Accident sends Japan's nuclear future up in smoke

In the middle of August 1945, refugees from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, who had lived through the fire storm and the collapsed buildings, began dying of a strange disease.

Some were dead within weeks; many lingered on for years or even decades before succumbing. They were the first mass victims of radiation sickness, and it was their plight which instilled in the Japanese a profound and enduring horror of radioactivity.

Compared to memories like these, the fire and explosion at the Tokai nuclear reprocessing plant on Tuesday were insignificant. Thirty-five workers at the facility, which packs liquid waste into barrels of asphalt, were exposed to "an extremely tiny amount" of radiation, less than one five-hundredth of the maximum annual exposure. There was no significant leakage outside the plant, and within 10 minutes radiation levels had returned to normal.

But the psychological impact on a country increasingly intolerant of its government's big nuclear ambitions will be serious.

Since Hiroshima, a series of nuclear accidents in Japan have only served to reinforce distrust of radioactive technology. In 1954 a boat full of Japanese fishermen was fatally contaminated in the Pacific after sailing through the fall-out from an American nuclear test.

Nuclear phobia reached a peak after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and when China and France resumed nuclear testing two years ago there were demonstrations all over the country. But this instinctive aversion is complicated by another deep-seated hang-up: Japan's dependence on outside sources of energy.

With few natural resources of its own, Japan imports almost all its fuel oil, and successive governments have been painfully aware of their vulnerability to war, global price rises, and the obstruction of shipping routes. At the time of the 1973 oil crisis, nearly 90 per cent of Japan's energy supplies came from abroad. Since then, the government has made a concerted effort to become more self-sufficient.

Nuclear plants provide Japan with 34 per cent of its electricity and the proportion is scheduled to rise to 42 per cent by 2010, with an ambitious programme of reactor construction in quiet coastal areas. Objections from residents have traditionally had little effect on the decisions of bureaucrats in Tokyo but in the past 18 months a mixture of official incompetence and vigorous local campaigning has galvanised opposition and set the programme back by years.

The trouble began in 1995, when the Monju fast-breeder reactor suffered a serious leakage of sodium coolant. The leak was not radioactive but the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (Donen) dug itself into ever deeper trouble when it was shown to have suppressed or distorted the facts.

Last August residents in the small town of Maki, on the Japan Sea, held Japan's first referendum on a plan to build a reactor: 60 per cent of them rejected it, and the project has been shelved. On Tuesday, while the fire was burning at Tokai, Kyushu Electric Power announced that they too were dropping a controversial plan to build another reactor after strenuous local objections.

The Tokai fire will give further impetus to grass-roots opposition. Already yesterday environmental groups and politicians were pointing out how little Donen seemed to have learned.

How could a fire which was discovered at 10am be allowed to smoulder for so long that it caused an explosion at 8pm? It was three hours before the authorities were told that radiation had leaked - if evacuation had been necessary, this delay could have been deadly.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London