Living with the consequences of a criticiality incident

30 April 2001

On 30 September, 1999, there was a criticality incident at the Tokai Mura processing plant, in which three workers died, and there was a release of radiation into the environment. How did this affect the public attitude in the vicinity of the plant?

The initial accident occurred on 30 September, 1999, in a uranium conversion plant owned and operated by JCO, and located in Tokai Mura. The accident occurred at the plant around 10.35, and the first report of the accident reached the Science and Technology Agency in Tokyo at 11.19. This report also indicated that accident might have involved criticality.

Three workers were exposed to serious levels of radiation. Other JCO workers were exposed to radiation, but at levels greatly below the safety limit of 100mSv. The ambulance personnel were also exposed to a low level of radiation without realising it because JCO failed to notify them that the accident was of a radioactive nature. A number of people who lived near the plant were also exposed to radiation, although it was later learned that the radiation levels were generally so low (below 50mSv) that their health could not be affected.

Response to the emergency

How did the people of Tokai Mura to the emergency? In February 2000, Tokai Mura published the results of an opinion poll conducted on a sample of 1426 residents in December 1999 (see Table 1).

It was found that 82% of respondents found out about the accident by 15:00 on the same day. It was remarkable that as many as 40% of the residents obtained information about the incident through the town-operated public communication systems. The town’s public communication systems proved to be effective during the emergency.

It is important to note (see Table 2) that the greatest majority by far – 75% – trusted the Mayor of the town whom they had elected. This may have been because he was considered to be the most experienced administrator to cope with a nuclear emergency.

A group of local nuclear specialists were also among the most trusted, probably because they were taken as the best technical advisors to cope with the nuclear emergency.

The residents were split over health concerns. A slight majority – 51% – said they did not go to the radioactivity checks. Asked why they did not go to the checks, 61% of those who did not go said that they did not feel that the checks were necessary, while 17% said that they were too busy to go.

Generally, the residents showed little concern about post-accident health hazards and psychological trauma. In a long view of things, however, both the national and local governments should have made greater efforts to advise all the people of Tokai Mura to take radioactivity checks and general physical examinations.

When asked who was a trustworthy person in dealing with nuclear emergency management, the great majority (68%) said the Mayor. It is worth noting from a view of democratic community governance that the people of Tokai Mura had a very firm confidence in the Mayor they had elected, and also trusted the nuclear specialists who were in fact ready to offer their expert assistance during the criticality crisis. It must be recalled that Tokai Mura has a unique history in its relationship with nuclear power. Japan’s first nuclear reactor, JRR-1, reached criticality at Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute (JAERI) in Tokai Mura in 1962. Furthermore, Japan’s first commercial reactor, GCR, was put into operation by Japan Nuclear Power Company in Tokai Mura in 1966. Thus the people living in Tokai Mura had lived with nuclear power for nearly four decades.

It is a little curious to note from Table 3 that in the aftermath of the accident, a total of 78% felt that nuclear power was dangerous, but only 40% of the respondents felt that nuclear power should not continue. In addition, only 14% of respondents thought that nuclear power was safe, and yet 32% of respondents thought that there should be an expansion of nuclear power.

It is also interesting to note that one effect of the accident was to polarise opinions with regard to the future of nuclear power. Before the accident, 30% of the respondents were neutral about whether the industry should expand or contract. After the accident, however, only 19% of respondents were neutral.

Furthermore, the poll has shown that despite the accident, more people in Tokai Mura are in favour of the continuence of nuclear power (Promoted plus kept at present level – 51%) than are in favour of reducing nuclear power (40%). That is remarkable given the intense psychological trauma caused by the accident.

Media coverage of the accident

The accident received massive media coverage very quickly. This was because criticality had taken place, and had threatened to expose the local population to significant levels of radiation. It was also an incident at a plant that most of the general public had never heard of before owned by a little-known company. Media interest was also increased when it was learnt that three workers had been exposed to high levels of radiation and were in a critical condition.

People in Tokai Mura were understandably scared of radiation hazard and desparately wanted information on what was happening. However, the national government agencies in Kasumigaseki were not very responsive to the situation until about 18.00 on 30 September. When the advisory committee met to hear and discuss the accident, almost seven hours had passed since the first report of the accident had reached the Science and Technology Agency. The authorities were heavily criticised for this slow response.

It was notable to observe that the Internet played a major in covering the incident. The Internet enabled national and local authorities to pass information to the public, and it enabled the publlic to talk with others. During the crisis, the Internet proved itself to be an excellent news media and a very convenient inter-personal communication tool.

The aftermath

In retrospect, it is regrettable that the fatal accident was caused by the misconduct of the little-known small uranium fuel company.

A very thorough investigation was subsequently conducted by the Atomic Safety Commission. The Japanese government applied the heaviest sanction available, and pulled JCO’s operating licence. The regulations were modified to ensure that this kind of incident could not happen again. New response procedures were set up to cope with nuclear emergencies more promptly and more effectively with more systematic inter-agency co-ordination. Even if the effectiveness of these changes still have to be proven, both regulatory agencies and the nuclear industry are keen to advocate the disciplined safety education of the personnel working at nuclear facilities. They are also keen to tell the public about the risks and benefits of nuclear power and other sources of energy.

On the anniversary of the Tokai Mura accident, some nuclear facilities planned and carried out a simulated nuclear emergency training programme, with many volunteer citizens taking part in the exercise. A nuclear accident is no longer a taboo subject, but something that has to be coped with intelligently and systematically by government, industry and local people.

The final question is on how much effect the accident had on the general Japanese public. Although long-term delayed effects may have a future impact, some clues may be found in the results of separate opinion polls conducted shortly after the accident. A national telephone poll with over 1000 respondents was carried out shortly after the accident. The result of this poll was as follows (see Table 4).

An unexpectedly high proportion of people, 58%, were in favour of nuclear power, despite the concern over the accident.

It can be seen that there has been a slight but definite shift in public attitudes towards nuclear power as a result of the Tokai Mura accident. Postive attitudes slipped from 60% to 58%, while negative attitudes increased from 31% to 37%.

The magnitude of the change appears to be much smaller than might have been expected, but the direction of changes seem apparent and real. The impact of the accident may have been more real to local residents because it affected them directly. In fact, any accident affects local fishermen and farmers, because urban consumers stop buying their produce because of the often ungrounded fear that the fish and vegetables might have been contaminated.

In the case of the Tokai Mura accident, the amount of compensation for the damage by rumours of this sort is said to total some 13 billion Yen. A greater enthusiasm and effort will be required, therefore, for both regulatory authorities and the nuclear industry to “stop nuclear accidents”.

Table 1 – How residents heard of the accident
Table 2 – Review of Tokai Mura incident
Table 3 – Attitude changes
Table 4 – General views of nuclear power

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