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Nuclear Leak Blamed on Operators

October 12, 1999

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan’s worst-ever nuclear accident was caused more by the private operator’s failure to follow official regulations than lax oversight by the government, a top nuclear official said today.

Kaoru Mamiya, director-general of the Science and Technology Agency’s nuclear safety bureau, said the government relies on the companies running nuclear facilities to follow operating rules.

``It is impossible for the government to look into every detail″ of nuclear operators, Mamiya told reporters. ``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 fuel reprocessing plant in Tokaimura, 70 miles northeast of Tokyo, occurred when three workers skipped key security steps when mixing nuclear fuel.

The accident exposed at least 49 people to radiation, put three of them in the hospital, and forced an evacuation of surrounding homes. Hundreds of thousands were told to shut their windows and stay indoors.

The investigation into the accident has focused on slipshod safety practices at the plant, which was run by JCO Co. The company reportedly ordered workers to skip crucial procedures to save time.

The government has also been criticized for failing to uncover that JCO had been flouting operating guidelines for years. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has acknowledged that the government’s response to the accident was insufficient.

But Mamiya said that the root cause of the accident was JCO’s failure to follow the rules, even though government officials had never inspected JCO’s Tokaimura site when the plant was in operation.

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

Mamiya, however, acknowledged that some government rules may have to be changed in the aftermath of the accident.

``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.

Mamiya, who is also a member of this commission, said the report will outline what measures should be taken to prevent such accidents from reoccurring by the end of the year.

A group of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency was scheduled to start inspecting the uranium processing plant on Wednesday and meet with government officials, Mamiya said.

The accident has driven fears about nuclear energy in Japan to new heights. A poll published by the Asahi newspaper Monday showed that 42 percent of the people oppose further development of nuclear power.