A Dangerous Wind

They told Terumi Terunuma not to worry. "You can wash clothes, bang the dust off futons and, when it blows, the wind will carry everything away," promised a local official when she phoned in a panic after Japanese television reported a nuclear accident in her town. But as the news got worse, official optimism faded. By nightfall last Thursday, more than eight hours after radiation began spewing from a uranium-processing plant less than 350 meters from Terunuma's home, the government ordered an evacuation. "I'm concerned about my daughter," she told NEWSWEEK, speaking in a packed community center early last Friday as the atomic reaction she fled still raged out of control. "We've all heard that radiation causes genetic problems that can pass to future generations."

For most Japanese, radiation is a primal fear. The invisible killer that ravaged Hiroshima and Nagasaki after Americans dropped nuclear bombs on both cities in 1945 spawned horrific genetic mutations in its victims, and birth defects that continue to haunt their offspring. Last week the worst accident ever to blight Japan's nuclear power program threatened a new terror--a major nuclear catastrophe at the rim of one of the world's largest cities. Just 125 kilometers from downtown Tokyo, at a privately owned factory that mixes fuel for nuclear power plants, workers improperly handling uranium-235 triggered an accidental reaction that burned uncontrolled for 18 hours. The United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), declared it the world's third worst nuclear accident behind Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. "Our village is the victim of Japan's national atomic-energy policy," laments Kazumasa Aizawa, a 57-year-old antinuclear activist with a Geiger counter on his front stoop.

As radiation settles over Tokaimura, evidence of monumental human folly mounts. The uranium-processing plant belonging to Sumitomo Metal Mining subsidiary JCO, critics say, was poorly staffed and dangerously proximate to residential areas. Tokyo's delayed response to the crisis--a rerun of its initially inept reaction to the 1994 Kobe earthquake--prompted Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka to "straightforwardly admit" on Friday that Japan's leaders "could not realize the seriousness of the accident" until hours after it happened. Opposition politicians, citizens' groups and victims have demanded an investigation targeting both JCO and Japan's nuclear watchdogs. "These human errors are almost inconceivable," says Yukio Hatoyama, president of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. "We need to re-examine and overhaul Japan's nuclear policy."

Unlike Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, Japan's accident didn't happen inside, or even near, a nuclear reactor. Rather, the emergency unfolded at a simpler facility that fabricates nuclear fuel for use in power plants. The process depends on converting enriched uranium hexafluoride into uranium dioxide powder; a solid uranium compound is first dissolved in nitric acid and the powder then precipitated. That's what the Japanese were doing when the accident occurred, turning what should have been a chemical reaction into a nuclear one. But the Tokaimura plant--and six others like it in Japan--were not designed to contain radioactive leaks. JCO's workers were not equipped or trained to handle a nuclear chain reaction. On Saturday JCO admitted that its processing methods violated Japanese nuclear regulations.

Could last week's incident prod Japan to reconsider nuclear power? Don't bet on it. Japan has few energy sources of its own, and since the OPEC oil shocks of the 1970s has expanded its nuclear power program, which now runs to 51 reactors that provide 35 percent of the nation's electricity. Japanese authorities have always pledged that they would maintain the highest safety standards. Yet accidents still happen with frightening regularity. In 1989 parts of a cooling system at a plant in Fukushima broke loose and lodged inside the reactor. Two years later generator failure forced the emergency shutdown of a reactor in Fukui. In 1995 more than a ton of toxic liquid sodium leaked from a fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga. And since 1997 six more major incidents have been recorded at Japanese facilities.

With a population of 34,000, Tokaimura boasts 15 nuclear facilities, more per capita than anywhere else in Japan. The industry employs one in three local workers, and pays the lion's share of Tokaimura's taxes. Until last week most locals approved. Says one longtime resident: "The people here think of nuclear power as their local industry." Indeed, Tokaimura has welcomed plants rejected by other communities. Today the city trumpets its feelings on two-story steel monoliths erected outside many public buildings. promote peaceful use of nuclear power, the lime green signs read. And also: eliminate nuclear weapons.

Tokaimura's latest accident was the second since March 1997, when a fire gutted a reprocessing plant and exposed 37 workers to low-level radiation. Last week's incident unleashed neutron radiation 20,000 times the normal level, and injured at least 49 people, three of them critically. The most gravely sick--all the workers at the damaged JCO facility--were airlifted from the area wrapped head to toe in plastic so as not to contaminate others en route to the hospital. Among the other victims are local residents, firefighters and three employees at a nearby golf driving range. Two of the three "are so badly irradiated that their [survival] chances are very slim," IAEA spokesman David Kyd told Reuters.

The workers, JCO now admits, made a terrible mistake. Instead of adding 2.5 kilograms of uranium to the brew, they mistakenly added 16 kilograms--and did so much too quickly (chart). Overloading the mixing basin caused a chain reaction, which happened in a "blue flash," debilitating workers almost instantly. Local officials were unprepared for the emergency. Belatedly, police evacuated about 200 people living close to the plant, then offered thousands more radiation checkups in community centers. After initially downplaying the incident, the authorities broadcast television and radio warnings that ordered residents living within 10 kilometers of the accident site to remain indoors and keep their windows closed. That command stranded 310,000 people in their homes--the largest number ever affected by a nuclear accident in Japan--and closed a train line and a highway. At a toll booth located just outside town, workers hung a swath of butcher's paper before shutting down. you are within 10 kilometers of a radiation leak, it said. please drive quickly. Farther toward the city center, visitors who arrived before dawn on Friday found a drizzly ghost town. "It's the deadest town I've seen," said a taxi driver from Tokyo.

Still, the authorities remained curiously complacent. At about 4 a.m. police in radiation suits sat in their squad car near an open 7-Eleven, watching as a woman used the telephone outside. Just up the road, an old man sat on the curb under a radioactive drizzle--seemingly oblivious to the potential danger. In some areas police allowed citizens to walk streets, cross roadblocks and otherwise ignore orders to stay indoors. Residents, in turn, pleaded ignorance, complaining that the town's emergency broadcast system sent updates minutes or hours after Japan's national television network, NHK. The implication: locals who weren't watching TV might not have known they were in danger.

Nor were the emergency services prepared. Firefighters sent to rescue the fallen JCO workers were not told that a nuclear accident had taken place, and left their radiation suits at the station. All of the firefighters were contaminated. Eventually, JCO decided to drain water from the basin containing the fuel--a potentially dangerous procedure. Sixteen technicians working three-minute shifts entered the factory and eventually opened the valve. "They wore regular protective suits unable to block neutron radiation," an official with the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute told NEWSWEEK. "They knew very well that they'd be affected. It was like a Kamikaze mission."

Friday morning brought the first good news. "The chain reaction has stopped," Kazuo Sato, head of Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission, told reporters--almost 21 hours after the incident started. But the NSC has so far failed to explain how a town with 15 nuclear facilities was so ill prepared to contain a radiation leak or shield citizens from harm. "This incident is something Japan should be ashamed of," concludes the lead editorial in Saturday's Mainichi Shimbun. "Japan had better disclose all the details to the world and share all the lessons."

For Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, the fallout from last week's disaster could taint his heretofore blessed tenure as Japan's leader. Reportedly, Obuchi was not informed about the accident until 90 minutes after it happened and 40 minutes after the Science and Technology Agency knew. And Obuchi did not establish an emergency task force until Thursday evening--evoking memories of the way that the government handled the crisis in Kobe five years ago. Already, Japan's largest opposition party is preparing legislation to establish new procedures to streamline response to nuclear accidents.

Yet a new debate may still not examine Japan's dependency on atomic energy. Few nations are more energy-poor than Japan. "The Japanese think nuclear power is their destiny," says Shaun Burnie, research director for Greenpeace International's Plutonium Campaign. "The reality is that this accident will not change the course of their nuclear program. I think it would take a Chernobyl to wake them up." Adds David Albright, president of The Institute for Science and International Security, an American nuclear watchdog, "It's pretty depressing how badly they've responded." The real enemy of safety in nuclear programs, Albright adds, is complacency; and the Japanese industry, which he characterizes as "hierarchical and secretive," may breed just such an attitude.

If so, it would fit a broader picture. Many Japanese seem to ignore the risks of nuclear power in the belief that, in the land of sleek bullet trains and high-tech gadgets, their own atomic-energy industry is too efficient to fail. "There's a myth of safety in Japan," says Masako Sawai of the Citizens Nuclear Information Center. "When Chernobyl happened, people thought: 'That's Russian technology. It could never happen to us'." Says Burnie: "They have the arrogance to believe their technology is uniquely safe because it's Japanese." In fact, many of Japan's plants are copied from 40-year-old American designs.

Does the fact that Japan's nuclear-power grid is aging make it more dangerous? In the United States, regulatory agencies reject a simple link between the age of a plant and its likely problems; frequent inspections and the relicensing of facilities are designed to compensate for their advancing years. Yet 1998 was the worst year ever for accidents in Japan. And the nation has not developed a strong antinuclear power movement; curious, given the country's terrible history and high population density. While the most recent poll released by the prime minister's office showed two-thirds of respondents "deeply concerned" about nuclear safety, only about 2,500 Japanese belong to the CNIC, their country's largest antinuclear group. "There is a resignation surrounding the issue," says Sawai. "People in big cities like Tokyo want unlimited energy." Even Hiroshima's former mayor, a tireless campaigner for global nuclear disarmament, doesn't categorically oppose the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Koji Kitani, president of JCO, wasted little time before apologizing for one of the world's worst nuclear accidents. Visiting Tokaimura's main evacuation center near midnight last Thursday, he declared: "I am truly sorry for what happened. We will thoroughly check the reasons and ensure that this never happens again." As his factory's angry neighbors looked on, he knelt, then bowed until his forehead touched the floor--a ceremonial act conveying deep remorse that was broadcast repeatedly on national television. Victims then bombarded him with questions--and jeers.

They'd been arriving at the center since earlier in the evening, where relief workers led them to a conference room so medical teams could comb them with handheld radiation detectors. Most chattered nervously as they lined up for screening, then relaxed as examiners scribbled "OK" on a chart next to their names. "Now that I've been tested I'm very relieved," said taxi driver Shigeo Shirato, 52. He arrived at the shelter at dawn on Friday after hauling fares around all night through the town's contaminated air. "But I'd like to be tested again after everything is settled," he adds with a nervous laugh. "You never know about radiation. It moves with the wind." Indeed it does; and if it leads to reform of Japan's nuclear industry, the ill wind from Tokaimura may yet blow some good.