Six JCO employees sentenced over fatal ’99 nuclear accident

All get suspended terms for negligence that left two dead

Kyodo

Six JCO Co. employees received suspended sentences Monday for professional negligence resulting in the deaths of two coworkers in a 1999 nuclear accident.

The Mito District Court gave Kenzo Koshijima, 56, who was head of JCO’s Tokai plant at the time of the accident, a three-year sentence, suspended for five years, and a fine of 500,000 yen.

The other five employees were handed suspended prison terms ranging between two and three years, for the sloppy operating procedures that resulted in the fatal accident in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture.

JCO, a nuclear fuel processing subsidiary of Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., was fined 1 million yen for violating the Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law.

The court brushed aside arguments by the defense that safety inspections by the Science and Technology Agency were flawed, thereby making the government partly responsible.

“Allegations that the administrative authorities’ supervision was insufficient are just a shift of blame,” presiding Judge Hideyuki Suzuki said.

The company and the defendants indicated they would not appeal the ruling.

“The accident had a serious social impact and severely damaged the people’s trust in the safety of nuclear energy,” Suzuki said.

The panel of three judges ruled that the defendants acted illegally by not ensuring that the plant workers had received proper safety training.

On Set. 30, 1999, a nuclear fission chain reaction occurred at the plant after Hisashi Ouchi and Masato Shinohara, using buckets, poured too much uranium solution into a processing tank, bypassing several safety steps. The plant is some 120 km northeast of Tokyo.

Both men were exposed to massive radiation. Ouchi, 35, died in December 1999, and Shinohara, 40, died the following April, both from multiple organ failure caused by radiation exposure.

It was the worst accident ever involving Japan’s nuclear power industry. The chain reaction continued for about 20 hours, irradiating 663 local residents. More than 300,000 people living within 10 km of the plant were forced to evacuate.

The case marks the first time in Japan that a court has dealt with criminal charges resulting from a nuclear accident.

In their closing argument on Sept. 2, prosecutors demanded a four-year prison term and a fine of 500,000 yen for Koshijima, and prison sentences ranging between 2 1/2 years and 3 1/2 years for the other five.

The accused placed priority on work efficiency and failed to prevent accidents, the prosecutors said.

The defense lawyers meanwhile called for leniency, claiming the government and past JCO management were also to blame.

The defense also argued that the government’s Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp., now the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute, made unreasonable demands that put undue pressure on JCO.

But in Monday’s ruling, Suzuki brushed aside such arguments, saying the defense was “merely laying the blame” on government authorities. JCO deviated from the government-authorized work procedures, he said.

It wouldn’t make sense to impose heavy penalties on them, according to the judge, because JCO’s former and current executives were equally responsible for the inadequate safety procedures.

Following the ruling, JCO President Tomoyuki Inami released a statement saying the company is acutely aware of the gravity of the accident and its responsibility. He expressed relief at the leniency shown toward the six employees.

Mamoru Wada, a lawyer for JCO, expressed dissatisfaction that the government was not held responsible for the accident.

“It is not that we were trying to transfer responsibility,” he said. “We just wanted to get acknowledgment of the multiple factors behind the accident.”

Inami, referring to the two-year operational ban on the plant, said JCO may resume operations in the future.

He said JCO may also pay damages to residents living near the Tokai plant at the time of the accident.

“We of course have a responsibility,” he said. “We would like to resolve the matter by holding discussions.”

The six JCO employees pleaded guilty in the trial. Inami also entered a guilty plea on behalf of JCO.

The employees were arrested in October 2000, and the trial began in April 2001.

Koshijima and two other officials were dismissed after the accident. JCO also began scaling back its operations, focusing on the safekeeping of radioactive waste and discussing compensation to local farmers and firms affected by the accident.

JCO was spun off in 1979 by Sumitomo Metal Mining, although it remained a subsidiary, and became engaged in manufacturing raw material for nuclear fuels. It scrapped its manufacturing division in 2000 after the government repealed its business license in the wake of the accident.

In response to Monday’s ruling, the government reiterated its pledge to maintain the safety of nuclear projects.

The ruling is a reminder that the government “must take all measures to prevent similar things from reoccurring,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said, adding that “the government was not a defendant.”