by Linda Ashton
Officials say area residents needn't fear
While the development within the 3.8-million-litre tank has provoked concerns about a possible explosion or contamination, managers at the U.S. Department of Energy site in Washington say both scenarios are unlikely.
"The chance of explosion is very low," said Rick Raymond, the project manager for the contractor, Lockheed Martin Hanford. Still, "any time you have a situation where you're trapping gas faster than releasing it, it's an unacceptable situation and needs to be dealt with in an urgent manner."
The 900-square-kilometre Hanford reservation has the unenviable reputation of being the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States, despite 10 years and $15-billion (US) in federal funds spent on cleaning up the mess.
It's a witches' brew of massive toxic-waste tanks and huge pools filled with corroding nuclear fuel rods. Last summer, frustrated by the pace of the cleanup, Gary Locke, Washington's governor, dubbed it "an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen."
The radioactive waste in Tank SY-101 is a byproduct of the process used to extract plutonium from uranium irradiated at Hanford's now-defunct nuclear reactors. The tank, less than 16 kilometres from the Columbia River near Richland, contains cesium and decaying organic materials that generate hydrogen, nitrogen, nitrous oxide and ammonia.
It became notorious in the late 1980s and early 1990s as Hanford's "burping" tank because it released thousands of cubic feet of gas every three months or so. If an ignition source had been present, the flammable gases could have exploded.
A mixer pump installed in 1993 took care of the problem by allowing the continuous escape of small amounts of gas.
But it also created a new problem no one expected -- without the periodic releases of huge amounts of gas, bubbles began to build up in the meringue-like crust floating in the liquid waste.
The crust began to thicken and grow. It is now about three metres thick in a tank just more than 11 1/2 metres tall. The top of the crust is 66 centimetres from the top of the tank, although it was five cm higher in May, when Hanford managers began releasing gas at the same rate it is produced.
While it is possible the waste could spill over and breach the tank, the 1 1/2 cm steel welds on the double-shell tank should prevent that from happening, Mr. Raymond said.
In late October or early November, Lockheed Martin Hanford will begin pumping out the tank, diluting 1.13 million litres of the radioactive brew as it is transferred to another tank, and then diluting the 2.65 million litres still in SY-101 with water.
That should be a permanent fix, said Craig Groendyke, manager for the SY-101 project for the Energy Department's Office of River Protection.
Hanford was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Plutonium for nuclear weapons was produced at the site until 1986.
The site has 204 million litres of radioactive waste stored in 149 ageing single-shell tanks, 67 of which have leaked. Newer tanks, such as SY-101, have two shells, and none has leaked.
Bay City Times
By Mike Magner
Bay City Times, Bay City, Michigan
Times Writer Kristina Riggle
contributed material to this report.
WASHINGTON - A shipment of weapons-grade plutonium through Michigan will be delayed by the government until residents and public-safety officials have a chance to air their concerns.
The U.S. Department of Energy announced Wednesday it will postpone the transport of the radioactive material until at least November, while public comments are taken on the plan and public hearings are held in Michigan.
Bay County Emergency Management Coordinator Paul Cormier said he's glad the public will have a chance to comment and hear details.
"That creates the fear, the public being unaware of what this stuff is, how it's packaged, how it's transported," Cormier said.
For his part, Cormier first found out about the plutonium shipment through the media, although he would be in charge if there were an accident in the county.
"Hopefully next time we have a decision on that I would be first to be notified," he said.
Despite the lack of official notification, Cormier said he researched the packaging himself and was reassured by what he found.
"It's basically in almost an explosive-proof package. ... From what I understand there's never been any plutonium releases in this type package they use," he said.
He did suggest some kind of escort be established to make sure the plutonium gets down the road safely.
Terry Miller, chairperson of the Lone Tree Council, said it's great news the public will be allowed to comment and he plans to make his environmental group's feelings known.
Miller said the proposed shipment's proximity to the Great Lakes poses too great a risk.
"I personally do not think it should travel this route. I think it sets bad precedent," he said.
The Department of Energy's decision to host hearings "will finally give the people of Michigan a chance to have a say in this important decision and give experts a chance to explain why the department has chosen one of the riskiest routes," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing.
Stabenow's district is in the middle of the planned route through Michigan along I-94, I-69 and I-75. The shipment would travel through some of the state's largest cities, including Kalamazoo, Lansing, Flint, Saginaw and Bay City, before going through northern Michigan to Sault Ste. Marie.
"They tell us the risk is so minute," said U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, who led the effort to have more public input on the plan. "That may be so, but you lose a little credibility if you can't openly discuss it with people."
The Department of Energy had announced Sept. 2 that nine fuel rods containing about 4 ounces of plutonium from disabled nuclear weapons would be trucked through the state on its way from New Mexico to Canada.
The radioactive material is being shipped from a government lab to an experimental reactor near Ottawa where researchers will attempt to transform it into fuel for nuclear power plants.
Government experts insist the risks are small, even in the unlikely event of an accident. They say, for example, that if there were an explosion and plutonium was dispersed over a city of 700,000 people and each one inhaled one speck, one person would be likely to die of cancer.
Federal officials will not reveal the date of the U.S. shipment for security reasons, but state officials had said they expected it sometime in October.
That was before Stupak added language requiring public meetings on the plan to an energy appropriations bill that passed the House last week and the Senate this week.
Public-safety officials are worried about the shipment, Stupak said.
"They tell me, "We don't have anything in the manuals about how to respond to a traffic accident involving plutonium,'" he said.
He also said there has been no communication about who would be in charge at an accident scene or manage an evacuation, even though local police and fire units will be notified when the shipment goes through their community.
State officials are not as worried about the plan, said Gary Naeyaert, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.
"At some point we have to have faith and confidence in the ability of the Department of Energy to safely transport this plutonium," he said.
"We don't want to contribute to either confusion or mass hysteria regarding this shipment," Naeyaert said. "At the same time, we can't stop politicians from grandstanding about it."
No other states have raised objections to the shipment, though it will also go through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, said Energy Department spokeswoman Jacqueline Johnson.
Nevertheless, the department will now take written comments on the plan until Oct. 30, Johnson said. There also will be public meetings in Michigan, but dates and locations have not been determined.
The Department of Energy,
Office of Fissile Materials Disposition,
P.O. Box 23786, Washington, D.C., 20026.
Comments also can be
faxed to 1-800-820-5156 or
made through a Web site at www.doe-md.com.
by Patrick Connole
WASHINGTON - Processing uranium into nuclear fuel, which was taking place at a Japanese plant where a major accident occurred yesterday, can unleash radioactive energy in an uncontrolled way and dramatically raise radiation exposure levels, U.S. experts said.
The uncontrolled releases are known in industry jargon as "criticality," which occurs when a nuclear chain reaction becomes self-sustaining.
If a self-sustaining reaction isn't stopped, it may go out of control, resulting in an accidental release, according to the British-based Uranium Institute.
U.S. nuclear scientists said it appeared that what happened in Japan was far less dangerous than when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in April 1986, killing 31 people and contaminating areas in the former Soviet Union.
"I don't think that it will be a long-term problem," said David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "This appears to be a local disaster and not a global one."
Criticality has happened at other processing plants around the world. A similar accident at a Rhode Island facility in 1964 killed one worker.
The Charlestown, Rhode Island worker started the reaction by pouring a highly concentrated uranium solution into a mixing tank, not knowing the tank already contained a volatile mix of compounds. The chain reaction left the worker exposed to the equivalent of 700,000 chest X-rays and sent him screaming for help, according to a local newspaper account.
"These incidents were very similar," said Felix Killar, director of material licensee and insurance issues for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a U.S. industry trade group.
"It sounds like the (Japan accident) was in the blending operation" like the Rhode Island incident, Killar said.
Before it can be used as a fuel for energy plants and military weapons, uranium must be cleaned of impurities and converted to uranium hexafluoride. The uranium hexafluoride is heated to become a gas, loaded into cylinders, then cooled to a solid form.
Generally, nuclear experts said criticality happens when moisture seeps into the process to turn uranium 235 into nuclear fuel. Workers typically operate complex machinery that forms the uranium into small pellets for loading into fuel rods. The rods are then gathered into fuel assemblies and shipped to nuclear reactors.
Lochbaum said controlled chain reactions allow neutrons to interact with other atoms.
But when moisture, usually in the form of humidity or excess cleaning fluids, enters the process, the absorption goes wrong. "This is what can happen, causing a lot of energy to be released," Lochbaum said.
Uranium 235 is one of two isotopes contained in uranium. The uranium 235 is fissionable, which means its atoms can be split, releasing large amounts of heat.
Normally, the nuclear fuel pellets are not dangerous. Workers can even hold them in their hands, only getting a minor rash from the exposure.
With criticality, however, the exposure levels rise sharply, injuring and possibly killing people.
BRUSSELS - The first cracks in the European Union's eastwards expansion project appeared yesterday as Austria's gulf with its EU partners widened over the former communist countries' Soviet-era nuclear reactors.
At what was expected to be a routine technical meeting between negotiators from the EU and six front-tier candidate countries, Austria vetoed the start of talks on energy, holding out for guarantees of state of the art standards for the plants, some of which lie only tens of kilometres from its border.
Negotiators from the candidate countries expressed concern, if not panic, at the first hiccup since membership talks were launched more than 18 months ago.
"This is the first time, and we hope that it will not be repeated, at least not often," Cyprus's chief negotiator George Vassiliou told reporters.
"I said that I regret that some countries can block negotiations for reasons that do not concern Poland," Poland's chief negotiator Jan Kulakowski told reporters.
The standoff came only two days after Austria clashed with its EU partners by threatening to block the promotion to full EU entry negotiations of Slovakia at a December EU summit unless it brought forward the planned closure of its Bohunice plant from 2006-2008.
The rift also came as disagreement emerged within the EU over a target date for the expected entry by new members.
The EU's top enlargement official Guenter Verheugen said on Wednesday he believed the first eastern countries would enter in 2004.
He was shot down by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who said in Prague on Thursday the EU should be ready to accept new members by 2003.
Most candidate countries have set themselves ambitious target entry dates of 2002 and 2003.
On Tuesday the European Commission said a new Slovak plan to begin the shutdowns in 2006 and 2008 removed a major obstacle to its ambition of joining the EU.
But Austria, which says the late 1970s Soviet-designed plant 60 km (40 miles) from its border is unsafe, took exception to the closure date, originally promised for 2000.
The discord over the "Chernobyl" style reactors threw a shadow over a discussion by EU member countries ahead of their December summit in Helsinki over whether to promote all or any of five second-tier candidates to first tier negotiations.
Slovakia, Lithuania and Bulgaria, which have the ageing reactors, along with Romania and Latvia, are pushing to catch up with the other countries at the meeting.
On Thursday Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said he did not expect Austria to block his country's membership bid, saying Austria's stand amounted to electioneering.
"I am convinced that there will be a certain political sobering up in Austria after October 3, after the elections are over, and a rational attitude of the Austrian side could then be expected," Kukan told reporters in Bratislava.
LONDON - Nuclear industry watchdogs said yesterday workers caused a nuclear accident at a Japanese uranium processing plant by trying to enrich too much material in one batch.
The Paris-based OECD Nuclear Energy Agency estimated workers had used eight times the average amount of liquid uranium hexafluoride at the plant in Tokaimura. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said five-to-six times too much was used.
Japan's national broadcaster NHK TV said at least 19 people were exposed to radiation in the accident. The government has evacuated 60 people from the site of the accident 140 km (87 miles) northeast of Tokyo and told local residents to stay in their homes.
OECD agency spokesman Jacques de la Ferte said he had been told by a Japanese colleague that workers at the private plant had used 16 kg (35 lb) of the material used to make low enriched nuclear fuel, some eight times more than the average amount.
"Private company JCO was converting uranium hexafluoride into uranium oxide (the basic fuel for reactors) to produce low enriched uranium," de la Ferte said.
IAEA spokesman David Kyd said details remained sketchy but it appeared some six times the usual amount had been used.
"It appears they put too much uranium into a bath of nitric acid which is part of the conversion process," Kyd told News 24 Television.
"It would appear from the sketchy points we have been receiving in Vienna that they may have put five or six times the amount that they ought to have," he added.
OECD's de la Ferte said using too much material would have been an important factor behind the accident.
"This was a liquid solution poured into a recipient or tank. The accident happened apparently because there was a large quantity instead of limited quantity. They used 16 kg instead of just two kg," he told Reuters by telephone, citing "a Japanese colleague".
"It was a factor in triggering this incident," he added.
British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), which recycles nuclear material into nuclear fuels, told Reuters it had not supplied the material the plant was using.
"This particular incident is absolutely in no way related to fuel currently being unloaded in Japan or any other previous shipment," a BNFL spokesman said.
LONDON - A nuclear accident at a Japanese uranium processing plant yesterday exposed workers to radiation and may have triggered "abnormal reactions" that could be continuing. Following is a chronology of major nuclear incidents over the last 40 years. Some have come to light only since the end of the Cold War.
October 7, 1957 - Fire destroyed the core of a plutonium-producing reactor at Britain's Windscale nuclear complex -- since renamed Sellafield -- sending clouds of radioactivity into the atmosphere. An official report said the leaked radiation could have caused dozens of cancer deaths.
1957/8 - A serious accident occurred during the winter of 1957-58 near the town of Kyshtym in the Urals. A Russian scientist who first reported the disaster estimated that hundreds died from radiation sickness.
January 3, 1961 - Three technicians died at a U.S. plant in Idaho Falls in an accident at an experimental reactor.
July 4, 1961 - The captain and seven crew members died when radiation spread through the Soviet Union's first nuclear-powered submarine. A pipe in the control system of one of the two reactors had ruptured.
1965 - The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission deliberately produced a low intensity radioactive cloud from a nuclear reactor over Los Angeles.
October 5, 1966 - The core of an experimental reactor near Detroit partly melted when a sodium cooling system failed.
October 17, 1969 - In Saint-Laurent, France, a fuel-loading error sparked a partial meltdown at a gas-cooled power reactor.
1974 - Reported explosion in a Soviet breeder plant at Shevchenko on the Caspian Sea.
December 7, 1975 - An accident occurred at the Lubmin nuclear power complex near Greifswald on the Baltic coast in former East Germany. A short-circuit caused by an electrician's mistake started a fire. Some news reports said there was almost a meltdown of the reactor core.
March 28, 1979 - America's worst nuclear accident occurred at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A partial meltdown of one of the reactors forced the evacuation of residents after radioactive gas leaked into the atmosphere.
Aug 7, 1979 - Highly enriched uranium spewed out of a top-secret nuclear fuel plant in Tennessee. Around 1,000 people were contaminated with up to five times as much radiation as they would normally receive in a year.
April 25, 1981 - Officials said around 45 workers were exposed to radioactivity during repairs to a problem-ridden plant at Tsuruga, Japan.
November 1983 - Britain's Sellafield plant accidentally discharged radioactive waste into the Irish Sea, prompting environmentalists to demand its closure.
August 10, 1985 - An explosion devastated the Shkotovo-22 ship repair facility which services Soviet navy nuclear-powered vessels. Ten people were killed and many died later from radiation exposure.
January 6, 1986 - One worker died and 100 were injured at a plant in Oklahoma when a cylinder of nuclear material burst after being improperly heated.
April 26, 1986 - Date of the world's worst nuclear accident. An explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant spewed radiation over much of Europe. Thirty-one people died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Hundreds of thousands of people were moved from the area and a similar number were believed to have suffered from the effects of radiation.
March 24, 1992 - Radioactive iodine and inert gases escaped into the atmosphere after a loss of pressure in a reactor channel at the Sosnovy Bor station near St Petersburg in Russia, triggering international concern.
November 1992 - In France's most serious nuclear accident, three workers were contaminated after entering a nuclear particle accelerator in Forbach without protective clothing. Executives were jailed in 1993 for failing to take proper safety measures.
November 1995 - At Chernobyl, serious contamination occurred when fuel was being removed from one of the reactors. One person received the equivalent of a year's permitted radiation.
November 1995 - Two to three tons of sodium leaked from the secondary cooling system of Japan's Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in an accident.
March 1997 - A fire and explosion at the state-run Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation reprocessing plant at Tokaimura contaminated at least 35 workers with minor radiation in Japan's worst atomic accident to date.
by Tim Loughran
WASHINGTON - U.S. anti-nuclear groups yesterday described the nuclear accident in Japan as evidence of a careless attitude toward nuclear safety.
Damon Moglen, international plutonium campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, said those behind Japan's plutonium programme were "trying to move ahead at all costs".
"That policy has caused shortcuts in safety and security. They have acted in a reckless way and that is what the accident is about," he said.
Japanese officials said 21 people had been exposed to radiation in and around a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, about 90 miles (145 km) northeast of Tokyo, when a "criticality incident" triggered a chain of nuclear reactions on Thursday.
They said the radiation level was 15,000 times above normal a mile from the plant, too high to allow officials to investigate the scope of the calamity.
"I think the accident is a reflection that they (the Japanese) are running faster than they should be, and in the wrong direction," said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based independent research institute.
Greenpeace and NCI also criticised security arrangements for the shipment to Japan from Europe of nuclear fuel.
"There were very severe lapses in security for those shipments," said Leventhal.
This week two British freighters, the Pacific Teal and Pacific Pintail, arrived in Japan with MOX fuel - a mix of uranium and recycled plutonium - from reprocessing plants in Britain and France.
The 446-kg shipment - potentially enough to arm as many as 60 nuclear weapons - was the first of 80 MOX shipments expected to arrive in Japan from Europe during the next several years, Greenpeace said.
The groups said the protection provided for the cargo - British guards armed with six 30-mm light cannons - was not enough to deter an attack with sophisticated weapons.
NCI and Greenpeace said the issue affected the United States because of the 1988 U.S.-Japan Nuclear Cooperation Agreement governing shipments of U.S.-made commercial nuclear fuel to Japan.
The groups said that when Congress ratified the agreement, it expected military escorts to protect the shipments.
"We believe the State Department misled the Congress and that is a very serious matter," Moglen said.
U.S. lawmakers "wanted a dedicated military armed escort riding shotgun" on all commercial plutonium shipments, he said.
A State Dept. spokeswoman said officials were reviewing the criticism and were in the process of preparing a response.
by Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON - The United States and Russia offered to send a team of medical and scientific experts to help Japan with its worst nuclear accident, the Clinton Administration said yesterday.
The team would include radiation health experts, robots equipped to enter dangerous contaminated areas, and other technology to help with the accident at a uranium processing plant that exposed at least 21 people to radiation.
"The Russians and the United States are ready to send a joint team," U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said in a telephone interview with CNN television that was broadcast from Russia. He was in Russia to review several joint U.S.-Russian programmes to secure nuclear weapons materials and dispose of plutonium taken from dismantled nuclear weapons.
In Tokyo, Japanese officials said they were aware of the offer and were deciding whether to accept it.
President Bill Clinton, at a news conference on the U.S. budget debate, said it was a "very hard day for the people of Japan."
"We are all very concerned and our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan today because of this uranium plant accident," Clinton said.
Richardson said the Energy Department had specialists on alert at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, ready to immediately fly to Japan if requested.
Washington was ready to send radiation health experts to provide advice on how to protect people near the Japanese plant, located about 87 miles (140 km) from Tokyo. The United States can also provide experts to monitor the atmosphere around the plant and watch for "any potential plumes," Richardson said.
"We also have robots that can go in very hot areas (in the plant), instead of humans that might be contaminated," he said.
Help from the Russians could also be invaluable because of its own experience with the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident. That plant exploded in April 1986, killing 31 people and contaminating areas in the former Soviet Union.
The Japanese plant where the accident occurred processes uranium into pellets that are used to fuel nuclear power plants run by electric utilities. Some 300,000 people living near the facility were told to stay indoors, and 60 others were evacuated.
Nuclear industry watchdogs said the accident was probably caused by workers trying to process too much uranium at once.
The Paris-based OECD Nuclear Energy Agency said it was told that the plant used 35 pounds (16 kg) of the material used to make nuclear fuel, about eight times more than normal.
Japanese authorities began removing coolant water leaking from the plant to lower the facility's radiation levels, which at one point were 15,000 times normal radiation levels within 1.2 miles (2 km) of the site.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley said the U.S. military was also standing by to assist Japan if asked. "If there are things that we have that the Japanese would find helpful, of course we're going to be receptive to those requests," Quigley said.
It is unlikely that any radiation from the plant will reach the United States, or any other country, according to a nuclear expert.
"This is very much a localised energy field," said Felix Killar, an official with the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade group that represents the U.S. nuclear industry. Radiation would not drift beyond the immediate area around the plant, he said.
by Yvonne Chang
TOKYO - An accident at a Japanese nuclear fuel facility yesterday exposed three workers to radiation and prompted authorities to evacuate the vicinity, raising fresh concerns about the nation's nuclear safety.
Government officials said there may have been a "criticality incident" at a uranium processing plant in the village of Tokaimura in Ibaraki Prefecture, about 140 km (87 miles) northeast of Tokyo.
Criticality is the point at which a nuclear chain reaction becomes self-sustaining, similar to what occurs inside a nuclear reactor.
Toshio Okazaki, vice minister at the Science and Technology Agency, told a news conference that a "criticality incident" may have caused the accident, which temporarily caused radiation levels to race up 4,000 times higher than normal.
Later yesterday, conflicting reports emerged on whether these levels had returned to normal or were remaining high. Officials were unable to clarify the discrepancies.
Authorities at Tokaimura advised some 50 households living within 350 metres (380 yards) of the processing plant to evacuate and others were advised in radio broadcasts to stay home.
All three workers were taken to hospital and later transferred by helicopter to a specialised hospital in Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo, officials said.
A doctor who treated the three workers told a televised news conference: "Judging from the symptoms, they appeared to have received quite a substantial amount of radiation and we will need to keep a close eye on their conditions."
Makoto Ujihara, an executive at JCO Ltd, the private company which operates the plant, told a separate news conference that the workers had seen a blue flash - said by experts to be a sign of a "criticality incident" - and then began to feel ill.
The village of Tokaimura, with a population of around 33,802 people, is home to 15 nuclear-related facilities and was the scene of Japan's worst nuclear plant accident in which 35 workers suffered radiation contamination in 1997.
Japan's nuclear power programme has been plagued by a number of accidents and cover-ups.
In the 1997 Tokaimura accident at a nuclear reprocessing plant, a fire that caused radiation to escape was not extinguished properly and caused an explosion hours later.
The accident exposed 37 staff to radiation in what was later declared Japan's worst nuclear accident. The plant was closed.
Greenpeace said in a statement that Thursday's accident "confirms our fears. The entire safety culture within Japan is in crisis."
Chihiro Kamisawa, a nuclear expert at the anti-nuclear group Citizen's Nuclear Information Center, told Reuters that preventing a "criticality incident" was top priority for nuclear safety and that Thursday's accident would cast doubt on Japan's entire nuclear programme.
He said the accident could force a postponement of the plan to restart the nuclear reprocessing plant in Tokaimura as well as affect Japan's MOX fuel programme.
The first shipment of MOX nuclear fuel - a mix of uranium and plutonium recycled from spent nuclear fuel - docked in Fukui Prefecture north of Japan on Monday and a second shipment is destined for unloading at another location soon.
Greenpeace has warned that the shipments could have been converted into 60 nuclear bombs if the two ships had been hijacked at sea.
Japan is heavily dependent on nuclear power, with its 51 commercial nuclear power reactors providing one-third of the country's electricity.
TOKYO - A chemical warfare unit of Japan's Ground Self-Defence Force, the nation's army, has been sent to the area of the country's worst-ever nuclear accident, defence agency officials said today.
More than a dozen GSDF personnel including unit members, senior officials and two chemical-proof vehicles, were dispatched at around Thursday midnight (1500 GMT), the officials said.
They said the unit was on standby but added that the group was not capable of coping with an accident of this magnitude.
Officials have said that no one is able to get close enough to the uranium processing plant site about 140 km (90 miles) northeast of Tokyo to determine if self-sustaining nuclear fission is taking place.
At least 14 workers and five residents were injured after a "criticality incident" involving 16 kg (35 lb) of uranium at the plant in the village of Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture.
According to the agency, the GSDF has no experts on radiation and the clothing the unit carries is not radiation-proof. The GSDF also does not have equipment for restricting a self-sustaining chain reaction of nuclear fission, the agency said.
"As the criticality is continuing, it is impossible to approach the accident site. Under the current conditions, activities are limited," an official was quoted by Kyodo news agency as saying.
The accident occurred on Thursday morning. Two of those exposed to radiation are in serious condition.
Local authorities have also instructed 313,000 people living within the 10-km (six mile) radius of the site to stay indoors.
The plant turns liquid uranium into pellets for sale to nuclear power plants.
TOKYO - For Japan, news of a serious incident at a nuclear processing facility was all too familiar, and brought immediate calls from anti-nuclear activists for an end to the dependence on nuclear power.
With virtually no domestic reserves of crude oil, Japan has bucked the international trend and remained active in nuclear power generation to feed the industrial machine for the world's second largest economy.
But the track record has been far from flawless and the latest crisis shows little seems to have changed despite rounds of recriminations from previous incidents.
On Thursday, a worker at a uranium processing facility in Tokaimura village, 140 km (90 miles) northeast of Tokyo, appears to have loaded too much uranium into a container, possibly starting a self-sustaining chain reaction.
"There is a strong possibility that abnormal reactions are continuing within the facility," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka told a late-night emergency news conference.
A special team from Japan's military was dispatched to the area, even though officials said their protective clothing was not suitable for an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, asked whether he thought the government was quick enough in reacting to the accident, told reporters: "We must obtain decisions from scientists, technicians and experts to assess such accidents. If they were slow in making the decisions, we must make sure that never happens again."
The incident follows the shutdown of a commercial plant operated by the Japan Atomic Power Co in July when a pipe burst and leaked 51 tonnes of cooling water.
In March 1997, another reprocessing facility in the same town as the plant involved in Thursday's accident was the site of Japan's previous worst incident when a fire and explosion exposed 37 workers to radiation.
Officials later admitted that a report on the fire was altered, prompting an investigation order from then-prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
"I am so angry I cannot utter a single word," Hashimoto said at the time.
Hashimoto also complained bitterly when it was admitted later that year that a radioactive waste storage facility had been leaking for 30 years. "It is unbelievable," he said.
Officials from the state-run Power Reactor and Nuclear Development Corp had promised at the time to clean up their act, saying that the lessons from a December 1995 incident had not been fully learned.
In that accident, Japan's only fast-breeder reactor suffered a coolant leak. While no radiation leaked outside the plant, the reactor has been shut ever since.
The anti-nuclear group Greenpeace said in a statement on Thursday that the latest accident "confirms our fears. The entire safety culture within Japan is in crisis."
But with nuclear power accounting for 30 percent of Japan's electricity, government officials have given no official indication that they will turn their back on the industry.
Hirofumi Kawano, director-general of Japan's Natural Resources and Energy Agency, told reporters late on Thursday that a nuclear chain reaction like that seen in Tokaimura would "never happen at a nuclear power reactor".
Kawano was quoted as saying that he planned to have Friday's scheduled arrival on Japanese shores of a British ship carrying recycled nuclear fuel go ahead as scheduled.
The Pacific Pintail, a second British ship carring a cargo of MOX fuel - a mix of uranium and plutonium recycled from spent nuclear fuel - follows the Pacific Teal which docked on Japan's northeast coast on Monday amid protests from Greenpeace.
The cargo ship is carrying MOX from Britain's Sellafield nuclear processing plant destined for a reactor operated by Kansai Electric Power Co (KEPCO) in Fukui prefecture, 320 km (200 miles) west of Tokyo.
TOKYO - Japan was considering today whether to ask the United States and Russia to send nuclear experts to help deal with an accident at a uranium processing plant northeast of Tokyo.
An official of the task force formed at the prime minister's official residence said Tokyo was aware that the United States and Russia had offered to help.
"At present, we are considering whether to ask for their help," the official told Reuters.
He said Japan might seek this help if the accident at the plant - which so far is reported to have exposed 24 people to radiation - worsened.
"Depending on the development of the accident, we may have to ask for help," he said.
U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said on Thursday that the United States and Russia have formed a team of nuclear experts to help Japan deal with the accident, in which a nuclear chain reaction causing radiation was believed to be continuing.
Richardson said on CNN in a telephone interview from Russia said President Bill Clinton asked that such a team be formed although the Japanese government had not yet formally asked for assistance.
He said the Energy Department had experts on "immediate alert" at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, ready to go to Japan if requested by Tokyo.
He said the United States was ready to send radiation health experts to provide advice on how to protect people near the Japanese plant, as well as experts who can monitor the atmosphere around the plant "watching any potential plumes."
TOKYO - Sumitomo Metal Mining Company issued an apology today for a nuclear accident at an uranium processing plant run by its wholly-owned subsidiary JCO Co Ltd.
"We deeply apologise for causing grave trouble," Sumitomo Metal Mining said in a statement.
Sumitomo Metal Mining said it had set up a special task force at its headquarters in Tokyo to deal with what officials said was the "unprecedented" accident in Japan.
Its stock ended down three yen, or 0.57 percent, at 527 yen yesterday.
The accident at the uranium processing plant in Tokaimura in Ibaraki Prefecture, about 140 km (85 miles) northeast of Tokyo, yesterday morning exposed as many as 21 workers to heavy radiation and prompted authorities to evacuate the vicinity.
The JCO Company, engaged mainly in nuclear energy business with 1,723 employees, posted sales of 1.7 billion yen ($16 million) in the business year to March 31, 1999.
The Tokaimura facility processes imported uranium of various densities into uranium dioxide, a highly toxic nuclear substance that can be used to pack nuclear fuel rods and [can also be used] in ceramics, pigments and photographic chemicals.
Globe and Mail
by Ingrid Peritz
Montreal -- Mohawks from Quebec and Ontario vowed yesterday to mount "massive" resistance to stop Ottawa from shipping plutonium through their communities. It is the latest sign that Canada's vaunted "nuclear-swords-into-plowshares" project is turning into a public-relations bomb.
Canada has agreed to use Ontario nuclear reactors to burn reprocessed plutonium from Russian and U.S. warheads. But while Ottawa paints the plan as an altruistic post-Cold War peace gesture, the move is being greeted with growing cynicism and anger on the ground.
Critics include not only environmental and antinuclear groups, but several federal MPs and Canadian mayors who fear for the safety of their communities along the shipment route.
Yesterday, native chiefs from the large Kahnawake and Akwesasne reserves said that the nuclear accident in Japan this week highlights the potential danger of the delivery.
"One little molecule, one little gram, can cause enormous damage -- we found that out in Japan," said Mike Mitchell, Grand Chief of the Akwesasne reserve near Cornwall, Ont. "One little mistake and you have an international health problem. We don't want that coming to Canada."
Atomic Energy of Canada plans to transport nuclear material, including plutonium, to a test reactor at Chalk River west of Ottawa. The shipment from the United States would enter Canada by truck at Sault Ste. Marie, while the Russian cargo would travel by ship along the St. Lawrence Seaway before docking at Cornwall.
Mr. Mitchell said that if diplomacy and the courts fail to stop the shipment, Mohawks would resort to "massive human resistance." Asked if they would be capable of blocking the St. Lawrence Seaway, Mr. Mitchell replied: "Yes."
The threat carries strong resonance in Quebec, since Mohawks blocked a major Montreal bridge for almost two months in 1990 during the Oka crisis, when police led a botched raid on the Mohawk community of Kanesatake.
"We'll take whatever means possible to stop the shipment from going through our territory," said Grand Chief Joe Norton from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal.
He said he hoped non-natives would protest too. "Canadians in general are too damn complacent."
In fact, the shipment of Russian and U.S. nuclear cargo is coming up against a groundswell of opposition. Mayors of communities such as Sault Ste. Marie and Cornwall have promised to block the delivery. Greenpeace and other antinuclear groups have led a steady attack on the plan. And an all-party Commons committee unanimously recommended that Canada withdraw from the test.
This week, the U.S. Energy Department agreed to delay its shipments of plutonium to Canada to hear out the public on the issue.
by Scott Brand
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
Washington D.C. - Public comment will be accepted [from the American public] on the scheduled shipment of nuclear material through the Eastern Upper Peninsula, according to a Wednesday press release from Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Menominee).
This public comment period is an important first step in getting information about the scheduled shipment of radioactive material to the concerned public," said Stupak. "But I will continue to work with the department to schedule public meetings in my district."
Spokesman Bob Meissner of Stupak's office indicated on Wednesday the details of the public comment period are still being formed. The Department of Energy, Meissner explained, will be contacting local law enforcement agencies, emergency response personnel, county boards and municipalities asking for comments regarding the shipments.
In a letter from Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson the additional comment period was announced with the department expressing a willingness to meet with Michigan transportation and emergency response personnel to discuss and address routing and safety concerns. The most frequent concern, at least from local folks, appears to stem from potential harm done to the Great Lakes should one of the shipments be spilled while crossing the Mackinac Bridge or International Bridge.
Public comment will be accepted through Oct. 30. At this juncture, public meetings do not appear to be part of the public comment plan, although a press release from Stupak's office indicates the congressman is continuing to work toward that goal.
The Department of Energy's initial plan was to ship weapons-grade plutonium from the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico to Chalk River, Ont. sometime this fall. The shipments are designed to test whether Canadian reactors would be capable of disposing radioactive materials from the United States and Russian weapons programs.
Stupak and other elected officials along the route called for public hearings after learning of the proposed shipment, but those initial requests fell on deaf ears at the Department of Energy. The U.S. House of Representatives called for public hearings on the matter back on Sept. 15, apparently triggering a renewed sense of cooperation from Energy Department officials.
Stupak does support efforts to dispose of the radioactive fuel, composed of rods containing plutonium oxide and uranium oxide, according to published accounts. However, he has frequently criticized the shipment's route through northern Michigan as the one with the second-highest risk level and the second-longest in miles traveled.
Citizens wishing to provide their own comments on the shipment can contact the Department of Energy by mail, fax, or the Internet at:
United States Department of Energy,
Office of Fissile Materials Disposition,
P.O. Box 23786, Washington, DC 20026-3786,
or by fax at 1-800-820-5156
or at http://www.doe-md.com.
NDP Press Release
OTTAWA - "It's time to listen to Canadians on MOX plutonium imports" Alexa McDonough, NDP Leader said today.
Yesterday, the city of Nepean joined other large Ontario municipalities in objecting to the government's proposal to truck MOX fuel, containing weapons-grade plutonium, through their communities. The United States government also announced it was delaying plans to ship MOX fuel into Canada until full public hearings could be held on the issue.
"It is unacceptable such an environmentally hazardous scheme is being set in motion without public or parliamentary support," McDonough said. "Canadians should have ample opportunity to assess and debate whether they are in agreement with a plan to have Canada become the dumping ground for nuclear material accumulated by the Russia and the US during the Cold War."
The Liberals seem determined to push ahead regardless of public input. Transport Minister Ralph Goodale told residents of Sault Ste Marie in a recent letter that resolutions from municipal councils would not bar the use of transport routes in Canada.
"Canadians have legitimate safety and environmental concerns about the transport, use and large scale disposition of nuclear waste material in this country," McDonough said. "Yesterday's nuclear accident in Tokyo underscores the need for extra vigilance with nuclear power generation."
See attached NDP Fact Sheet on MOX
by Jacki Leroux
The nuclear accident in Japan should act as a warning against Canada getting involved in the transportation of plutonium to a test reactor at Chalk River, an anti-nuclear group said yesterday.
"This really underscores the fact that when the nuclear industry tells me something is safe, it's not always the case," said Kristen Ostling, of the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout.
The leak in Japan came on the same day that Atomic Energy of Canada held a public forum at Nepean city hall to address concerns about a shipment of mixed oxide -- a blend of plutonium and uranium oxides used as fuel in nuclear power plants -- that is supposed to pass through the region.
AEC plans to transport the MOX from American [and Russian] warheads to the Chalk River nuclear facility for testing as nuclear reactor fuel.
Current plans call for the [Russian] shipment to pass through Ottawa-Carleton [while the American shipment would come] from Sault Ste. Marie via highways 416 and 417.
Ostling and Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, asked Nepean council last night to oppose the shipment.
"By promoting commercial use of plutonium, they're making the world a far more dangerous place," Edwards said.
After a 90-minute discussion, council unanimously passed the resolution to prohibit MOX from being transported through Nepean.
by Nicolas van Praet
People who live in two Mohawk communities near Montreal say they don't want imported Russian plutonium to pass through their territory and are considering action to signal their disapproval.
Atomic Energy of Canada is set to transfer up to 50 tonnes of fuel from old Russian nuclear warheads up the St. Lawrence Seaway, through Kahnawake and Akwesasne Mohawk territory, and into Cornwall, Ont. The fuel contains plutonium.
The final destination is the Chalk River nuclear-research facility in the Ottawa Valley. There, the plutonium, mixed with uranium, will be tested to see whether it can be used in Canadian Candu nuclear reactors.
"The concern is that these chemicals are dangerous. We just don't want it," said Timmy Norton, spokesman for the Mohawk council of Kahnawake.
"They're saying it's safe, but we don't buy it.
"According to the documentation we have, if the material gets out, it takes 250 years before it's gone. That's how bad the contamination is."
Representatives of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. pitched their case for the safe transfer of the plutonium to Mohawk residents of the Akwesasne reserve near Cornwall last night.
The Mohawks of Akwesasne and those of Kahnawake reserve on the South Shore are to reveal today what they will do about the transfer, said Mike Mitchell, grand chief of the Akwesasne council.
Atomic Energy of Canada refuses to say, for security reasons, when the plutonium would be moved.
It seems the government has already anticipated protests or blocking of the shipment along the way.
A Department of National Defence document obtained by the Ottawa Citizen under the Access to Information Act advises police escorting the plutonium to play on protesters' fears about the shipment. It tells police to talk back to protesters and advise them to let the shipment through without delay "if it's as dangerous as they claim."
Canada has "one of the most stringent safety systems in the world, and an excellent track record of transporting dangerous goods of all types," federal Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement when the government announced Sept.2 that it was going ahead with the transfer.
The mixed oxide fuel is a solid and can't spill, Goodale said. "It can't ignite or burn and it's not a powder that can be inhaled."
Lloyd Axworthy, minister of foreign affairs, has called the plan to burn the excess Cold War plutonium "a step forward in getting rid of nuclear weapons."
But Gordon Edwards, director of the Canadian Coalition on Nuclear Responsibility, said in a telephone interview yesterday the plan was "a well-packaged, harebrained scheme."
"What they're really talking about is commercializing plutonium, not getting rid of it."
By Kathryn Tolbert and Shigehiko Togo
Special to The Star
with files from
AP and Los Angeles Times
TOKYO - Workers accidentally set off a chain reaction at a uranium [chemical] processing plant about 100 kilometres northeast of Tokyo yesterday, sparking Japan's worst nuclear accident.
Civil defence officials ordered more than 310,000 people in the area surrounding Tokai-mura to stay in their homes through the night and today.
Three workers were hospitalized, two in critical condition.
"I understand that this is a type of accident that was seen in the 1950s," said the government's chief spokesperson Hiromu Nonaka. "As a modern nation, it's shameful that this kind of accident happened."
Officials still had no clear answer on the potential long-term effects of the incident, which has exposed 55 people to radiation, possibly contaminating them, as of this morning, reports said. This included 45 people working at the plant, three firefighters and seven people working at a nearly golf course.
Police ordered about 150 people living near the plant to evacuate immediately and sealed off the area.
This morning, all 137 schools and kindergartens in the affected 10-kilometre area were closed, post offices were shuttered and train service through the area was halted.
The fission reaction continued for 17 hours before being brought under control early this morning, according to the region's governor Masaru Hashimoto.
The company that runs the plant acknowledged violating in-house safety rules.
"We have no words to express our apologies," said Makoto Morita, a spokesperson for the company JCO.
The processing plant is operated by the private company JCO, which is owned by Sumitomo Metal Mining Co.
Plant officials acknowledged that plant workers had caused the accident by not following procedures and adding too much uranium to the process.
The plant is in the village of Tokai-mura, which has a population of about 34,000 and is home to 15 nuclear-related facilities.
Early today, officials said they were able to contain the situation by sending workers into the plant for a few minutes at a time to drain water from the uranium processor and stop the reaction. Soon after, radiation monitors in the building began to show levels returning to zero.
Earlier, radiation detectors at the site recorded levels 11,000 to 15,000 times above normal, while areas outside showed levels far higher than normal.
By this morning, radiation levels had fallen to very close to normal, officials said.
The Japanese news media declared it the nation's worst nuclear accident because of the amount of radiation poisoning suffered by the three employees inside the plant.
It was also the first time people outside a nuclear facility were accidentally exposed to traces of radiation.
The United States and Russia offered technical assistance, which Japan said it would consider.
Uranium emits dangerous radiation of various kinds, most of which can be fairly easily blocked by building walls and other cladding.
But when enough uranium is put together in the same place under the right conditions, it can reach a "critical mass" or "criticality" in which neutrons emitted from the nuclei of some of the atoms cause the nuclei of neighbouring atoms to split apart in a chain-reaction process called nuclear fission.
Uncontrolled, explosive fission reactions can cause the kind of devastating energy release seen in the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
When fission is employed in a controlled form in nuclear power reactors, the energy released by the uranium-rich fuel rods is used to generate heat that in turn produces electric power.
The Japanese plant turns uranium into fuel for nuclear power plants. The accident reportedly took place when workers put too much [enriched] uranium -- 16 kilograms instead of about 2.4 kilograms -- into a liquid mixture of uranium and other compounds.
The excess was enough to create a critical mass and begin a fission chain reaction.
The first people to approach the site after the accident were three two-person teams who went in between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m. today for a few minutes each to take photographs, confirm that water circulation was still taking place and then to turn off the water supply and drain out the water coolant surrounding the uranium.
Water can encourage nuclear fission reactions by slowing emitted nuclear particles to the speed at which they break up nuclei in surrounding atoms.
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi acknowledged late yesterday the government was slow in reacting to the accident, Kyodo News agency reported.
Of the workers inside the plant, Hisashi Ouchi and Masato Shinohara had abnormally high white blood cell counts, diarrhea and were barely conscious, said a hospital official.
Several experts in the United States, however, noted that the event appeared to be nowhere near as dangerous as the catastrophe at Chernobyl, Ukraine, or even the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
And 16 kilograms of uranium, while not a trivial amount, is relatively small compared with the 50 to 70 tonnes of uranium in a typical commercial nuclear power plant.
Accidents have plagued the nuclear-power industry in Japan -- a land that relies on atomic energy for about one-third of its electricity.
Reuters (3:30 pm EDT)
TOKYO (Reuters) - Radiation levels were 15,000 times normal 1.2 miles from the site of Thursday morning's nuclear accident, a local government official said early Friday.
"As of late Thursday night, 3.1 millisievert of neutrons per hour, or about 15,000 times the normal level of radiation, was detected two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the accident site," an Ibaraki Prefecture official told Reuters.
The official said radiation was too high to allow safety experts to approach the uranium processing plant.
"It's not a situation where you can get close to the actual site," the Ibaraki official said. "What we are trying to do now is come up with measures to contain or extract the radiation from around it."
The country's worst nuclear accident is believed to have exposed at least 19 people to radiation. Two are in serious condition.
Local authorities have also instructed 313,000 people living within the 6-mile radius of the site to stay indoors. The plant, 90 miles northeast of Tokyo, turns liquid uranium into pellets for sale to nuclear power plants.