Looking pale and worn and sitting with his head bowed, the president of JCO Co. on Tuesday appeared before Diet members and repeatedly apologized for the nuclear accident 19 days earlier that was Japan’s worst.

“I am terribly sorry for causing such a serious accident. It should never have happened,” Hiroharu Kitani said before the Lower House’s Standing Committee on Science and Technology.

His apologies for the accident in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, were followed by explanations from Kenzo Koshijima, director of the plant, on how workers triggered a self-sustaining nuclear fission chain reaction by pouring an excessive amount of uranium from a bucket into a processing tank.

“The processing facility was designed for uranium powder production,” he said. “It was difficult to produce liquid uranium using existing facilities.

“(The accident) may have been the result of workers trying to be creative (to expedite production),” Koshijima said.

He conceded that management was at fault for allowing such unauthorized procedures to take place.

On charges that the accident never should have happened, Kitani only repeated, “I am deeply sorry for causing so much distress.”

Kitani looked up only once during the questioning — when a committee member called him “the person responsible for causing the accident.”

Government-level responsibility for the accident was also discussed at the meeting.

“There was a lack of awareness that criticality was being sustained, and (the government) response was delayed,” said Hirofumi Nakasone, Science and Technology Agency chief. “I can’t say we had an adequate system in place for crisis management.”

The state failed to launch neutron-level analysis, and waited for the results of a village study before realizing criticality was being sustained at around 5:30 p.m., almost seven hours after the accident occurred.

The committee further criticized the agency’s slowness and use of taxis, instead of helicopters, to send specialists to the site.

“Gamma ray levels had been falling slightly, and it looked to us like (the criticality) might stop,” said an agency official, who was duly taunted by committee members. “It was not like we were not doing anything, but the truth was we didn’t know what the actual situation was.”

LDP committee member Kazunori Tanaka demanded to know how the agency will take responsibility for failing to detect the existence of JCO’s in-house manual on unauthorized procedures.

The agency recently reported that JCO workers had been bypassing authorized procedure since 1993.

Said Nakasone: “We are taking this issue extremely seriously. We are waiting for the results of the Nuclear Safety Commission’s investigation.”

The agency will set up a committee to settle disputes concerning damage claims related to nuclear power, the agency announced Tuesday.

About 400 farming families in Tokai and a local farm products company have called on JCO to pay 686 million yen in compensation, the claimants said Tuesday.

The figure is set to increase as more of the 1,000 farming families in Tokai file claims, village officials said.

Representatives from the company and those of families producing carrots, Chinese cabbage, rice and sweet potatoes presented the compensation demand Monday during a visit to the local office of JCO.

The farmers said they are especially concerned about future losses in sales of dried sweet potatoes, a Tokai specialty shipped during winter.

Many families have received cancellations of orders for their dried sweet potatoes since the accident.

Ibaraki is the third-largest sweet potato-producing prefecture. Its 1997 crop was worth 17.7 billion yen.

Tokai’s agricultural committee, which compiled the claims, is demanding steps toward payment by year’s end.

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