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Japan Investigates Nuclear Accident

October 4, 1999

TOKAIMURA, Japan (AP) _ Secret nuclear plant operating manuals. Delays in warning residents of radiation leaks. Firefighters called in to handle a nuclear accident _ without protective gear.

The probe into Japan’s worst-ever nuclear accident deepened today, with investigators focusing on a series of irregularities and missteps that led to and exacerbated last week’s release of radiation.

The government also widened its scrutiny of the country’s nuclear facilities, issuing notice that the operating procedures of all nuclear power companies will be up for appraisal.

The accident Thursday in Tokaimura, a town 70 miles northeast of Tokyo that houses a sprawling nuclear complex, exposed at least 49 people to radiation, including three who were hospitalized.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, chairing a meeting of the government task force on the accident, ordered emergency safety checks today at all facilities in Japan handling nuclear fuel.

Obuchi also called for a study on what kind of measures the operators of nuclear fuel plants were taking to have their employees work with ``proper moral discipline,″ he was quoted as saying by Kyodo News service.

The Science and Technology Agency also announced today that it planned to search the offices of 20 nuclear facilities around the country.

In Tokaimura, meanwhile, schools filled once again with children and shops opened for business.

But signs of the accident remained: Two Greenpeace activists were testing for radiation outside the hobbled uranium reprocessing plant; the plant operator held counseling services for worried residents; farmers feared returning to their fields.

As the government investigation heated up, several questions emerged about how operator JCO Co. ran the plant and responded to the accident.

Scrutiny focused on the plant’s operating manuals. The company has acknowledged that it skirted official procedures for years to save time, and news reports said the company had secret manuals for employees instructing them to use shortcuts.

Corner-cutting led to Thursday’s accident. Workers put too much uranium into a bucketlike container, setting off an uncontrolled atomic reaction that continued for hours, spurting radioactivity into the air.

Instead of relying on high-tech equipment, the workers were using their hands to pour the potentially deadly material into the container and were not using a device that would have limited the amount of uranium, company officials said.

The Asahi newspaper, citing unidentified police sources, reported today that one of the workers had ordered two colleagues to speed the process along by skipping even more steps.

The company’s reaction to the accident also is under question.

Firefighters called in to help injured workers, for instance, say they were never warned of a potential release of radioactivity and went into a dangerous area without protective gear. Firefighters were among those exposed to radiation.

The speed of JCO’s warning to town officials was also being examined. According to timelines provided by the company and Tokaimura municipal officials, nearly two hours elapsed between the accident and any notice to residents that something was wrong. Residents in the area surrounding the plant were not ordered to evacuate until several hours later.

``It may seem that it took long for us to give the evacuation order, but we didn’t have enough information ourselves,″ said Setsuo Onodera, of the town’s Nuclear Power Division.

The accident has heightened already rising anxiety in Japan over the safety of its nuclear facilities, dealing a blow to the government’s plans of expanding the country’s reliance on atomic power.

In a poll released by the national Mainichi newspaper today, 74 percent of respondents said they were critical or concerned about nuclear energy in Japan. The poll of 1,052 people gave no margin of error.

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