On Thursday three workers were exposed to high levels of radiation inside Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The next day, the three were sent to the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba to undergo advanced emergency treatment. The accident raises concern that Tepco’s attitude toward ensuring worker safety is not adequate for the tasks of dealing with a highly dangerous situation. The exposure also hints of a leak from molten nuclear fuel.

The three — two from Kandenko Co., a Tepco subcontractor, and a third from a subcontractor of Kendenko — were laying an electric cable in a turbine building next to the No. 3 reactor, standing in about 15 centimeters of water. The concentration of radioactive substances in the water turned out to be about 10,000 times normal. The three suffered accumulated radiation of 173 to 180 millisieverts — above the conventional limit of 100 millisieverts for an emergency but below the 250-millisievert limit set by the health ministry to cope with the Fukushima No. 1 crisis.

Although the Kandenko subcontractor worker was wearing long boots, the boots of the Kandenko workers were only ankle high. Water entered the boots and soaked their feet, apparently causing burns from beta rays.

Tepco explained that when it checked the area Wednesday, the radiation level was 0.5 millisievert per hour and that there was almost no standing water. A simple question is: Why did Tepco not check the area just before the work started? Information given by Tepco apparently misled the three, since they continued to work even after their dosimeters’ alarm went off. Tepco also failed to assign somebody to check radiation levels in the area during the work. Kandenko said its safety manual does not require the wearing of long boots, as a situation in which water would soak workers’ feet at a nuclear plant was not anticipated.

This accident serves as an important warning to be on guard for the unexpected, anytime, in a stricken nuclear power plant. Under such circumstances, neither companies nor individuals can be too careful about ensuring safety.

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