"Nuclear fuel is dangerous and the price of using it is that there will be accidents every now and again," says TIME science editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt. "In order for a democratic society to use atomic energy, the public needs to be reassured of its safety — it was the absence of that public confidence that led to the demise of the U.S. nuclear industry." The fact that country's previous worst accident happened at the same plant only two years ago — and was preceded two years before that by a dangerous leak at a fast-breeder reactor — gives the Japanese public little cause for comfort with the industry's safety standards. The latest accident will likely prompt a safety review at nuclear facilities in the U.S. and other countries where similar procedures are used for creating nuclear fuel. But Japan may be more dependent than most, with nuclear power being expanded to provide 42 percent of its energy requirements by 2010. The Tokaimura incident is likely to chip away at public confidence in those at the controls of the nuclear industry, particularly when you have the Japanese Science and Technology Agency telling the nation that suffered Hiroshima that the two men critically injured at the plant showed radiation levels "equivalent to exposure to an atomic bomb." Besides safety, it seems like they could learn a thing or two about P.R., too.
Nuclear power doesn't kill people; people kill people. Japan's government on Sunday promised a full investigation into the country's worst-ever nuclear energy emergency. They may not like what they find; already media accounts paint a distressing picture of dangerously lax procedures at a the Tokaimura fuel processing plant 75 miles from Tokyo, A "criticality incident" — a nuclear reaction that becomes self-sustaining — began there Thursday when a worker poured eight times the usual amount of uranium into a tank of nitric acid. At least 39 people were directly exposed to radiation, and 300,000 people in the vicinity were advised to carefully wash clothes soaked by Thursday's rain and to avoid eating locally grown produce.