Japan suffers worst nuclear plant accident

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Japan's worst nuclear accident exposed 19 people to radiation at a uranium processing plant on Thursday and may have triggered continuing "abnormal reactions", media and a government spokesman said.

Fourteen workers and five residents were injured after a possible "criticality incident" involving 16 kg (35 lb) of uranium at the plant about 140 km (90 miles) northeast of Tokyo.

"There is a strong possibility that abnormal reactions are continuing within the facility," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka told an emergency news conference.

"We believe that it is a severe situation, and there are concerns about radiation in the surrounding areas."

The village of Tokaimura, in Ibaraki Prefecture, has a population of around 34,000 people and is home to 15 nuclear-related facilities.

Those living within a 10 km (six mile) radius have been told to stay indoors.    Criticality is the point at which a nuclear chain reaction becomes self-sustaining,similar to what happens inside a nuclear reactor.


Asked about his remarks earlier in the day that the situation appeared to be under control, Nonaka said the measurements of radioactivity had been low but started to rise. France's nuclear safety institute said the reported "criticality" accident would be the 60th in the world since 1945, following 33 such accidents in the United
States and 19 in the former Soviet Union. "Generally criticality accidents have more significant consequences at the site of the installation involved than on the environment," the institute, which has close ties with nuclear agencies worldwide, said in a statement.

The government was considering seeking help from the U.S. military in the country to help cope with the situation, Kyodo news agency quoted senior government officials as saying.

But the Japan Defence Agency said the U.S. forces were unable to help because they did not have the necessary equipment for such an accident.
Kyodo quoted the government officials as saying Japan lacked experience in dealingwith this kind of accident. Japan's defence agency spokesman said a 16-strong chemical warfare unit was on standby.


Toshio Okazaki, vice minister at the Science and Technology Agency, told a news conference the accident originally caused radiation levels 4,000 times higher than normal.

Japanese media quoted an official at the plant operator JCO Co, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sumitomo Metal Mining Co , as saying that one of the workers had used about 16 kg of uranium -- nearly eight times the normal amount -- during a process just before the accident.

Workers normally use up to 2.3 kg of uranium in each procedure to prevent a criticality accident, they said.

Okazaki said that authorities in Tokaimura had extended the area in which they were advising residents to stay indoors to a 10-km (six-mile) radius from the original three km.

The injured, two critically, were taken to hospital and some later transferred by helicopter to a specialised hospital in Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo, officials said.

A doctor who treated three workers told a televised news conference: "Judging from the symptoms, they appeared to have received quite a substantial amount of radiation and we will need to keep a close eye on their conditions."

Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, said from initial reports, this did not appear to be another Chernobyl.  "Criticality is a flash event, as compared to a whole kind of reaction that
Chernobyl was."

NEI is the trade group that represents the U.S. nuclear power industry.


The accident led Japan Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to consider postponing a cabinet reshuffle planned for Friday, Nonaka said. The government would await Obuchi's final decision while monitoring developments, he said.

Obuchi had met with cabinet ministers and pledged to take all possible steps to cope with the crisis, Nonaka said.

Anti-nuclear activists said the accident, the latest in a series to plague Japan, would cast doubt on the safety of the entire nuclear programme.

Tokaimura was the scene of Japan's worst nuclear plant accident up to now in which 37 workers suffered radiation contamination in 1997.

Greenpeace said in a statement that Thursday's accident "confirms our fears. The entire safety culture within Japan is in crisis"

Quelle: http://www.reuters.com

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