TOKAI, IBARAKI PREF. – The Fukushima nuclear disaster reflects a failure by the government to learn from Japan’s first deadly nuclear accident 15 years ago in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, according to the village’s former mayor.
Speaking to around 350 people at a public meeting there Sunday, Tatsuya Murakami said the nation glossed over the Tokai disaster and upheld a “myth” about the safety of nuclear power.
“Japan was caught up in a safety myth, that a serious nuclear accident would not happen in this country,” he said.
The accident at a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the village occurred on Sept. 30, 1999. It left two people dead.
He said the safety myth and failure to clarify exactly why the accident took place led to mistakes that resulted in the Fukushima debacle.
The accident in Tokai, about 130 km northeast of Tokyo, killed two employees of operator JCO Co. and exposed more than 600 residents to radiation. The critical state lasted around 20 hours, through the next day.
Six JCO employees and the company itself were faulted for the accident. Workers using buckets had poured too much uranium solution into a processing tank, which led to a nuclear fission chain reaction.
Focusing on the use of buckets and calling it “an unexpected problem,” the government and the nuclear industry placed the responsibility for the accident solely on JCO.
The former mayor said what officials should have done was “determine the problems of a nuclear-dependent society as a whole.”
Murakami stepped down as mayor a year ago after 16 years in office and now works as a co-representative of Mayors for a Nuclear Free Japan, a body that comprises nearly 100 former and current mayors who campaign to phase out nuclear power.
When the Tokai accident occurred, the local and central governments seemed unable to take the lead in responding. Murakami stepped in, taking a unilateral decision to evacuate residents within 350 meters of the JCO compound.
After the Fukushima disaster, the then-government of the Democratic Party of Japan declared that the nation would aim to phase out nuclear power by 2040.
But the current government, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party, decided this year to support the continued use of nuclear power and upheld commitment to the nation’s spent-fuel recycling projects.
“To some extent, the DPJ government was reflecting public opinion. But the Abe government has refused to hear what the people say,” Murakami said. “In such circumstances I fear another nuclear disaster may happen.”
Another speaker addressing the meeting was Keiko Oizumi, a former worker at a factory near the JCO plant. She and her husband filed for compensation against JCO and parent company Sumitomo Mining Co. for damage to their health, but in 2010 the Supreme Court threw the case out.
Oizumi spoke of how she sometimes gets to meet evacuees from Fukushima. She also described how she still sees mental-health specialists.
“I have suffered general malaise, depression, sleeplessness and other symptoms, and I still see psychiatrists,” Oizumi said. “I always think I could have lived a normal life if it were not for nuclear power. . . . The JCO accident completely changed my life.”
She said she feels the pain of Fukushima evacuees as her own.
“People do not bleed if they are exposed to radiation, but they bleed in their hearts,” she said.
Oizumi urged supporters to take their demands to those in power.
“We should not accept reactor restarts,” she said. “Now is our only chance to terminate nuclear power.”