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With Monday’s Upper House approval, the Diet enacted two bills aimed at preventing and better dealing with accidents at nuclear power facilities. Now that the bills, which were submitted following the Sept. 30 accident at a nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, have cleared both chambers, the new antinuclear disaster laws should take effect by mid-2000. The first bill enables the central government to take the initiative in dealing with an accident by allowing the prime minister to declare a state of emergency and order dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces. It also obliges central government bodies — the Science and Technology Agency and Ministry of International Trade and Industry — to designate in advance “off-site centers” near the nation’s nuclear plants and related facilities. Those places will serve as information hubs, which can be jointly used by the central government, a prefectural government and local municipalities in case of a nuclear emergency. The Sept. 30 accident at the JCO plant in Tokai revealed the lack of communication and information-sharing among the central government, the prefecture and the municipality, with the three authorities setting up their respective headquarters to handle the accident. The other law, which amends the existing Nuclear Reactor Control Law, will expand the scope of the central government’s regular inspection to cover nuclear fuel processing plants. Currently, only nuclear power plants are targeted by such inspection. Central government authorities supervising nuclear plant operations failed to uncover JCO’s illegal handling of uranium — dissolving it in a bucket — before the practice caused a disaster in which 93 people were exposed to radiation, mainly JCO workers. Three of the workers remain hospitalized, one in critical condition. Following the accident, the mayor of Tokai used his own discretion to issue evacuation orders to residents living within a 350-meter radius of the plant, because scientific data from central government authorities regarding the accident were not immediately available. Local authorities also ordered residents living within 10 km of the plant to stay inside their homes for nearly a full day. The two bills were drawn jointly by the Science Agency and MITI.

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