Unclear Fallout

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Delicious, delicious, said Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi as he tucked into slices of succulent musk melon, topping off a meal of raw bonito slices, vegetables and rice balls. Television cameras rolled as he downed a glass of milk and snared pieces of sweet potato with his chopsticks. The Prime Minister's dining habits don't usually make the evening news, but on this occasion, the meal was the message: Obuchi ate last week in Tokaimura, near the site of Japan's worst-ever nuclear accident just six days earlier. The sweet potatoes were gathered 300 m from ground zero, and the other ingredients came from near the town. The not-so-subtle point: trust us, everything is back to normal. Tokyo's spin doctors have been working overtime to downplay the seriousness of the Sept. 30 accident, when employees at a uranium conversion plant accidentally triggered an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. The mishap blasted the surrounding area with radiation and spewed a cocktail of radioactive substances into the atmosphere. Government officials say 49 people, mostly plant workers, were exposed to potentially harmful levels of radiation during the 18 hours it took to put out the nuclear fire--two are still in the hospital with little hope of survival. But the officials insisted radiation testing around Tokaimura and health checks of local residents showed nobody else was affected. Local fish and vegetables weren't even taken off the market. As prosecutors marched through the nuclear facility's front gate last week to seize documents from the offices of plant owner JCO, the official storyline became clear: this drama was about a rogue company that broke the rules, just a bump on the road to the energy independence that resource-poor Japan hopes nuclear power can offer.

Japan suffers its worst-ever nuclear accident

VideoCNN's Marina Kamimura visits a farm and an elementary school near scene of Japan's nuclear accident
But as Tokyo works to keep control of the story, evidence is emerging that the accident may have been more serious and affected more people living near the plant than the government admits. More JCO workers may have been exposed than originally believed, Japanese news reports say. Independent investigators and environmental groups report finding dangerous levels of radioactive substances in soil and vegetation around the facility. A steady drip-drip of horror stories about lax safety procedures at the plant is raising new questions about the government's role in supervising it--and whether regulators may have broken the law.

Government officials said they were still studying the radiation data but couldn't rule out upgrading the Tokaimura accident rating from level four to level five on the international scale of seven--a move that would rank it with the disaster at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979. But by week's end, it looked as if the government was hiding information--or had failed to collect it in the first place. The data is far from sufficient, fumed Hiroaki Koide, a lecturer at the Kyoto Research Reactor Institute. People's health could be at risk.

Koide says he found dangerous levels of the radioactive isotope iodine 131 near the plant. His measurements, well above the numbers released by the government, suggest crops in the area weren't safe, contrary to official assurances, at least on the day of the accident. The government may not even have checked for iodine 131 until five days later. Greenpeace Japan found high radiation levels on a public road near the plant a day after government officials told people living within 350 m of the site they could go home. The environmental group also found compelling evidence of high levels of neutron radiation. But the Japanese authorities didn't even turn on their neutron detection equipment until at least six-and-a-half hours after the accident (the plant itself didn't have any). Diederik Samsom, a nuclear engineer who led the Greenpeace investigation, said in a statement: Evacuation from the surrounding area to avoid the penetrating neutron radiation should have been immediate.

Evacuation didn't happen for more than five hours after the disaster: people near the plant assembled in front of a noodle shop only 700 m from the plant, then were bused to a makeshift shelter another 600 m away. But in the flat terrain of Tokaimura, the radiation could have zipped through almost everything in its path in at least a 2 km radius. It just boggles my mind, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. I am horrified by this accident and the lack of preparation.

Japan may have been lucky: the accident itself could have been much worse, some experts say. Nuclear reactions are supposed to go on only inside the thick walls of a reactor. The JCO workers preparing enriched uranium fuel for an experimental reactor triggered nuclear fission in a stainless steel tank. While workers scrambled to bring the reaction under control, the uranium mix could have exploded, according to Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, one of Japan's most prominent anti-nuclear groups. That would have sent radioactive muck streaming up into the atmosphere for the winds to spread over a much larger area. A simulation run by the center shows that an explosion could have forced people in a 10 km-plus radius to flee their homes, and spread radioactive fallout to the outskirts of Tokyo 100 km away.

But as the rest of the world worried, none of this news seemed to generate critical mass in Japanese public opinion. Sales of fish and vegetables from the region around Tokaimura were down and hotels almost empty, Japanese media reported. But for a people supposedly rendered especially nuclear-allergic by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs, Japanese seemed strangely complacent. In neighboring South Korea last week, a small leak at a nuclear power plant sent protesters into the streets in skeleton suits. In Tokyo, and even Tokaimura, protesters were next to invisible. That may not be too surprising in a country where deference to authority comes more naturally than noisy dissent. But it also reflects the overwhelming pro-nuclear coloring of Japan's politicians. The dominant Liberal Democrats have been staunchly pro-nuclear for decades. The result is that Japan depends for a third of its energy on nuclear power. Only a small scattering of lawmakers, mostly from the ineffectual Social Democrats, have raised questions about safety.
The accident also highlighted some glaring holes in Japan's monitoring of its nuclear energy program. On paper, the government-appointed Nuclear Safety Commission acts as the industry watchdog. But anti-nuclear activists question its independence--they say it is dominated by pro-nuclear scientists with official ties. The commission even works out of the offices of the Science and Technology Agency, the bureaucracy that regulates the industry. But these agency mandarins are much too cozy with the industry they oversee and often retire into cushy jobs at nuclear power companies, according to Social Democratic legislator Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a member of the lower house's Science and Technology committee. She has asked the agency for a list of its bureaucrats hired by JCO. She has not received a reply. Said Tsujimoto: The system is infected, and now the pus is coming out.

Speaking out against the system can be dangerous. Scientists who question the government line find their funding drying up, says Koide of the Kyoto Research Reactor Institute. Since research equipment is expensive, most nuclear scientists are on the government payroll. Koide's frequent requests for money to study the environmental impact of nuclear energy have all been turned down, he says. The official reason: it's a waste of money.

Getting mad and becoming an anti-nuclear activist isn't easy, either. Most of Japan's 300 anti-nuclear groups are small outfits operating on shoestring budgets. Japan doesn't give tax exemptions to nonprofit groups, or even discounts on mailing costs. Activists at the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center say they are regularly harassed with unwanted orders of pizza or sushi, pornographic postcards and letters containing cigarette ash, condoms and photographs of wire-tapping devices. One activist was sent a photo of the park where she frequently walked her young child. Said CNIC staff member Mika Obayashi: It's contemptible and unforgivable.

Even the media isn't immune to pressure. Journalists covering the Science and Technology Agency have to belong to its press club--the agency can cut off the information pipeline to reporters who stop singing from the official songbook. Some Japanese journalists did turn out hard-hitting stories on this technically complicated story last week, but the media's message wasn't clear, says press critic Keiichi Katsura. Even a pro like Tokyo Broadcasting System's Tetsuya Chikushi blew it when he anchored his widely watched 11 p.m. broadcast from a spot near the JCO plant a day after the accident. Says Katsura: Since he wasn't wearing any protective clothing, the television message said: this is safe.

Still, one TV news program scored a direct hit. TV Asahi pointed out that the Science and Technology Agency may have violated Japan's own nuclear safety law, which says any facility handling more than 5% enriched uranium must be designed to avoid radiation leaks. Yet the walls at the JCO plant, where workers sometimes process 18%-plus enriched uranium, were a flimsy 10 cm thick. If the agency broke the law, it should be punished. I think they have, legislator Makiko Tanaka, a former head of the agency, told TV Asahi. Asked to comment, an agency spokesman said the question was too technical.

The agency may have to hit the books--just in case photo-ops with the Prime Minister aren't enough to squelch the still-unanswered questions about the government's handling of Japan's worst nuclear disaster. Last Friday's news was hardly reassuring: the operator of a low-level radioactive-waste site in northern Japan reported a small radiation leak. There is no indication that Obuchi plans to dine there anytime soon.