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Japan’s Nuclear Industry Under Fire

February 14, 2000

TOKAIMURA, Japan (AP) _ Its white buildings bordered by neatly pruned pines on one side and the deep blue Pacific Ocean on the other, the Tokai nuclear power station is the picture of serenity.

Inside, officials boast the plant is also the epitome of safety. They point to clear plastic shields that cover levers and dials in the control room to force operators to think twice before they touch.

But Japan’s nuclear power industry, for decades respected for supplying affordable, inexhaustible energy to a power-guzzling country with precious little coal and virtually no oil, is under fire.

Five months ago, three workers at a nearby fuel processing plant set off an uncontrolled nuclear reaction that exposed 439 townspeople and workers to radiation. One worker died from radiation sickness in December.

It was Japan’s worst nuclear accident. Today, the industry is struggling to redeem itself with an outraged public and a deeply embarrassed government.

Policymakers stand by their unofficial goal of building 20 new reactors by 2010, but they’ve been forced to admit the overall nuclear program has serious shortcomings.

``The accident uncovered problems,″ said Toshiyuki Anegawa of the government’s Nuclear Safety Division. ``We’ve got a lot of hurdles standing in the way of development.″

The biggest one may be public distrust.

Japan received a harsh introduction to nuclear power with the bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and killed 210,000 people. Over the years, however, most Japanese embraced its obvious benefits _ today it accounts for 30 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Now the industry itself is to blame for its predicament. Despite insistence that plants are safe, Japan’s nuclear reactors have been plagued by accidents and cover-ups. In 1997, officials hid the extent of damage to a state-run nuclear reprocessing plant in Tokaimura after a fire, which exposed 37 workers to radiation.

Some nuclear power opponents see the 1997 fire and the Sept. 30 accident as glaring evidence the industry cannot be trusted to supervise itself. Industry officials acknowledge that cavalier safety practices contributed to September’s ``criticality event″ at the JCO Co.’s nuclear fuel processing plant.

Three JCO workers mixing fuel ignored regulations and combined nitric acid with 35.5 pounds of highly enriched uranium _ seven times the approved amount. To speed the task, they mixed the ingredients by hand in buckets and beakers instead of using the plant’s mechanized tanks.

Officials later admitted that plant workers often ignored safety regulations.

``It’s shameful,″ said Tastuya Murakami, the mayor of Tokaimura. ``Japan thought its nuclear technology was superior and assumed something like this wouldn’t happen.″

He says the accident left his town, whose population of 34,000 relies on the industry as its main employer, economically and psychologically scarred. Consumers still shy away from local produce, and villagers complain the value of their land has fallen.

``It would be difficult to separate Tokaimura from the nuclear program,″ Murakami acknowledged. ``But we have to overcome the attitude that energy equals nuclear power.″

Such sentiment is increasing nationwide. Last month, a small-town mayor in northwestern Japan was re-elected on promises to block construction of a nuclear plant.

New laws require periodic inspections of nuclear processing plants and government inspectors at all nuclear facilities. A consortium of 35 nuclear power companies and related firms called the Nuclear Safety Network, meanwhile, is emphasizing ``self-responsibility,″ saying workers and managers should work harder on safety as well.

Nonetheless, the industry’s future remains in question.

A centerpiece of Japan’s nuclear ambitions is an experimental fast-breeder reactor that would produce more plutonium than it would consume as fuel. But the reactor was shut down indefinitely in 1995 after a volatile liquid sodium leak and a subsequent cover-up by officials.

The industry suffered another setback last month, when plans to power nuclear reactors with an imported mix of plutonium and uranium were postponed after the British supplier was discovered to have falsified data about quality.

Here in Tokaimura, meanwhile, the JCO facility remains closed, and a 10-foot-tall wall has gone up around the building where the reaction occurred.

``For nuclear industry insiders, the future looks grim,″ said Yuko Fujita, a Keio University physics professor and anti-nuclear activist. ``The accident is a psychological defeat.″

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