Hiroshima-based antinuclear activist Satomi Oba. "But we have no alternative right now. We need electricity."
That is probably of little comfort to the residents of Tokaimura, 90 miles northeast of Tokyo and home to 15 nuclear facilities. It is already known as the site of Japan's worst nuclear accident, which took place in 1997. In March that year, a fire in a fuel reprocessing plant was not put out properly and caused an explosion several hours later. Thirty-seven workers were exposed to radiation, and subsequent investigations revealed that officials tried to cover up aspects of the accident.
"All these nuclear power plants have been blundering," says Ryukichi Imai, a public policy adviser to various past and present atomic-energy commissions. "There are different reasons for the accidents at different plants, but these facilities are mostly old and have been used for a long time."
Toshiyuki Anegawa, section chief of the Nuclear Safety Policy Bureau at the Science and Technology Agency, says his agency hasn't worked out causes for the accidents. Even so, it remains committed to a nuclear strategy. With 51 nuclear power plants, Japan is the world's third-largest consumer of nuclear energy after the US and France. Under a policy adopted in 1994, Japan aims to increase its nuclear capacity to just over 40 percent of the country's energy supply by 2010.
"We see nuclear energy as a basic," says Mr. Anegawa. That's because Japan has few other choices. It is almost entirely reliant on the outside world for fuel sources, a dependency that has shaped Japanese foreign policy for most of this century.
In the past, a perceived threat to Japan's energy sources was enough to prompt the country to launch its 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Today, ensuring the safety of shipping lanes to the Middle East remains a paramount concern to security officials.
And there is a widespread awareness of Japan's vulnerability when it comes to energy. "Nuclear power is our only choice," says Mr. Imai.
Yet all but a few of Japan's reactors rely on imported uranium. To achieve true energy self-sufficiency, the government has spent billions of dollars on a controversial plan to import plutonium to create a renewable source of nuclear energy.
Greenpeace plans protests
A cargo of this plutonium reached Fukui prefecture in northern Japan on Monday and a second is expected to reach another undisclosed location soon. Greenpeace has harshly criticized this plan, as the weapons-grade plutonium could be used to make as many as 60 nuclear bombs if it fell into the hands of terrorists.
Activists had planned protests against the plutonium shipments today, and these will likely draw added attention because of yesterday's accident.
Federal officials have yet to confirm exactly what happened at Tokaimura, though the company that runs the plant apologized for the incident and stressed that everything is under control.
Toshio Okazaki, a vice minister of the government's Science and Technology Agency, told reporters that a "criticality incident" may have triggered the accident, which took place in a plant that turns uranium powder into fuel that is burned in reactors.
Criticality means that a spontaneous and self-sustaining nuclear reaction started inside the plant. The leak was detected at 10:30 a.m. Soon after, three workers exposed to radiation were taken to the hospital. Police blocked off traffic from entering the area three miles around the site, houses near the plant were evacuated, and schoolchildren were kept inside their classrooms.
In the afternoon, a local community center offered free radiation checks for those who live in the Tokaimura area. Nine hours after the accident, radiation levels in the area 1.5 miles around the plant were 3,600 times acceptable levels, local media reported.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society