Tokai residents angry over delay in warning

TOKAI, Ibaraki Pref. — The explosion Mar. 11 at a nuclear reprocessing plant here came as a chilling reminder to local residents of what it means to live next door to such a hazard.

“What if I was exposed to radioactivity after the incident?” asked a 73-year-old woman who gardens at a kindergarten close to the site of the incident. “Just the thought of it sent a chill through me.” Although many residents here seem resigned to the plant’s presence as a price they have to pay — their livelihoods depend largely on the nuclear power industry — what really infuriated them was that they were virtually the last ones to receive an account of the accident.

The 73-year-old woman, for example, first heard of the radioactivity leak when her son in Chiba Prefecture phoned her early Mar. 12. Later, 44 emergency sirens placed around the village blared out a warning of the leak shortly after 6:30 a.m. — some 10 hours after the blast, which is believed to have released radioactivity outside the complex. “I used to take pride in this beautiful village,” said the woman, who has lived here for decades and never before experienced this kind of peril. “But this incident made me wonder what the hell is going on in the village office.” A Tokai official said village authorities learned of the radiation leak only at 2 a.m. Mar. 12.

Because the state-run Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. said there would be no environmental damage to areas outside the plant, village officials decided to wait until the next morning because making an emergency announcement so late at night would create chaos, the official said. He said it was regrettable the delay instead increased the villagers’ concern, suggesting the village would review its rules in the event of future emergencies.

The official also said the village would talk to PNC officials to make sure that information about accidents reaches village offices much more quickly. However, local officials and residents have reservations about being too critical of PNC because of the local community’s financial dependence on the nuclear industry and on governmental subsidies that came in exchange for accepting the facilities.

Currently, one-third of the village’s 33,000 residents are engaged in PNC-related jobs.