Essays recount deadly Tokai nuke debacle

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

Seeking to hand down lessons from Japan’s first criticality accident, the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, has published an anthology of essays contributed by people involved in the Sept. 30, 1999, fatal disaster.

The accident occurred when workers at the JCO Co. nuclear fuel processing plant sidestepped, and not for the first time, safe operating procedures and mixed an excessive amount of uranium with buckets into a holding tank, triggering a nuclear chain reaction.

Around 90 contributors to “Memories to be Handed Down,” including nuclear experts, local officials as well as residents of the Tokai area, share their experiences in facing the unprecedented accident and reflect on how they could have done better.

Among them is a Tokai Fire Department unit leader who rushed to JCO Co. following a 10:43 a.m. call informing him there were casualties at the nuclear fuel processor.

After transferring the three patients, two of whom eventually died of radiation-related causes, to a hospital, the three firefighters in the unit were confirmed to have been exposed to neutron radiation, although not at a serious level.

“I was shocked that I had led my two subordinates to be exposed to radiation,” the unit leader wrote in his essay. “Radiation can’t be experienced through our five senses. I realized the unit members had experienced a huge psychological impact in the operation from invisible radiation.”

An official of the old Science and Technology Agency was dispatched to Tokai from Tokyo immediately after receiving information at 11:19 a.m. that a criticality accident may have occurred. At the accident task force office, he received a deluge of phone calls and fax messages that caused more confusion than clarity.

“Fax messages were left behind without examination of their significance amid an information overload,” he wrote.

On the fateful day, an official in Tokai’s nuclear power division was in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, for training.

Because there was no direct public transportation to Tokai, he rented a car and didn’t get to the village until around 4 a.m. the next day. The car rental firm ended up demanding that the village purchase the vehicle, arguing it had been driven into an irradiated area.

The streets of Tokai were almost empty. A resident who took a dog for a walk noted: “Only the traffic signals were functioning. There was no noise. It was like a scene of annihilation from a science fiction movie.”

Hundreds of workers at the nation’s utilities gathered in Tokai for accident response duties, including monitoring the environment. One tried to convince a resident that local cucumbers were safe by eating one himself, while another was asked to check if pet dogs, cats and horses were contaminated.

One worker encountered a family of foreigners who told him they didn’t know what was happening because they couldn’t understand the TV news, and were extremely worried until they received explanations in English.

“The anthology presents the entire picture of the disaster — what people thought and how they behaved in their respective positions,” said Tatsuya Murakami, who has served as Tokai mayor since the accident. “I myself did not fully comprehend it.”

In Murakami’s essay, he stresses the need to create a solid regulatory system for nuclear power and not let pride in Japan’s nuclear capabilities blind anyone to the dangers.

A woman meanwhile wrote that her health had deteriorated since the accident, which occurred near her workplace. She and her husband sued JCO and its parent, Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., but lost.