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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 15, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 41

'We're Scared for Our Baby'
Japan suffers its worst-ever nuclear accident

Expressways were blocked, and trains stopped. Schools and stores emptied. The townspeople and those in surrounding villages were told to stay indoors with their windows tightly shut. For most of the weekend, Tokaimura, 140 km north of Tokyo, looked like a scene from On the Beach, the movie about a world depopulated by radiation from an atomic war. The residents shut inside their homes knew that something had gone dreadfully wrong at the nearby nuclear fuel processing plant, but for a long time they could only guess what it was and how dangerous it might be.

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The nation's leaders were almost as much in the dark. Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo, concentrating on forming his new cabinet, was only informed a few hours after the accident began. He delayed the appointments and convened an emergency task force. But at 10 p.m. on Sept. 30, twelve hours into the accident, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nonaka Hiromu, could only say: "We believe that it is a severe situation, and there are concerns about high radiation levels."

Probably the last thing plant operator Ouchi Hisashi saw before he passed out was a blue flash in the concentration of uranium he was mixing in a steel vat. In an instant he and two co-workers were hit by a wave of intense radiation. Ouchi is believed to have absorbed about twice the amount of radiation that is usually considered fatal, though he may survive. His colleagues suffered lesser though substantial doses. Put another way, they took in as much as somebody standing within a kilometer of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Ouchi and his colleagues had just set off the one thing that nuclear workers fear most - a spontaneous, uncontained nuclear chain reaction. That happens when fissionable nuclear materials, such as uranium or plutonium, are brought together in sufficient quantities and under the right conditions so that a chain reaction begins. Such accidents do not usually spew out large amount of contaminated particles, as happened at Chernobyl, but they do give off intensive radiation. Levels around the plant were at times 20,000 times higher than normal. The accident measured 4 on an international scale of 7, making it Japan's worst nuclear disaster.

The uncontrolled chain reaction ran on for nearly 20 hours before it was finally stopped. Relays of power plant workers finally brought it under control by draining the mixing vat basin of water (which helps keep the chain reaction going) and by dumping the chemical boron into the tank (which absorbs neutrons and thus dampens the chain reaction). Each worker could spend only a couple of minutes inside the plant before absorbing the maximum radiation and still remain healthy.

Some of the people evacuated from the immediate vicinity of the plant returned home two days later, considerably more skeptical of Tokaimura's main industry. "We never knew that we were living next to such a dangerous facility," said one farmer among those evacuated. "We were scared for our baby," said a young mother. "As I understand it, babies are the most vulnerable to radiation." For the next few days, hundreds of people lined up for free radiation checks, some of them bringing their drying laundry to be scanned too.

Sloppy plant operation and lax safety precautions were clearly to blame for an accident unprecedented in Japan. Ouchi and the two other plant operators were dumping the uranium into the vat from a steel bucket by hand. In other countries such operations are automated and calibrated. They seemed unaware that they were mixing highly enriched uranium, more susceptible to spontaneous fission than normal power plant fuel, and they put in 16 kg instead of 2. Plant officials admitted that they may have used an unauthorized manual detailing ways to cut corners.

Tokaimura, of course, raises more questions concerning Japan's extensive nuclear power program. It is the latest in a long line of embarrassing mishaps and cover-ups which have called into question the industry's effectiveness and concern for public safety. After each one, though, the government has strongly stressed the country's continuing need for nuclear power because it has relatively few energy options. Japan has 51 nuclear reactors producing about a third of its electrical energy.

Ironically, the accident happened only one day before a ship carrying nuclear fuel made up of mixed uranium and plutonium docked in Japan, surrounded by coast guard vessels and greeted by demonstrators. It is part of a program to use mixed-oxide fuels in Japan's nuclear power plants. Because of their controversial nature, the Kyushu Electric Power Co. said that it would shelve plans to use the mixed-oxide fuels in its plants. No doubt, many people will be wondering whether Japan should shelve its entire nuclear power program.

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