Public questions nuclear safety policies

Japan pledges to make changes after its worst ever nuclear accidentlast Thursday.

A day and a half after it began, Japan's leaders declared the country's worst nuclear accident to be over. The political fallout is likely to last much longer.

Questions, anger, and embarrassment about a leak at a nuclear fuel facility - and the government fumbling that followed it - continue to grow.

Though the government is pledging to make changes, the accident is deepening suspicion about the nuclear industry and leading Japanese throughout the country to question their leaders' priorities, accountability, and ability to lead in an emergency.

"I just couldn't believe it when I heard on the news that there had been another accident," says Fumii Takahama, a homemaker who lives not far from Tokaimura, where Thursday's accident took place, exposing 49 people to high levels of radiation.

The leak at a uranium processing plant was the sixth mishap for the nuclear power industry in two years. Ms. Takahama has no doubt where blame lies. "The government deserves a lot of criticism," she says.

On talk shows, in editorials, and at neighborhood cafes, Japanese asked themselves how a country known for its antinuclear stance could be so careless about the use of nuclear power.

"Japan is the only country that experienced atomic bombs, but because of a lack of government responsibility, people here get exposed to radiation.

This must make other countries laugh," says Shizuko Abe, an antinuclear activist who lives in northern Fukui prefecture near one of Japan's 51 nuclear power plants. "It just shows the government prioritizes nuclear power over safety," she says, acknowledging that resource- poor Japan has few other energy options.

Thursday's accident began when workers at the facility 70 miles northeast of Tokyo mistakenly processed 35.2 pounds of uranium for fuel when the legal limit was 5.28 pounds, bypassing government regulations and pouring it by hand. The self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction that resulted was brought under control only Friday morning.

The government ordered the evacuation of 150 people living near the plant and asked 310,000 residents within a six-mile radius of Tokaimura to stay indoors. They were told it was all right to come out on Friday afternoon. By then, official apologies were under way and doing little to assuage public anger.

JCO, the subsidiary of Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. that ran the Tokaimura plant, admitted over the weekend that they abandoned government-sanctioned procedures for processing nuclear fuel a few years ago, using a secret procedural manual that didn't meet legal standards.

A JCO official told reporters that the company did not notify the government of these procedural changes because it knew that they "would not have been approved." And company documents released to the news media show JCO had no emergency response outlined in the event of a chain reaction because such an event "could not" happen and was "not feasible under our safety precautions." Critics say this casual disregard for the rules is typical of the industry.

"Japan's nuclear [industry] isn't open to the public at all, and there's no political pressure to check on what they're doing," says Jinzaburo Takagi, a nuclear scientist and founder of the Tokyo-based Citizen's Nuclear Information Center. "They are very self-righteous." The government has emphasized that this latest accident will not dim its enthusiasm for nuclear power, which it hopes will provide 42 percent of the country's energy by 2010, up from 35 percent today.

But those within the industry acknowledge that Tokaimura will harden public opinion against nuclear power and make those plans for expansion all the more difficult. "We face large obstacles now in building new nuclear power facilities," says Koji Ota, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies.

Perhaps in an attempt to shift anger away from the industry, government officials have emphasized that the accident was the result of individual failings. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi wondered out loud if the Tokaimura employees really knew their work manuals, neglecting to acknowledge that JCO had illegally changed them.

"I do not think the accident has brought increased concern about other nuclear facilities," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka. "I do not think it will affect Japan's nuclear development plans." But broadcasters have asked the government to withdraw ads for nuclear power that were to start running this month. And there is widespread anger that it took the government 12 hours to react to the emergency, something officials have acknowledged and apologized for.

"It was just like the Kobe earthquake," says Takahama, the homemaker, recalling the slow government response to the 1995 earthquake that killed some 5,000. "We don't have a strong leadership that knows what to do in an emergency."

Officials are trying to make up for lost time. The government announced plans to tighten security procedures at nuclear fuel facilities, making them as stringent as those at nuclear power plants.

It also said Friday that it would revise regulations on nuclear power disaster response to eliminate confusion between local, prefectural, and national governments and speed reaction time. Currently, local governments have the right to direct residents in an emergency. The changes would put the central government in charge. The move is likely a response to conflict between the various governments as they scrambled to respond to the leak.

Over the weekend, the government urged Tokaimura residents to get back to their routines, saying conditions were once again "normal." Children filed back into schools on Saturday, trains began rumbling into stations in and around Tokaimura, and stores opened for business.

But few people are content to take the government's word anymore. Schools told students not to play outside. Lines at hospitals stretched out the door as residents waited to be checked, farmers and fishermen voiced concern about whether anyone would buy their goods, and shops said they were sold out of bottled water.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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