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Nuclear Leak Blamed on Operators

October 12, 1999

TOKYO (AP) _ Private companies running nuclear facilities bear responsibility for preventing accidents like last month’s radiation leak in northeastern Japan, a top nuclear official said Tuesday.

Kaoru Mamiya, director-general of the Science and Technology Agency’s nuclear safety bureau, said nuclear operators have a duty to follow government operating guidelines.

It’s not the government’s fault when companies fail to meet those guidelines, Mamiya said.

``It is impossible for the government to look into every detail,″ he said. ``So long as humans are involved, mistakes are inevitable. So companies must have plans to rectify the situation when a mistake does occur.″

The Sept. 30 accident at a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Tokaimura, 70 miles northeast of Tokyo, exposed at least 49 people to radiation and forced the evacuation of surrounding homes.

The investigation has focused on safety practices at the plant, which was run by JCO Co. The accident happened when workers skipped key security steps when mixing nuclear fuel. The company had reportedly ordered workers to take shortcuts to save time.

The government has also come under fire.

Critics say nuclear authorities should have kept closer tabs on JCO, which apparently had been flouting operating guidelines for years.

Mamiya acknowledged that government regulators never inspected the plant while it was running.

The government has expressed contrition for the accident several times. On a visit to the plant last week, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi acknowledged that the government’s response was lacking.

But Mamiya said that the root cause of the accident was JCO’s failure to follow the rules.

``We couldn’t imagine how a mistake could have occurred,″ he said. ``So initially, we couldn’t understand why there was an accident.″

Mamiya said that some government rules may have to be changed.

``Existing nuclear safety regulations have been inadequate. The reasons for this should be revealed with investigation. It may be that we will have to review the legal framework of nuclear regulation,″ he said.

A full report analyzing the causes of the Tokaimura accident will be prepared by the commission for nuclear safety set up after the accident. It is expected by the end of the year.