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.

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