Mon, Jun 09, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Nuclear reactor breeds distrust in Japanese city


The crisis of confidence in Japan's nuclear power industry is nowhere felt more keenly than in the town of Tokaimura, scene of the world's worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl reactor explosion in 1986.

No matter how much Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the world's largest private utility company, brandishes the threat of summer power cuts because of the forced shutdown of its nuclear reactors over a scandal involving the cover-up of faults, the claimed necessity seems unable to dispel that distrust.

It was in this town of 35,000 people 130km northeast of Tokyo that three workers at the town's JCO Co Ltd uranium processing plant set off a critical reaction killing two of them and exposing some 663 people to radiation in September 1999.

"Before [Tokaimura], I thought nuclear power was really very safe, that an accident would never happen. ... Now I'm scared, I want to eliminate the use of nuclear power," said Shoichi Oizumi, 75, who heads an association of Tokaimura radiation victims.

His fears are shared by most Japanese -- 87 percent fear another accident according to a poll last October by the Asahi Shimbun.

They have been exacerbated by the TEPCO scandal which broke last summer, resulting in the forced closure of all 17 of its reactors for checks, only one of which has so far restarted.

These days Oizumi, the head of an automotive parts company, rarely goes to his office in Tokaimura, opposite the JCO uranium processing plant where the accident occurred.

Both he and his wife Keiko, 64, complain of poor health -- his skin is dry and reddened by large burn marks, she is suffering from psychological problems, and they have filed suits seeking compensation.

But both JCO and the government insist the radiation they were exposed to was insufficient to cause such symptoms.

"Nobody takes responsibility for me being hurt. The government is also responsible for the accident because it had authorized JCO to process [highly] enriched uranium," Oizumi said.

He is also critical of the government's role in pushing its nuclear policy.

"If [the nuclear industry] wants a plant, they will pay for new roads, new stations, new [local] government offices."

In Tokaimura almost 40 percent of residents depend on the area's cluster of nuclear facilities for their livelihood but, shocked by the accident, Mayor Tatsuya Murakami is gradually changing this.

In November 2000 he approved the restart of reprocessing spent fuel by the state-owned Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC), which was halted after an accident in 1997, on the condition that it is converted into a research-only facility by 2005.

"At the moment, Tokaimura cannot live without nuclear activities. For the past 47 years, the village has co-habited with nuclear activity," Murakami said, pointing out the village derived half of its budget from tax revenues from the nuclear facilities.

Yet even though nuclear power provides one third of the country's electricity needs, Murakami does not see a future for it, and believes Tokaimura should instead become a science park, building on the scheduled opening of a "cyclotron" or particle accelerator.

The engineers at JNC's Joyo experimental fast-breeder reactor at nearby Oarai disagree, demonstrating that a critical reaction in Joyo can be stopped in one second.

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