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Japanese give atom-waste ship a hot reception

A British ship carrying highly radioactive plutonium waste was met by protesters in Japan yesterday, a week after the country's most serious nuclear accident. Some 300 demonstrators turned out for the arrival of the Pacific Teal, which docked at the village of Rokkasho.

Two Greenpeace boats sailed close to the vessel and activists displayed banners saying, "No Nuclear Waste" and "Stop Nuclear Power". There was a scuffle with police but by yesterday evening unloading of the cargo was well under way.

The vessel's 20 tons of nuclear waste was the second such shipment under an agreement between Japanese utilities and European power companies - British Nuclear Fuels and Cogema of France. Japan has limited facilities for reprocessing and sends spent fuel rods abroad via long sea routes, which have provoked international unease about their vulnerability to accident or terrorist attack. The reprocessed waste is shipped back to Japan in vitrified blocks, which will be stored in Rokkasho for as long as 50 years before being buried. Environmentalists say the waste is so radioactive that an unshielded bystander would receive a lethal dose in less than a minute.

A week before the Pacific Teal arrived, a fire and explosion at the country's only reprocessing facility released radiation and contaminated 37 workers.

The authorities at the Tokai plant insist that the amounts of radioactivity which were released were negligible but every day has brought disclosures about a number of communication failures and breaches of official procedure.

Yesterday Japanese newspapers reported that the central government turned a blind eye to short cuts in fireproofing the ill-fated plant.

Central and local government officials were not informed until hours after the fire, which was allowed to smoulder unattended and cause the later, potentially lethal explosion.