• Kyodo

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While residents of the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, knew that nuclear accidents could occur, they never expected one in their own backyard.

Tokai, which is home to more than a dozen atomic power facilities within its 37-sq.-km boundaries, has been considered the heart of Japan’s nuclear power industry since the 1950s.

“We heard about the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but I had always thought a similar thing wouldn’t happen in Japan,” said Toshiyuki Osonoe, 36, proprietor of a sake and rice shop in the village 125 km northeast of Tokyo.

Therefore, when the seemingly impossible did happen a year ago, shock ran through the 34,000 residents of the village and nearby municipalities, as well as people in the rest of the country and perhaps even abroad.

Nobody imagined that the world’s third-worst nuclear accident — following the reactor meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 and on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 — could happen in Japan.

On the morning of Sept. 30, 1999, two workers at a nuclear fuel processing plant run by JCO Co. in Tokai sidestepped safety procedures, and, using a bucket, produced an overconcentrated uranium solution, triggering a fission chain reaction that could not be contained for nearly a day.

In the months following Japan’s worst nuclear plant disaster, the workers — Hisashi Ouchi, 35, and Masato Shinohara, 40 — died, becoming the first fatalities resulting from an accident at a Japanese nuclear power facility.

The incident resulted in at least 439 people, including 207 residents of Tokai, being exposed to higher-than-normal levels of radiation, but not enough, authorities claim, to affect human health.

Yet, some residents still complain about feeling sick or breaking out in rashes, while a few have reportedly been unable to lead normal lives due to the lingering trauma.

What has placed the locals in an awkward situation is that a number of them depend on the nuclear power program for their livelihoods. About one-third of them work at atomic power and related facilities in the village.

That may be one reason why most residents have been unwilling to talk when asked about their feelings concerning the accident, even a year after the incident.

A female resident who refused to identify herself said almost automatically: “I have nothing to say. Everything is being taken care of. I have no complaints.” This kind of response was not uncommon among the villagers.

“I think the ordinary residents have generally lost trust in everything. That’s why there’s not many people who will talk,” explained Gan Nemoto, an antinuclear power activist in the village.

Hiromi Hada, a 52-year-old housewife working to show a film in Tokai about the children of Chernobyl, suggested the media may have played a part in causing people to clam up through what she said was inaccurate reporting and the distorting of comments.

But she admitted company pressure is also keeping many people from saying what they think.

Hada, who has tried to become more knowledgeable about nuclear energy since the accident, said she once convinced her husband, who works at a nuclear-related facility, to join her and take part in a citizens’ group to discuss atomic energy.

But he soon gave up the idea because he apparently felt such spare time activities could have an effect on the tasks he performs at work, she said.

The nuclear facilities have not just brought extensive employment opportunities to Tokai residents but also relatively low local taxes and the provision of numerous social welfare facilities.

Perhaps a reflection of the wealth the nuclear facilities have brought to the village is a grand-looking village office complex standing in the middle of what otherwise appears to be countryside.

“Until now, there was a feeling that the village is profiting thanks to nuclear facility operators, and those involved with nuclear power facilities kind of looked down on normal residents,” Osonoe said.

“The accident has placed both sides on an equal footing,” he added.

But that does not mean the residents can suddenly stand up and assert their opinions about nuclear issues, because many of them are close to ignorant about the matter.

Another local woman, asked how things have changed since the accident, said, “I know nothing about those things (nuclear energy), so I can’t tell you anything.”

Fumiko Kasai, a 27-year-old housewife and member of a village panel to discuss safety measures in relation to atomic energy, said residents must first learn the basic facts about nuclear power.

But she said she also realizes the difficulty of suddenly changing things.

“The villagers are very careful about what they say and do. If they speak out, people would just criticize them as opposing (nuclear energy),” said Kasai, a native of Hitachi, also in Ibaraki Prefecture, who moved to Tokai six years ago.

Without ways or places to vent their fears and concerns, the residents of Tokai are likely to continue to feel the effects of the accident for years to come — possibly the biggest concern being the long-term health effects.

JCO has concluded agreements on most damages claims with village residents and businesses, but has incorporated a clause in negotiation documents saying those who receive the compensation will have to give up their right to make claims over health problems in the future.

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