Safety and cost competitiveness: These two factors are clearly incompatible when it comes to nuclear energy. Yet these were some of the key words used by the government and the nuclear industry to promote nuclear energy.

That, of course, was until the criticality accident at the JCO uranium-processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Sept. 30, 1999. The mere 1 mg of uranium involved in that accident caused a nation-wide panic. At least 439 people were exposed to radiation, and two plant employees died. Some 180 people were forced to evacuate, and 300,000 were advised to stay indoors. The prefectural government announced that just within the month after the accident, the direct cost of damage done amounted to about 15.3 billion yen. This figure does not include perceived damage to tourism, agricultural products, fisheries and real-estate values, which have not recovered since the accident. The investigation by the government simply concluded that the direct responsibility for causing the accident fell on the workers. However, it was the pressure for competitiveness and lax governmental safety control that led to this accident.

Sales had been dropping at JCO, due to intense price competition caused by pressure to reduce electricity costs after the liberalization of the electric industry. The company therefore cut the number of its staff and the time allowed for training and education. Employees were not properly educated on criticality, and did not have enough training to carry out the task of preparing uranium solution. Under such conditions, the chances were slim that precautions for criticality would be taken.

In fact, JCO was designed on the premise that it would provide and ship uranium powder. The uranium solution entailed in the accident was being prepared for the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC). When JCO was requested to prepare uranium solution, it should have built a separate line for this task. Instead, the company relied solely on mass control, which was specified in a manual. Deviations from manual procedures caused the accident. As a contractor, JNC had control over the process, and should not have let the company prepare solution for them under such conditions.

The government’s advisory committee also overlooked this fact when the supplementary application was submitted by JCO specifying that the company would prepare uranium solution as well as powder. Two safety reviews conducted by the Science and Technology Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission also failed to predict or prevent the accident. In fact, during a safety inspection conducted by the STA, the authority stated: “We believe it is unrealistic (to think) that an accident that would inflict an overwhelming amount of radiation on the general public will actually happen.” (January 1984 report)

Clearly the government’s safety-control system failed to prevent the accident. Although the government investigation admitted that there are problems with safety regulations, safety check systems and the nuclear industry’s attitude toward safety, the band-aid measures taken in the aftermath of the accident are far from sufficient. For example, the newly created Law on Special Nuclear Disaster Countermeasures obliges nuclear-business operators to equip their facilities with radiation monitors and has made nuclear-disaster drills mandatory. However, the law is based on the assumption of an accident of the Three Mile Island level, and thus does not go far enough in preparing for all possible types of accidents. Nor do amendments made to laws concerning nuclear-safety control go far enough to prevent another serious accident from occurring. The next accident might even occur at a power station where 300 kg of uranium burns daily.

The government has always had to advertise the safety of nuclear energy and make creative calculations that resulted in apparently cheap nuclear-generated electricity. But rigorous cost calculations from early on in Europe showed that nuclear energy was more expensive than coal or natural gas. It is now clear that nuclear energy is both expensive and risky. And the cost of nuclear energy will only rise further as the disposal of radioactive waste and decommissioning of plants continue. Instead of rigidly sticking to a policy that was formed nearly half a century ago, the government should thoroughly review its nuclear policy based on an independently conducted evaluation of the economic viability and safety of nuclear energy.

In addition, now that over 90 percent of the public is wary of nuclear energy, according to a poll conducted in October 1999 by the Japan Public Opinion Poll Research Association, the government must respond to such concerns. The decision to develop nuclear energy did not involve public consent. Nor was nuclear energy developed because of a genuine need or because it was a preferable form of energy. Rather, it was developed because of the naive expectations for a new technology by politicians and financial interests. It is appropriate, after the experience of the JCO accident, to include the public in the decision on whether or not to continue using nuclear energy.

In the meantime, the government should resume its investigation into what happened at Tokai in order to prevent any more criticality accidents. It should also improve nuclear-safety administration and beef up disaster precautions for the entire nuclear program. In addition, the government should set up a long-term health-care system for the victims of the JCO accident and try to do its best to compensate for the financial damage still affecting local residents.

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