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Japan Suffers Nuclear Accident

By: Julio Barthson

Date Posted: 1999-10-01

The Government of Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission on Friday announced the end of a nuclear fission chain reaction from the Asian economic giant's worst nuclear accident ever. The Commission made the announcement after inspections determined that coolant water had been completely drained from pipes at a uranium-processing facility in the Ibaraki Prefecture's Tokaimura City.

On Thursday, an apparent mistake by workers had set off a nuclear chain reaction at the plant that lasted for almost a day, contaminating dozens of workers and spewing radiation into the atmosphere. High levels of radiation leaked from the facility run by JCO Co. - a nuclear fuel processing company based in Tokyo. The "critical mass" leaked from about 10:35 a.m. on Thursday till 6 a.m. on Friday.

"The worst is over in the sense that the levels of radiation in the area surrounding the facility have come back to the normal level," said Sadaaki Numata, a spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

On Friday, local officials were offering free radiation checks in the town center to the approximately 310,000 residents who live within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the plant in Tokaimura, about 120 kilometers (70 miles) northwest of Tokyo. They had been told for almost a day to stay inside with their doors and windows shut.

Some 59 JCO workers, 7 local residents and 3 firefighters were were exposed to high levels of radiation. Three persons were still reported in critical condition on Saturday morning.

JCO officials and the GOJ, while still investigating the real cause and probable long term impact of the accident, have admitted that human error was at the origin of the mishap. Officials said 2.4 kilograms (5 pounds) of uranium were supposed to have been placed in a tank with nitric acid and water. Instead, 16 kilograms (35 pounds) went in. There was a flash of blue light and radiation then began pouring from the plant. Three of the workers who were closest to the tank were injured, two of them critically. Several others were exposed to radiation afterwards.

Japanese government and company officails have admitted that there was a slow reaction to the incident, mostly due to lack of appropriate communication among them. The magnintude of the accident, unprecendented in Japan's nuclear history, left them in apparent comfusion about what best to do.

The Science and Technology Agency gave the Tokaimura accident a preliminary rating of 4 on a scale of 0 to 7. It was not as serious as the infamous Tchernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, but assessments on future health fallouts still have to be made.

Japan gets about one third of its power from 51 nuclear reactors. Government spokesman Numata said Japan's nuclear power program must continue because Japan does not have sufficient natural resources to do without it.

The island of Okinawa is not expected to suffer any after-sffects of the accident. No winds are presently blowing in the direction of the island from the mainland, and rainwater from Tokaimura would hardly ever get close to the shores of the Ryukus.

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