by Suvendrini Kakuchi
(IPS) TOKYO -- Japan's worst accident at a nuclear power plant has shaken public confidence in the industry's safety record, with activists blaming the country's regulations for the mishap that killed four and injured seven others at the plant west of the capital.
"The lives of the workers could have been saved if proper checks were carried out on the plant. The accident has revealed a blatant disregard for protecting people from nuclear power accidents," Kazue Suzuki, a nuclear power expert at Greenpeace Japan, told IPS.
The accident occurred on August 9 after super-heated steam leaked through a hole in a pipe that feeds steam in the turbine facility of the Mihama Nuclear Power Plant, the second reactor among three operated in Fukui Prefecture, 300 kilometers west of Tokyo.
The pipe, according to the owner, Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), Japan's second largest utility company, had not been checked since the plant began operating in 1976.
Hideyuki Ban, nuclear power researcher and head of the Tokyo-based Citizen's Nuclear Information Center, said the "accident is serious and should be a severe warning to advocates of nuclear power to stop immediately."
He also refutes the claim by KEPCO and the government's Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency that no radioactive leak took place.
Immediately after the accident, officials said the steam was not contaminated by radioactivity. No evacuations were ordered of the town of Mihama, where the plant is situated.
"Radioactive materials weren't contained in the steam that leaked out," an official for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said at a news conference.
KEPO said in a statement: "This incident will have no radiation effect on the surrounding environment."
But the Citizen's Nuclear Information Center is skeptical.
"We doubt the official reports that say there was no radiation leak. It is obvious the vicinity could have been affected even though we are still not sure of the exposure of radiation levels to determine the risk to residents," the center's Ban told IPS.
On Tuesday evening, residents and activists held a demonstration in Japan's second largest city Osaka -- 110 kilometers from Fukui -- in front of the KEPCO headquarters
They waved placards calling for an end to nuclear power development, and demanded that KEPCO take "full responsibility" for the accident.
"The accident is horrible and must never happen again. The danger posed to people from nuclear power can never be erased," said Kyoko Shimada, head of the Mihama Ooi Citizens Group Against Nuclear Power, based in Osaka.
The worst previous incident at a Japanese nuclear facility was at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, north of Tokyo, in September 1999, when an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction was triggered by three poorly trained workers who used buckets to mix nuclear fuel in a tub.
The resulting release of radiation killed two workers and forced the evacuation of thousands of nearby residents.
This accident in Fukui prefecture, has prompted many to ask whether Japan is over-reliant for its energy on a potentially dangerous industry.
Japan imported its first commercial nuclear power plant from Britain in 1966, and completed its first indigenous reactors in 1970.
It now has more than 50 in operation, which account for about 25 percent of its electricity needs. In the United States, in comparison, nuclear power provides about 20 percent of the country's electricity.
But the cover-up culture in which Japanese employees show far greater loyalty to their companies than to the public's right to know is, now, being challenged.
"Before whenever an accident occurred the government and utility companies will make fervent promises to increase checks and investigations on nuclear power reactors," Han pointed out.
"But these are very seldom carried out," revealed the anti- nuclear activist.
A case in point was in February 1991 where a leak of 55 tonnes of radioactive water from the primary cooling system into the secondary system of the same plant, where the accident occurred Monday, was reported when a tube inside a steam generator broke.
But Japanese nuclear safety officials said on Monday it would be impossible for the leaked steam to contain radioactivity because the water in the steam turbines does not come in contact with water used as a coolant for the reactor.
"Economic concerns have become a priority for utility companies in a bid to keep costs down, a situation that does not warrant constant high-level safety checks," Mihama Ooi Citizens Group's Shimada told IPS. "But when an accident occurs the risks are too grave to calculate."
The horrific nature of the deaths on Monday has also shocked many Japanese.
Press reports quote witnesses who say the victims had severe burns with their skin and clothes on fire.
A 65-year-old woman working in the canteen of the plant, said, "the staff rushed into the canteen screaming. I put in a container all the ice I could find and gave it. This is the first time an incident like that has happened in my 14 years of work here."
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters the accident was regrettable and the government "must do its utmost to ensure nuclear safety."
He currently faces criticism from opposition political parties, for not setting up an emergency task force to deal with the accident.
August 10, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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