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The Criticality Accident On Thursday, September 30, the worst nuclear accident Japan has faced in its history of utilizing

nuclear power happened in Tokaimura, approximately 87 miles northwest of Tokyo. The accident occurred around 1030 hours (local time) when employees of JCO Co., the company which operates the plant, poured 35 pounds of uranium into a purification tank containing nitric acid, instead of the 5.2 pounds normally used (French, New York Times). What followed was a flash of blue light inside the plant as the result of what has been called a nuclear fission chain reaction. The Tokyo Electric Power Company rushed 880 pounds of sodium borate to the plant to absorb the radiation emitted, but the workers had difficulty getting close to the processing tank (French). The workers then reentered the facility and crushed the water pipes leading to the tank where the criticality accident was occurring, thus allowing the water to drain. This eventually allowed the nuclear reaction to subside. The Response of JCO Co. and Governmental Agencies During the accident, JCO and the nuclear monitoring agencies of the government exhibited a lack of decisiveness. JCO took 61 minutes to notify the Japanese prefecture authorities about the accident. The company faxed the notification instead of calling the authorities directly (Efron, Rietman, Los Angeles Times). In addition, it took the company two hours after the incident occurred to ask the village authorities to issue an order for evacuation. Furthermore, the village authorities took another hour to actually issue the order (BBC). A possible explanation is the failure of the prefecture government to immediately read the report sent by a prefecture monitoring station stating the unusually high levels of radiation detected three minutes after the accident, because ³because no one [in the prefecture government] bothered to look at the computer screen´ (Efron, October 8, 1999). Moreover, when the Atomic Energy Research Institute monitoring station, located about 3/4 of a mile from the plant, recorded neutron radiation levels at 0.26 microsieverts, around 20 times the normal level, the employees at the station did nothing and simply regarded the reading as "background noise" (Efron, October 8, 1999). Twelve hours after the incident, the prefecture finally declared a major emergency in the area (Efron, October 2, 1999). Around 630 hours (local time) the next day, the reaction finally ended. The reaction generated an estimated 22.5 kilowatt-hours, ³enough to power a onekilowatt electrical appliance for more than 22 hours´ (The Daily Yomiuri, November 5, 1999). The Lax Safety Standards and Illegal Procedures of the Tokaimura Plant According to a Los Angeles Times article, ³[t]he Kyodo News Service said it had obtained documents showing that, when JCO applied to the government for permission to build the Tokaimura plant in 1993, it said that µthere was no need to prepare for a possible criticality accident¶ because the company would take the appropriate preventive measures. According to the news service, JCO assured the government that a criticality accident wouldn't occur µbecause the amount of nuclear substance would be limited according to its density, then weighed to confirm that its mass was within safety guidelines¶´ (Efron, Rietman). This fact is further compounded by the admission of company officials to the allegations of its usage of an µillegal manual,¶ which advocated the use of the illegal shortcut, that has caused the recent strings of accidents in the plant for the past seven or eight years (Tolbert, Washington Post). The shortcuts

overbatch [processing two ³orders´ for nuclear fuel into one process in order to save time and increase profits]. none involving power plants. These cost-cutting measures undertaken by the company clearly undermined the safety of its employees and the populace of Tokaimura. ³The company trains new employees on safety for one week but teaches nothing about the dangers of a self-sustaining nuclear reaction´ (Kyodo News Service. In response to the accident. the Nuclear Safety Commission¶s investigative committee placed the blame for the accident on the Science and Technology Agency for ³failing to uncover illegal procedures´ (Kyodo News Service. 1999). 9 out of the 15 violated the Industrial Safety and Health Law (CBNET). According to Valerie L. In fact. supervisor(s) and. the government has responded by conducting investigations on the operations of JCO and its nuclear facilities. to alert and protect the neighboring residential area. 15 of 17 nuclear facilities. manager(s) directed personnel to accelerate [the nuclear fuel] processing further. A top official of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) said the accident was serious enough to lead Japan to reconsider its nuclear power policy. 1999). The investigation included multiple raids on JCO offices in Ibaraki and Tokyo. In addition. recently submitted his resignation. workers were directed to use the buckets. In the light of the accusations of neglect on the government's part. As a result of this condemnation. the JCO plant is not the only nuclear facility with lax nuclear safety standards. The Response of Governmental Agencies in the Aftermath of the Accident How was JCO allowed to run a nuclear facility with such blatant disregard for safety? The Government and independent agencies must assume some responsibility for the accident at the Tokaimura plant because they allowed JCO to slip through the cracks. October 15. skip other steps. such as alarms or high walls. the Japanese government has launched a large-scale investigation with around 200 police officers involved. November 5. According to Kenzo Koshijima. ³Before the accident. . Putman. In fact. at double the legal limit a week later after the accident (Chicago Tribune). which can cause thyroid disease. Apparently. Thus. Furthermore. The company also failed to install basic defensive measures. "the top bureaucrat at the Science and Technology Agency. The accident's repercussions are important since Japan operates 51 nuclear power plants (French) which produces a third of the nation's energy needs (Tolbert). failed to meet many health and safety regulations (CBNET). possibly. He offered no explanation" (Reitman). and possibly. Workers might also have decided to skip more steps than their oral directions specified´ (Putman). the company also under-trained their employees working at the Tokaimura plant. Toshios Okazaki. it can be deduced that Japan is highly dependent on nuclear energy to fuel its activities. According to a report released by the Japanese Labour Ministry completed after the Tokaimura accident. This omission can be blamed for the failure of the company to detect a ventilator which was spewing radioactive iodine. the head of the nuclear fuel processing plant.recommended the use of stainless steel buckets to move and mix the uranium manually instead of utilizing complex machines that were specifically designed for such tasks.

including 14 workers who entered the plant briefly in an attempt to halt the nuclear reaction. Contra Costa Times). As many as 83 people have been recorded as being exposed to radiation in other reports (Kyodo News Service. The Employees and Others Exposed To Radiation Initial reports list 35 people as exposed to radiation. On October 8. ³Prompt criticality«is reached when nuclear fission energy is released in the one 1.1 sieverts each (Putman).In the wake of the accident. a rapid nuclear fission reaction often found in nuclear explosions´ may have occurred (BBC). It is believed to be impossible to control. as data on the accident became available. 1999).000 millirems. Yutaka Yokokawa. 1999). However. October 11. it was formally announced that the rating will be upgraded. It is being reported that 100 millisieverts of radiation covered locations 100 meters from the accident site caused by neutrons being emitted from the plant (The Daily Yomiuri. 32). Shinohara has received an umbilical cord blood transplant while Ouchi has received two peripheral blood stem cell transplants (Putman). November 5. diarrhea. The three workers. It also would require employees to report any illegal procedures to chiefs of related agencies or ministries" (Reitman). Another "bill would empower the prime minister to declare a state of emergency and set up emergency headquarters near accident sites. which were less than 0. The three workers involved with mixing the uranium. The ³response´ workers reportedly received the next highest doses of radiation. The Rating of the Accident Based on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) The preliminary rating of the accident on the IAEA's International Nuclear Event Scale was 4 (Coleman. "[a]nother bill would require nuclear-related facilities to conduct the same safety checks as nuclear power plants. and the three involved in the accident (Tolbert). and Hisashi Ouchi were exposed to radiation amounts of 3. which led to the nuclear accident. there have been serious discussions and reports on the possibility of raising the accident rating to 5 (Coleman). November 5. 8. and 17 sieverts respectively (Malaysian National News Agency. the Science and Technology Agency and the MITI have agreed on the main issues of legislation that would help deal with and prevent nuclear disasters (BBC). A later report suggested that 63 people have been identified as having been exposed. a role now carried out by local authorities" (Reitman). Masato Shinohara. improved communications.000 local residents were ordered to stay indoors (French). . which included ³vomiting. 1999). The data collected on the neutron radiation leads some experts to believe that ³a phenomenon called µprompt criticality¶. They showed serious symptoms. and their report reveals that the number of people exposed to radiation was higher than government estimated (Tolbert). The environmental group Greenpeace sent a group of investigators. 1999. by comparison.000) and fever. Two employees remain hospitalized (Tolbert). three of them seriously injured. and 300. were exposed to the largest amounts of radiation.´ (BBC). Associated Press). people in this country are exposed to about 260 millirems per year from a combination of natural and man-made sources (Lochner. In addition. difficulty in maintaining consciousness.´ of radiation (JAIF. and training and instruction for employees about nuclear safety. a high white-cell count (25.000th of a second. The most severely injured workers were exposed to radiation on the order of 700. The new legislation includes calls for periodic inspections of all nuclear facilities.

from occurring again. the threat of increased future financial losses loom. where Tokaimura is located. The farmers have received cancellations for their products and the farmers fear future losses.5 million Dollars (Kyodo News Service. 1999).The fact that the reaction lasted for 17 to 20 hours was enough to raise the accident rating from level 4 to 5 on the IAEA's International Nuclear Event Scale of 7 (Tolbert). Therefore. . if it hopes to have a far better chance of preventing accidents. roughly 6. Japan relies upon the nuclear power industry to produce 37% of the nation¶s energy (Farley. since orders for products from the Tokaimura region have been canceled. it is imperative that the Japanese Government improve its methods of monitoring the nation¶s nuclear facilities and enforcing the regulations of maintaining and operating such facilities. October 22. the costs for future problems directly associated with the Japanese accident will expose the true damage it has inflicted on Japan. even for products made before the accident. However. 19. like Chernobyl. Around 400 families and a local farms products company have asked for the operator of the plant to pay them an amount number over 650 million Yen. Also. and disasters. the Ibaraki prefectural federation of processed marine products cooperatives has also called on JCO Co. Conclusion It is undeniable that nuclear facilities should be operated under maximum security and extremist caution. The people living in the Ibaraki Prefecture of Japan. Financial Repercussions The immediate financial repercussions of the nuclear accident in Tokaimura have not been apparent. Reitman). to compensate it with nearly 600 million Yen for its losses incurred after the accident (The Daily Yomiuri. Nuclear power is of such a tremendous force that shortcuts cannot be made without incurring fierce penalties. October. 1999). The financial costs of the Tokaimura accident will take years to surface. Moreover. need this money to survive and keep their businesses operating. like Tokaimura.