MITO, Ibaraki Pref. – Former nuclear fuel processor JCO Co. opened its plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, to the media Tuesday for the first time since the worst nuclear accident in Japan’s history took place there in 1999.
Operations at the plant, located some 120 km northeast of Tokyo, have been suspended since the accident on Sept. 30, 1999.
Workers at the uranium processing plant triggered a nuclear fission chain reaction when they poured too much uranium solution into a processing tank after mixing it in metal buckets.
Two of the workers later died from radiation sickness and 663 people were exposed to radiation as a result of the accident.
JCO is poised to submit plans to the government to tear down the facility; it will carry out the demolition work once it wins approval to do so.
The stainless steel tank is located in a room near the entrance of the plant and has no visible outer damage. The uranium solution had been drained, though ropes sealing off the area remained as they were following the accident.
JCO employees restaged the accident for reporters, explaining how the uranium was poured into the tank with the use of buckets. They showed them where the two employees who died were standing at that time.
After the accident, the plant continued to emit radiation for about 20 hours. An evacuation warning was issued for those within a 350-meter radius of the center of the tank, while 310,000 residents within a radius of 10 km were asked to stay indoors.
Radiation levels inside the plant have now fallen to an extent that allows human access for an extended period of time. Police and court officials have conducted on-site inspections.
A March ruling by the Mito District Court found JCO and six employees guilty of neglect resulting in the deaths of the two workers. Neither side appealed the ruling, meaning that the site no longer needs to be preserved.
JCO said in April it had abandoned any plans to resume uranium processing operations after the ruling. It will continue with its other operations, such as storing low-radiation nuclear waste and dealing with demands for financial compensation to people affected by the incident.
Residents in the neighborhood of the plant expressed mixed feelings about JCO’s plan to dismantle the facility.
“For a number of local residents, the mere sight of the facility is painful. I wish the facility and the company itself would disappear as quickly as possible,” said Shoichi Oizumi, who has filed a civil suit against JCO seeking compensation for health damage.
He said the nuclear incident will continue to linger in his memory long after the building is demolished.
Oizumi said he had hoped the criminal trial involving JCO and its employees would also shed light on the problems in the national government’s administration on nuclear energy. However, the March ruling failed to touch on that matter.
Gan Nemoto, a plaintiff in a separate lawsuit concerning a nuclear facility in Tokai, said: “The fundamental problem that triggered the incident has not been exposed. To keep the memory of the tragedy alive, the national government should take responsibility for preserving the facility.”