Está en la página 1de 4

The Criticality Accident On Thursday, September 30, the worst nuclear accident Japan has faced in its history

of utilizing nuclear power happened in Tokaimura, approximately 87 miles northwest of Tokyo. The accident occurred around 1030 hours (local time) when employees of JCO Co., the company which operates the plant, poured 35 pounds of uranium into a purification tank containing nitric acid, instead of the 5.2 pounds normally used (French, New York Times). What followed was a flash of blue light inside the plant as the result of what has been called a nuclear fission chain reaction. The Tokyo Electric Power Company rushed 880 pounds of sodium borate to the plant to absorb the radiation emitted, but the workers had difficulty getting close to the processing tank (French). The workers then reentered the facility and crushed the water pipes leading to the tank where the criticality accident was occurring, thus allowing the water to drain. This eventually allowed the nuclear reaction to subside. The Response of JCO Co. and Governmental Agencies During the accident, JCO and the nuclear monitoring agencies of the government exhibited a lack of decisiveness. JCO took 61 minutes to notify the Japanese prefecture authorities about the accident. The company faxed the notification instead of calling the authorities directly (Efron, Rietman, Los Angeles Times). In addition, it took the company two hours after the incident occurred to ask the village authorities to issue an order for evacuation. Furthermore, the village authorities took another hour to actually issue the order (BBC). A possible explanation is the failure of the prefecture government to immediately read the report sent by a prefecture monitoring station stating the unusually high levels of radiation detected three minutes after the accident, because because no one [in the prefecture government] bothered to look at the computer screen (Efron, October 8, 1999). Moreover, when the Atomic Energy Research Institute monitoring station, located about 3/4 of a mile from the plant, recorded neutron radiation levels at 0.26 microsieverts, around 20 times the normal level, the employees at the station did nothing and simply regarded the reading as "background noise" (Efron, October 8, 1999). Twelve hours after the incident, the prefecture finally declared a major emergency in the area (Efron, October 2, 1999). Around 630 hours (local time) the next day, the reaction finally ended. The reaction generated an estimated 22.5 kilowatt-hours, enough to power a onekilowatt electrical appliance for more than 22 hours (The Daily Yomiuri, November 5, 1999). The Lax Safety Standards and Illegal Procedures of the Tokaimura Plant According to a Los Angeles Times article, [t]he Kyodo News Service said it had obtained documents showing that, when JCO applied to the government for permission to build the Tokaimura plant in 1993, it said that there was no need to prepare for a possible criticality accident because the company would take the appropriate preventive measures. According to the news service, JCO assured the government that a criticality accident wouldn't occur because the amount of nuclear substance would be limited according to its density, then weighed to confirm that its mass was within safety guidelines (Efron, Rietman). This fact is further compounded by the admission of company officials to the allegations of its usage of an illegal manual, which advocated the use of the illegal shortcut, that has caused the recent strings of accidents in the plant for the past seven or eight years (Tolbert, Washington Post). The shortcuts

recommended the use of stainless steel buckets to move and mix the uranium manually instead of utilizing complex machines that were specifically designed for such tasks. According to Valerie L. Putman, Before the accident, supervisor(s) and, possibly, manager(s) directed personnel to accelerate [the nuclear fuel] processing further. Apparently, workers were directed to use the buckets, overbatch [processing two orders for nuclear fuel into one process in order to save time and increase profits], and possibly, skip other steps. Workers might also have decided to skip more steps than their oral directions specified (Putman). In addition, the company also under-trained their employees working at the Tokaimura plant. According to Kenzo Koshijima, the head of the nuclear fuel processing plant, The company trains new employees on safety for one week but teaches nothing about the dangers of a self-sustaining nuclear reaction (Kyodo News Service, October 15, 1999). The company also failed to install basic defensive measures, such as alarms or high walls, to alert and protect the neighboring residential area. This omission can be blamed for the failure of the company to detect a ventilator which was spewing radioactive iodine, which can cause thyroid disease, at double the legal limit a week later after the accident (Chicago Tribune). These cost-cutting measures undertaken by the company clearly undermined the safety of its employees and the populace of Tokaimura.

The Response of Governmental Agencies in the Aftermath of the Accident How was JCO allowed to run a nuclear facility with such blatant disregard for safety? The Government and independent agencies must assume some responsibility for the accident at the Tokaimura plant because they allowed JCO to slip through the cracks. In fact, the Nuclear Safety Commissions investigative committee placed the blame for the accident on the Science and Technology Agency for failing to uncover illegal procedures (Kyodo News Service, November 5, 1999). As a result of this condemnation, "the top bureaucrat at the Science and Technology Agency, Toshios Okazaki, recently submitted his resignation. He offered no explanation" (Reitman). Furthermore, the JCO plant is not the only nuclear facility with lax nuclear safety standards. According to a report released by the Japanese Labour Ministry completed after the Tokaimura accident, 15 of 17 nuclear facilities, none involving power plants, failed to meet many health and safety regulations (CBNET). In fact, 9 out of the 15 violated the Industrial Safety and Health Law (CBNET). In the light of the accusations of neglect on the government's part, the government has responded by conducting investigations on the operations of JCO and its nuclear facilities. In response to the accident, the Japanese government has launched a large-scale investigation with around 200 police officers involved. The investigation included multiple raids on JCO offices in Ibaraki and Tokyo. A top official of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) said the accident was serious enough to lead Japan to reconsider its nuclear power policy. The accident's repercussions are important since Japan operates 51 nuclear power plants (French) which produces a third of the nation's energy needs (Tolbert). Thus, it can be deduced that Japan is highly dependent on nuclear energy to fuel its activities.

In the wake of the accident, the Science and Technology Agency and the MITI have agreed on the main issues of legislation that would help deal with and prevent nuclear disasters (BBC). The new legislation includes calls for periodic inspections of all nuclear facilities, improved communications, and training and instruction for employees about nuclear safety. Another "bill would empower the prime minister to declare a state of emergency and set up emergency headquarters near accident sites, a role now carried out by local authorities" (Reitman). In addition, "[a]nother bill would require nuclear-related facilities to conduct the same safety checks as nuclear power plants. It also would require employees to report any illegal procedures to chiefs of related agencies or ministries" (Reitman).

The Employees and Others Exposed To Radiation Initial reports list 35 people as exposed to radiation, three of them seriously injured, and 300,000 local residents were ordered to stay indoors (French). A later report suggested that 63 people have been identified as having been exposed, including 14 workers who entered the plant briefly in an attempt to halt the nuclear reaction, and the three involved in the accident (Tolbert). Two employees remain hospitalized (Tolbert). As many as 83 people have been recorded as being exposed to radiation in other reports (Kyodo News Service, November 5, 1999). The most severely injured workers were exposed to radiation on the order of 700,000 millirems; by comparison, people in this country are exposed to about 260 millirems per year from a combination of natural and man-made sources (Lochner, Contra Costa Times). The three workers involved with mixing the uranium, which led to the nuclear accident, were exposed to the largest amounts of radiation. The three workers, Yutaka Yokokawa, Masato Shinohara, and Hisashi Ouchi were exposed to radiation amounts of 3, 8, and 17 sieverts respectively (Malaysian National News Agency, October 11, 1999). They showed serious symptoms, which included vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty in maintaining consciousness, a high white-cell count (25,000) and fever, of radiation (JAIF, 32). Shinohara has received an umbilical cord blood transplant while Ouchi has received two peripheral blood stem cell transplants (Putman). The response workers reportedly received the next highest doses of radiation, which were less than 0.1 sieverts each (Putman). The environmental group Greenpeace sent a group of investigators, and their report reveals that the number of people exposed to radiation was higher than government estimated (Tolbert). It is being reported that 100 millisieverts of radiation covered locations 100 meters from the accident site caused by neutrons being emitted from the plant (The Daily Yomiuri, November 5, 1999). The data collected on the neutron radiation leads some experts to believe that a phenomenon called prompt criticality, a rapid nuclear fission reaction often found in nuclear explosions may have occurred (BBC). Prompt criticalityis reached when nuclear fission energy is released in the one 1,000th of a second. It is believed to be impossible to control. (BBC). The Rating of the Accident Based on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) The preliminary rating of the accident on the IAEA's International Nuclear Event Scale was 4 (Coleman, Associated Press). However, as data on the accident became available, there have been serious discussions and reports on the possibility of raising the accident rating to 5 (Coleman). On October 8, 1999, it was formally announced that the rating will be upgraded.

The fact that the reaction lasted for 17 to 20 hours was enough to raise the accident rating from level 4 to 5 on the IAEA's International Nuclear Event Scale of 7 (Tolbert). Financial Repercussions The immediate financial repercussions of the nuclear accident in Tokaimura have not been apparent. Around 400 families and a local farms products company have asked for the operator of the plant to pay them an amount number over 650 million Yen, roughly 6.5 million Dollars (Kyodo News Service, October, 19, 1999). The farmers have received cancellations for their products and the farmers fear future losses. Also, the Ibaraki prefectural federation of processed marine products cooperatives has also called on JCO Co. to compensate it with nearly 600 million Yen for its losses incurred after the accident (The Daily Yomiuri, October 22, 1999). The people living in the Ibaraki Prefecture of Japan, where Tokaimura is located, need this money to survive and keep their businesses operating. However, the threat of increased future financial losses loom, since orders for products from the Tokaimura region have been canceled, even for products made before the accident. The financial costs of the Tokaimura accident will take years to surface. Moreover, the costs for future problems directly associated with the Japanese accident will expose the true damage it has inflicted on Japan. Conclusion It is undeniable that nuclear facilities should be operated under maximum security and extremist caution. Nuclear power is of such a tremendous force that shortcuts cannot be made without incurring fierce penalties. Japan relies upon the nuclear power industry to produce 37% of the nations energy (Farley, Reitman). Therefore, it is imperative that the Japanese Government improve its methods of monitoring the nations nuclear facilities and enforcing the regulations of maintaining and operating such facilities, if it hopes to have a far better chance of preventing accidents, like Tokaimura, and disasters, like Chernobyl, from occurring again.