Winnipeg Free Press
by Kathryn Tolbert
The Washington Post (CP)
TOKYO -- As the investigation continues into Japan's worst nuclear accident a week ago, the government and environmental activists are increasingly concerned that it may have been more serious and affected more people than was initially reported.
The government decided to expand its examination of people possibly exposed to radiation near the uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, about 75 miles northeast of Tokyo, according to a spokesman for the Science and Technology Agency. A total of 63 people have been identified so far as having been exposed to radiation, including 14 workers who went briefly onto the plant site to try to stop the nuclear reaction occurring inside, and the three who were involved in the accident. Two workers are in serious condition.
"Initially we did not see the accident as being so serious," Masaru Hashimoto, governor of Ibaraki Prefecture, said yesterday.
Officials also said they are likely to raise the Sept. 30 accident's rating from level four to five on the international scale of seven, the same as The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in
1979. Such a move would indicate they believe the risk of contamination outside the plant was extensive.
The environmental group Greenpeace said yesterday that, based on its own analysis of samples taken about 500 yards from the plant, beyond the area evacuated by the government, the number of people exposed to radiation was certainly higher than government estimates.
Jan Rispens, an energy specialist with Greenpeace, said the government should be testing people more thoroughly.
"It's not enough to run Geiger counters over their arms and their feet," he said.
Extraordinary details of safety violations have come out daily since the accident. Officials of JCO Co., which operates the plant, have told reporters and admitted to investigators that workers used an illegal procedure for the past seven or eight years.
Other plant employees did not understand "criticality" -- the combination of conditions that produces nuclear fission -- according to Japanese newspaper reports. Company officials also said they had not made any preparations for this kind of a nuclear accident -- in which an excess of uranium poured into a mixing container triggered a nuclear chain reaction because they did not expect one.
The workers used buckets to transfer the uranium mixture from one tank to another, bypassing a cylinder that would have limited the amount of uranium they could use. The resulting nuclear reaction apparently continued for 17 to 20 hours, until workers succeeded in emptying water from the tanks and pouring in boric acid.
Families close to the plant were evacuated, while more than 300,000 other people were asked to stay indoors for more than 24 hours.
Rispens said the plant "had the safety standards of a bakery and not a nuclear facility. It was just a normal building."
Police searched JCO's Tokyo headquarters and its office in Tokaimura on Wednesday and carted off boxes of documents. The search warrants cited suspicion of professional negligence, a police spokesman said.
Japan relies on nuclear power for about a third of its energy needs, but the nuclear industry has been plagued by a series of accidents.
Globe and Mail
by Gay Abbate
Port Hope, Ont. -- Pat McMillan grew up thinking that burning eyes, dust-coated vegetables from the garden and foul-smelling air were a normal part of daily life.
Now she wants to know, once and for all, if there is a link between growing up in the shadow of a uranium refinery in Port Hope, Ont., and a litany of health problems that local residents describe. Yesterday, in an emotional plea, she begged the Atomic Energy Control Board to approve a study of the health of people who grew up near the Eldorado plant in this pretty town of 12,500 people on the shore of Lake Ontario.
"My brother, sister and I thought that everywhere in the world there must be thick yellow smoke bellowing out of smokestacks, smelling up the air with a stench much like rotten eggs. . . . It was normal to us to rub our eyes because of the smoke irritating them. We thought everyone experienced this smoke that would drop its dust particles to the ground, coating everything it touched with it," she told the board.
"We were children and we knew that the adults in our lives would never harm us. Or so we thought," she said.
The plant in Port Hope has operated for about 60 years. In 1988 Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. merged with a Saskatchewan company to form Cameco Corp. Its licence to operate the plant expires Dec. 31, and the company is seeking a renewal for five years. Residents asked the board to grant a temporary licence until a health study is conducted.
About 50 residents attended a meeting in Port Hope to push for the study. The renewal of Cameco's licence was also on the agenda, but a decision is not expected until December.
The board is not opposed to the request for a study to track the health problems of 150 people who lived in Port Hope from the 1940s to the 1960s. The contentious issue is who should do it. The board wants Health Canada to conduct it, but the residents say they no longer trust any government study and are demanding an independent consultant.
A representative said the board will try to reach a consensus with the community on who should do the study.
Among the residents at yesterday's meeting was Molly Mulloy, 40, wearing a scarf to cover the ravages of chemotherapy for a brain tumour that she says may kill her before her 42nd birthday.
"I suspect that having spent time playing in the ravines and water near the plant could have exposed me" to toxic substances that caused the tumour, she said in an interview.
Although she did not address the board, she stayed to show her support for those who did speak, among them her mother, Patricia.
For some 30 years Mrs. Lawson, now 70, has led the charge to discover the effect of toxic waste, including radioactive material, on the environment and the health of residents.
"How do we get at the truth of what has happened to us as a result of 60 years of having these contaminants in our midst?" she asked the board.
The board heard speaker after speaker recount family histories of early deaths and long-term illnesses.
Dorothy Hosking, whose family lived within the fallout of the Eldorado smokestack, lost her father to lung cancer, her younger brother to a heart attack when he was only 39 and another brother to stomach cancer. Her oldest brother has an inoperable brain tumour. Mrs. Hosking and another sister both have had serious health problems.
Her family history is not an isolated one, Christopher Hibbard, a former Port Hope resident, said in a written submission to the board.
"It is my strong conviction that exposure to this low-grade radiation seeping into the garden contributed to the unnecessary, untimely and early deaths of my brother and sisters," he stated. Three sisters died of lung cancer and a brother of brain and lung cancer.
by Peter Calamai
PORT HOPE - Outbursts of anger mixed with quiet tears when the people with the job of keeping atomic energy safe met the people whose homes, food, water and families have been assaulted by radioactive pollution for three decades.
"The nuclear industry has poisoned our land and poisoned our children," Patricia Lawson told the members of the Atomic Energy Control Board yesterday.
Lawson and a succession of townsfolk urged the control board to close Canada's only uranium refinery located here until detailed health studies are carried out on hundreds of current and past residents.
They claim that the refinery's radioactive emissions and waste have left the community with abnormally high rates of cancer and other genetic illnesses. Control board scientists say the kind of study urged by the residents wouldn't prove the afflictions were caused by the radiation.
"It would be meaningless," epidemiologist Suzana Fraser told the board members.
The year-long dispute over the community health study was the backdrop to more than two hours of testimony about past and present pollution by the refinery, which has applied to the control board for a five-year renewal of its operating licence.
The emotional peak of the day-long hearing were the heartfelt words from a succession of residents who described the damage to their lives and families which they blamed on the uranium refinery, long operated by Eldorado Nuclear, a federal Crown agency and now owned by Cameco Corp., a private company.
They spoke of betrayal by officials who were supposed to protect public health, of revealing documents that mysteriously disappeared, of friends afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation. They spoke too about the smokestack plume from the refinery which still showers fine uranium dust on the town and harbour.
Lawson spoke quietly about her 40-year-old daughter who has been given less than two years to live because of a brain tumour.
"It is now obvious to me that my right to a safe environment and to the health of my children and future children must be sacrificed to the future of the nuclear industry," she said.
Christopher Hibbard, who now lives in Peterborough, wrote of growing up in Port Hope with four brothers and sisters, all eating vegetables from a home garden. The garden was beside a driveway constructed from uranium waste fill provided by Eldorado.
All four of his siblings are now dead from cancer, dying at ages ranging from 53 to 64.
Board head Dr. Agnes Bishop said the control board faces a tough job separating the atomic pollution of the largely uncontrolled past from today's emissions, which are what the agency can regulate.
The board is not expected to make a formal decision on the licensing renewal until December.
What do you mean, oops?
If there's one place you don't want to hear "Oops," other than the operating table, it's in a nuclear reactor. Yet staff at a Japanese nuclear plant have proved once again that "foolproof" is an oxymoron. In doing so they have tapped into a deep-seated fear of things nuclear.
There is no doubt that nuclear power carries risk. So does everything. Coal mining kills far more people every year than reactor accidents (which have never killed anyone in North America). But it does so in small and predictable ways, whereas a nuclear accident (like Chernobyl) can kill a lot of people at once, or suddenly condemn them to a lingering death.
Before opting for coal, though, it is important to bear in mind its environmental risks. Nuclear plants have a very small "footprint" and, unless some idiot mixes in seven times too much, are very clean (disposal of nuclear waste is by no means as dangerous as environmentalists make it sound). Meanwhile, coal and oil create the small risk of running out of fuel and the large risk, for most countries, of dependence on foreign supplies.
In short, life is always risky, and people constantly balance risks against rewards. At least, they do if the legal system lets them. Thus the answer to the nuclear problem, as to many environmental issues, is secure property rights. People's governments are happy to make them live near nuclear plants exempted from normal rules of liability. But would people choose to, if given a choice? If so, nuclear is the answer. If not, it isn't.
by Vic Yanda
Japan's latest nuclear accident points out the folly of nations depending on Thursday's nuclear reactor technology to fulfil their electricity needs. Radiation levels at the affected Tokaimura plant (only about 200 km north of Tokyo) are apparently 15,000 times higher than normal.
If you live on a small island that becomes contaminated, where do you evacuate to?
If your nation depends on fish as its major source of protein, and your coastal waters are contaminated with radioactive isotopes that will inevitably enter the food chain, from where do you get your fish tomorrow? In whose waters will your fishermen then fish?
And what are the ultimate socio-economic ramifications of Japan's stated goal of attempting to produce 42 per cent of its
electricity via nuclear technology by the year 2010. Just how many more future "criticality incidents" can it tolerate?
Will Japan someday need another, non-radioactive, Place in the Sun?
Japan is blessed with a climate and location that permit extensive development of clean alternative energy technologies such as solar, wind, hydroelectric and tidal power sources. But today's scientific world spends probably 1,000 times more on research and development of nuclear technologies than on those of environmentally benign alternative power sources.
The only completely safe nuclear reactor is 150 million kilometres away! Let's use that one.
by Jonathan Watts in Tokaimura and Paul Brown
Nuclear powers around the world yesterday ordered safety checks on their own atomic plants in an attempt to reassure the public that a disaster similar to the one in Japan could not happen elsewhere.
In Britain it emerged that, even before the accident, inspectors had been ordered into nuclear power stations, including Sellafield in Cumbria, because of fears that safety standards within the industry were becoming lax.
After nearly 24 hours of terror in Japan, the people of Tokaimura, 95 miles from Tokyo, were assured that the immediate danger from the uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction which began on Thursday had ended.
More than 300,000 people were allowed to leave their homes but farmers were forbidden to harvest crops and water supplies were being checked for contamination. The area round the plant remained cordoned off but workers were allowed back in without protective clothing.
It emerged that the cause of the accident was extraordinarily casual behaviour by workers at the plant. Three of them had carried regulation amounts of 2.4kg (just over 5lbs) of enriched uranium in buckets and tipped it into a vat of nitric acid.
Only one bucket was supposed to enter the vat at a time but seven were poured in. As the contents of the seventh entered the vat there was a blue flash and a chain reaction began. One senior government adviser suggested that the men had "simply forgotten" that they were dealing with volatile 19% enriched uranium rather than the "ordinary" 2% enriched.
At least two of the workers are likely to pay for the mistake with their lives after receiving 20% more than the fatal dose of radiation, according to the hospital where they are being treated.
David Kyd, a spokesman for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said: "Our technical knowledge is such that we know that somebody that close to a flash criticality has very little chance of surviving.
"Of the three workers who were in the immediate vicinity, two are so seriously injured that their chances are slim. The third might survive given appropriate medical care but it will be touch and go."
The accident has caused immense public anger in Japan. It has emerged that there had been no government safety checks on the plant, which is run by JCO, the private company that makes fuel for the fast breeder reactor programme.
Only nuclear reactors are inspected, so the fuel fabrication plant has never been checked. It was also revealed yesterday that the workers were not wearing the protective clothing that should be standard.
At least 69 people were contaminated in the accident, including three firefighters, 36 workers and seven people who were working at a golf range near the plant.
In the US, President Bill Clinton said that the national security council and the Pentagon had been asked to review safety.
"I thought that we ought to have all of our people learn everything we could about what happened there, analyse our systems here and make sure we've done everything we can to protect ourselves," he said.
"There was a pretty good level of confidence that we had done that... but I think that when something like this happens, we realise we live in a world where perfection eludes us."
He was speaking at the White House after a telephone conversation with the Japanese prime minister, Keizo Obuchi, in which he offered all possible assistance.
Japan has assigned the accident a level four rating, making it the country's worst ever nuclear incident, but IAEA officials said the rating may be increased once the off-site impact had been assessed. Chernobyl rated 7, the top score on the same scale.
Before the all-clear yesterday, Tokaimura's streets were deserted and eerily silent, except for the announcements telling residents: "Please stay indoors". Medical checks have now been sought by 10,000 residents.
Several British families live near Tokaimura. Most work as English teachers or at the 14 nuclear facilities in the area.
One evacuee, Masatomo Ozaki, 20, said: "JCO tell us that the levels of radiation are safe now, but how can we believe them. They are the ones who caused this accident and delayed telling us."
A local farmer lamented "What will become of us? Even if it is safe, nobody will want to buy our crops now. We have had plenty of apologies, but not enough explanations."
Britain has no similar plants and did not order any special checks in response to the accident.
Useful links: Japan Science and Technology Agency Japan's Atomic Energy Programme Japanese Atomic Research Institute International Atomic Energy Agency Radiation Effects Research Foundation Greenpeace: Nuclear Campaign MOX fuel website
by Jonathan Watts in Tokaimura
Nobody knows what was going on in the minds of Hisashi Ouchi, Masato Shinohara and Yutaka Yokokawa when they made the childishly simple mistake that triggered the worst nuclear accident in Japanese history.
When they turned up for work on Thursday morning, they were expecting a day like any other. Their small, private-run plant in Tokaimura was considered a relatively low safety risk in comparison with the huge power generators and experimental reactors in the area. In fact, the building looked so innocuous that many locals were unaware it was a nuclear facility.
The three men felt secure enough to enter the processing area at about 10am without the regulation full protective clothing. Such complacency is worrying, but what they did next beggars belief.
According to JCO -- the company that operates the plant -- the three men cut corners in the most dangerous manner imaginable as they were preparing enriched uranium for use as reactor fuel. The maximum amount of the fissile material that should be kept together is 2.4kg, but they used almost seven times that amount -- enough to make a nuclear bomb. And while they should have used an automatic pump to move the uranium from tank to tank, they reportedly carried it manually in stainless steel buckets.
Moments later, the uranium reached critical mass, which set off a chain reaction of the sort that usually only occurs in explosions of atomic weapons or within the carefully controlled environment of a reactor. The last thing workers reported seeing before losing consciousness was a blue flash.
Then all hell broke loose within the plant. Alarms sounded and workers ran to rescue their colleagues before evacuating themselves. Medical and fire teams rushed to the site, where they were exposed to radioactivity that jumped suddenly to 4,000 times the normal level.
Meanwhile, less than a mile away, groups of children at the St Mary's international school were outside having physical education, unaware that radiation levels had crept up to more than 10 times what they should have been. It was not until more than three hours later that the school was told to keep all its children inside and shut all the doors and windows.
"I thought something was up when I saw lots of helicopters buzzing overhead, but I had no idea that it was so close," said the school's headmaster, Peter Gaskin.
By the time the children were inside, police wearing white protective clothing had cordoned off an area around the site. A public address system warned those living within a 350 metre radius to evacuate to a nearby community centre, where they were checked for contamination.
"I didn't have a clue what they were saying," said one of the evacuees. "All I could hear was a racket outsides the window, but then a neighbour rang me. That is when I became worried."
Those fears grew at 4pm, when readings showed that radioactivity, which seemed to have been subsiding, was on the rise again. This indicated that the chain reaction was continuing, but JCO inspectors were unable to get near enough to the contaminated area to confirm what was happening.
Over the next few hours, Japan was gripped by the fear that the accident was out of control. The prime minister, Keizo Obuchi, said the situation was extremely "grave" and cancelled a cabinet reshuffle that had been planned for the next day. The Ibaraki prefectural authorities expanded the "stay home" zone to a six-mile radius around the site, making 310,000 people captives in their own homes. Roads were closed and the East Japan Railway company halted trains through the area.
"It was terrifying," said Kenji Shibata. "I have lived in this area for all my life, but I never dreamed this would happen. I couldn't sleep at all last night."
Throughout the night, 16 JCO officials exposed themselves to radiation while trying to stop the chain reaction by draining the site of coolant water, which was serving only to reflect -- and increase -- the energy from the reaction. At 6.15am, they finally had the situation under control. The news, which was announced as Japan was waking up, helped to ease people's fears, but it did nothing to counter the growing feeling of anger.
"How could JCO have allowed three people to make such a fundamental mistake," said Michio Kawabata, a local resident. "And why did the authorities take such a long time to respond and to warn us about what happened?"
The same questions were being asked throughout the day by opposition politicians and media organisations. The government's top spokesman, Hiromu Nonaka, admitted that the government's response was slow. "As a modern nation, it is shameful that this kind of accident occurred."
Senior JCO officials have spent much of the past two days prostrating themselves in apology. At the evacuation centre in Tokaimura, two JCO managers went down on their hands and knees to beg for forgiveness from furious residents. "We have no words to express our apologies, We cannot escape our responsibility," said the company's spokesperson, Yukio Hiraoka.
That responsibility is likely to mean legal action. Yesterday, police began investigating the company's actions.
For those affected, however, this is little consolation. Two of the three injured men are in a critical condition. At least another 69 people have suffered harmful levels of radioactivity.
Residents remain worried. Although the all-clear was given yesterday afternoon, many said they would remain indoors. More than 10,000 have already sought medical checks.
"We have faced an invisible enemy," said Briton Penny Riley, an English teacher who lives less than a mile from the site and who was unable to sleep as she worried about herself and her daughter's safety. "We can only hope that there are no long-term effects."
by Nicole Gaouette
For Japanese, news of this week's nuclear accident provoked an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu.
Helicopters, fire engines and police rushed Thursday to seal off parts of the northern industrial town of Tokaimura after a spill at the local uranium-processing plant boosted radiation levels to 10,000 times above safety levels. Two workers remained in critical condition Friday and a third was listed in serious condition.
For a nation that gets nearly one-third of its electricity from nuclear power, this latest leak -- the country's sixth in two years and worst on record -- underscores the tension between government plans to boost nuclear-energy output and the industry's poor safety record.
Accidents and controversy have dogged the nuclear industry here for years. In some past accidents, officials have attempted to downplay or cover up damage. Despite this history, widespread public concern and the uncertainty of building nuclear plants on an island chain highly prone to earthquakes, Japan's commitment to developing nuclear energy remains strong.
Energy needs historically have driven Japan to take risks. But in this resource-poor archipelago, even those who oppose nuclear power admit that for now, it seems to be the only way that the nation can establish greater energy self-sufficiency.
"If there was a strong policy for safe, sustainable, renewable energy, many people would choose it instead of nuclear power," says Hiroshima-based antinuclear activist Satomi Oba. "But we have no alternative right now. We need electricity."
That is probably of little comfort to the residents of Tokaimura, 145 km northeast of Tokyo and home to 15 nuclear facilities. It is already known as the site of Japan's worst nuclear accident, which took place in 1997. In March that year, a fire in a fuel reprocessing plant was not put out properly and caused an explosion several hours later. Thirty-seven workers were exposed to radiation, and subsequent investigations revealed that officials tried to cover up aspects of the accident.
"All these nuclear power plants have been blundering," says Ryukichi Imai, a public policy adviser to various past and present atomic-energy commissions. "There are different reasons for the accidents at different plants, but these facilities are mostly old and have been used for a long time."
Toshiyuki Anegawa, section chief of the Nuclear Safety Policy Bureau at the Science and Technology Agency, says his agency hasn't worked out causes for the accidents. Even so, it remains committed to a nuclear strategy. With 51 nuclear power plants, Japan is the world's third-largest consumer of nuclear energy after the U.S. and France. Under a policy adopted in 1994, Japan aims to increase its nuclear capacity to just over 40 per cent of the country's energy supply by 2010.
"We see nuclear energy as a basic," says Anegawa.
That's because Japan has few other choices. It is almost entirely reliant on the outside world for fuel sources, a dependency that has shaped Japanese foreign policy for most of this century.
In the past, a perceived threat to Japan's energy sources was enough to prompt the country to launch its 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Today, ensuring the safety of shipping lanes to the Middle East remains a paramount concern to security officials.
And there is a widespread awareness of Japan's vulnerability when it comes to energy. "Nuclear power is our only choice," says Imai.
Yet all but a few of Japan's reactors rely on imported uranium. To achieve true energy self-sufficiency, the government has spent billions of dollars on a controversial plan to import plutonium to create a renewable source of nuclear energy.
A cargo of this plutonium reached Fukui prefecture in northern Japan on Monday and a second is expected to reach another undisclosed location soon.
Greenpeace has harshly criticized this plan, as the weapons-grade plutonium could be used to make as many as 60 nuclear bombs if it fell into the hands of terrorists.
by Tim Lougheed
Construction has started on Canada's first synchrotron, a $173.5-million device the size of a football field that spins electrons to high speeds and high energies.
The synchrotron is being built in Saskatoon and won't be ready for operation until 2003.
The scientific community can hardly wait.
The synchrotron will be able to generate beams of light about one billion times brighter than sunlight. Yet these intense beams can be controlled with a precision measured in the widths of atoms.
This combination of power and accuracy makes the synchrotron one of the most influential tools available on the cutting edge of pure and applied research in a wide range of fields.
Synchrotron light dramatically increases the rate at which samples of material can be analysed. Work that would have taken months or years can be done into days or even hours. The speed opens the way for innovations that include insights into the structure of matter and the nature of chemical reactions, the development of drugs, the design of entirely new types of computer chips and the manufacture of robots small enough to insert into the human bloodstream.
"This facility is not just a scientific toy," says Carleton University physicist Alexis Bawagan. "It is a place where ideas are produced, and you get real products which transform economies."
Mr. Bawagan's work deals with a process called photo-ionization, a complex aspect of chemical physics which has day-to-day implications such as the way light changes the colour of paint.
The synchrotron has given him an unrivalled ability to explore the features of this process at an atomic level, much more quickly and much more comprehensively than he could research by other means.
Similarly, McMaster University chemist Adam Hitchcock has been using a synchrotron to study the surface qualities of polymers compounds, work that has a direct bearing on the creation of new materials. In this case, one of the most promising prospects happens to be a more absorbent diaper lining.
Mike Bancroft, a physicist at the University of Western Ontario, has been using the technology to analyse the performance of thin films, pointing the way to better anti-wear films for vehicle engines.
All these scientists were acutely aware of the absence of any kind of synchrotron in Canada. Indeed, while some 18 industrialized nations have synchrotrons, there are fewer than 100 of these facilities in the world and about half of them are in the U.S., Japan and Germany.
Mr. Bancroft has been forced to approach his counterparts at a synchrotron in Madison, Wisconsin, and set up a modest facility which was used exclusively by Canadian researchers. Canadians have been able to work at this and other sites around the world, but only after standing in line and paying for the privilege. Apart from the cost, amounting to millions of dollars, there was also the problem of accessibility.
"These synchrotron sources around the world are all booked up," says Dennis Skopik, director of the Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory, a University of Saskatchewan installation where construction of the synchrotron started last week. "It's difficult to get time on them. If you're an established researcher, you have contacts that can get you in. But if you're a young researcher, it's very difficult."
Mr. Skopik and Mr. Bancroft were among the most active members of a group of scientists, engineers, corporations and politicians, who actively lobbied for a synchrotron for much of the past decade.
They pointed out that countries like Taiwan and Brazil were investing hundreds of millions of dollars in synchrotrons because they recognized them to be crucial to maintaining a nation's place in industry.
"For a country like Canada not to have its own synchrotron facility is a bit unusual," says Mr. Skopik. "This is a tool that's crucial. It would be like going into the last century without one single microscope in a university laboratory."
The University of Saskatchewan will own and operate the synchrotron for which it had enormous backing. It included $28.3 million from various federal government agencies, $25 million from the Saskatchewan government, $7.3 million from the university, $2.4 million from the City of Saskatoon, and $2 million from SaskPower Corporation. Another $19 million is expected to come from a variety of provincial, university and industrial partners, which will gain entry for their researchers to use the synchrotron beam.
The project, the largest single research project ever undertaken in Canada, finally got the green light in April when the Canada Foundation for Innovation awarded the synchrotron project $56.4 million. By the time the facility is fully operational in 2008, more than 200 scientists, technicians and operations staff should be working there, attracting as much as $35 million annually in scientific and commercial activity.
The Canadian Light Source (CLS)
by Sonni Efron and Valerie Reitman
The uranium processing plant where Japan's worst nuclear accident occurred was using an illegal procedure to mix radioactive materials, company officials admitted Saturday.
Workers had been using the procedure -- cited as one of the causes of Thursday's nuclear fission reaction -- for four or five years.
"This is completely unforgivable. I have nothing else to say," said Masaru Hashimoto, governor of Ibaraki prefecture, where the accident in the town of Tokaimura irradiated 49 people.
Plant owner JCO Co.'s head of manufacturing, Hiroyuki Ogawa, held a news conference Saturday at which he disclosed the existence of an illegal operations manual, which had been revised in 1997 and had never been submitted for the required government approval. Ogawa said company officials were well aware that the illicit procedure, in which uranium oxide was dissolved in a solution in stainless steel buckets, produced toxic emissions.
"This is a safety problem," Ogawa said. "We knew if we asked for formal approval, we would not get it."
The Science and Technology Agency called the manual "illegal."
The three men also had not been licensed by the government to deal with nuclear fuel. Nor were they required to be. Only one worker -- apparently anyone -- from a company that handles nuclear material is required to obtain certification.
The manual reportedly ordered workers to "prepare three clean stainless steel buckets," and Ogawa said he had witnessed workers using such buckets to mix the uranium solution for four or five years. The procedure bypassed the factory's elaborate system of preparing the uranium slowly to ensure that dangerous concentrations of uranium could not occur.
Ogawa said the bucket method was used as a timesaver because it took just 30 minutes compared with the three hours needed to pipe the chemicals through the vats in the proper procedure.
A host of other design and safety procedural violations were disclosed this weekend that altered the initial perception that irresponsible workers were to blame.
Among other factors, the workers Thursday were handling an unusually high-grade and potentially dangerous kind of uranium without special training or safety procedures. They also allegedly violated even the company's secret, timesaving procedures by dumping the uranium solution from the buckets into a precipitation tank that held a large quantity of uranium from a day earlier, triggering the reaction.
Hospital officials disclosed for the first time Saturday that two workers, Hisashi Ouchi and Masato Shinohara, had received more than lethal doses of radiation. Ouchi received 17 sieverts of radiation, Shinohara received 10 sieverts, and Yutaka Yokokawa was exposed to three sieverts. Seven sieverts is considered a lethal dose, and the exposure standard for Japanese citizens is 0.001 sievert at a time.
Ouchi, 35, was transferred to Tokyo University Hospital on Saturday to receive a blood transfusion taken from a newborn's umbilical cord, in a procedure that doctors hoped would compensate for his deteriorating ability to produce blood.
ILLUSTRATION: Photo: AP
A resident is tested for radiation exposure at a town hall in Tokaimura, Japan. Residents were allowed to return to their homes as radiation levels dropped.
TOKAIMURA, Japan (CP) - The government launched a full-scale investigation yesterday into the cause of Japan's worst nuclear disaster, while more questions arose about safety measures used at the site.
Workers at the uranium-processing plant in Tokaimura, a town of 33, 000 people about 112 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, had been ignoring legally binding procedures for four years, news media reported, quoting company officials.
To determine if this was true, the Science and Technology Agency, which oversees the country's nuclear program, began questioning officials of the plant's operator, JCO Co., agency spokesperson Ken Maruoka said.
The accident occurred Thursday after workers mistakenly put too much uranium into a bucket-like container, setting off an uncontrolled atomic reaction that continued for hours, spurting radioactive particles into the air.
Instead of relying on the high-tech equipment required at a nuclear facility, the workers had been manually pouring the potentially deadly material, company officials said. Japanese media reports also said the workers had never received proper training.
However, the Reuters news agency said JCO Co. acknowledged Saturday that it had illegally revised a government-approved manual to allow the workers to use stainless steel buckets to transfer the uranium solution into a mixing tank.
One of the employees, Hisashi Ouchi, was found to have been exposed to about 17,000 times the normal annual exposure to radiation.
"It is a lethal dose," said Dr. Kazuhiko Maekawa, one of the physicians treating Ouchi at Tokyo University Hospital.
Maekawa said the next few days will be critical. He said doctors have decided that Ouchi will receive a transplant of blood stem cells to help restore his white blood cell count and prevent him from losing the function of his bone marrow, which is keenly sensitive to radiation exposure.
The government says 49 people were exposed to the radiation, although Ouchi and two other plant workers were the only ones hospitalized. Doctors are considering a transplant of blood stem cells for another of the workers as well, said Saburo Tojo, a spokesperson for the National Institute of Radiological Sciences.
Officials again promised to find out what happened, amid public anger over how such a potentially devastating accident could have occurred.
by Donald McKenzie
KAHNAWAKE, Que. - Mohawk leaders yesterday promised their communities will use "human resistance" to stop the shipment of plutonium through native territory.
Atomic Energy of Canada plans to move up to 50 tonnes of fuel containing plutonium along the St. Lawrence Seaway before it reaches its final destination of Chalk River, Ont.
The route would include Mohawk territory on the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal and the Akwesasne reserve which straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state.
Mohawk leaders warned they would not let the plutonium pass. It is expected to arrive in Canada by ship from Russia in November.
"We will use every means possible to prevent it from coming through our territory," Joe Norton, grand chief of the Kahnawake Mohawks, told a news conference.
Norton and Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell both referred to the nuclear accident in Japan on Thursday when 55 people were exposed to radiation at a uranium-processing plant. Three people were listed in serious condition with little chance of survival.
"We feel no reassurance that the kind of precautions and safety measures that are being taken will in any way prevent something happening," Norton said.
Mitchell said the Mohawks hoped common sense would prevail. But if the plan went ahead, court action was possible. And if that did not work, "human resistance" would be next.
Asked to be more specific, he said: "That speaks pretty clear, what that would mean -- humans getting together and resisting.
"We don't wish to participate in one big experiment hosted by Canada. "
Mitchell said there was a danger the ship could run aground before it reached Cornwall because of lower water levels in the St. Lawrence.
Norton, meanwhile, raised the possibility that terrorists might want to hijack the ship. He also urged all Canadians to oppose the plan.
Transport Canada official John Read said Atomic Energy of Canada had filed a request for approval of its emergency-response plan.
Read said Canadians had until Oct. 15 to make their comments known on the idea. Transport Canada will reach a decision by Oct. 29.
Read said not enough plutonium was being shipped to cause explosions.
"To have a critical mass, you need four kilograms, 4,000 grams," he said. "What's involved is 132 grams. So, for this shipment, we've dismissed the possibility."
The ship will sail from St. Petersburg to Cornwall, where the contents will be transported by road to a nuclear-research facility in Chalk River in the Ottawa Valley.
Norton said if the mission went without a hitch, federal officials might be encouraged to allow Canada to become a dumping ground for nuclear waste from abroad.
A similar proposal has been made to transport plutonium from dismantled American warheads through Sault Ste. Marie to Chalk River.
Public hearings have been called in the Sault and North Bay, and the U.S. Energy Department this week agreed to delay the shipment until Oct. 24 to canvass public opinion.
ILLUSTATION ROBERT SKINNER / CP
RESISTANCE: Kahnawake Grand Chief Joe Norton, left, and Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell yesterday promised to oppose the transport of plutonium through native territory.
by Sonni Efron and Valerie Reitman
TOKYO - The uranium processing plant where Japan's worst nuclear accident occurred used an illegal operations manual that directed workers to save time by mixing a uranium solution in stainless steel buckets -- cited as one of the causes of Thursday's nuclear fission reaction, company officials admitted yesterday.
And in revelations that shocked Japan today, it was revealed workers had been performing that procedure for four or five years.
"This is completely unforgivable. I have nothing else to say," said Masaru Hashimoto, governor of Ibaraki prefecture, where the accident in the town of Tokaimura irradiated 49 people.
Three workers who were in the room at the time of the accident remain in hospital.
Plant owner JCO Co.'s head of manufacturing, Hiroyuki Ogawa, disclosed yesterday the existence of the manual, which had been revised in 1997 and never submitted for the required government approval.
Ogawa said company officials were well aware that the illicit procedure, in which uranium oxide was dissolved in a solution in stainless steel buckets, produced toxic emissions.
"This is a safety problem," Ogawa said. "We knew if we asked for formal approval, we would not get it."
The Science and Technology Agency called the manual "illegal."
Ogawa said he had witnessed workers using such buckets to mix the uranium solution for four or five years. The procedure bypassed the factory's elaborate system of preparing the uranium slowly to ensure dangerous concentrations of uranium could not occur.
Ogawa said the bucket method was used as a time saver because it took 30 minutes compared with the three hours needed to pipe the chemicals through vats in the proper procedure.
One of the workers seriously injured in the blast, Yutaka Yokokawa, 54, told police in an interview from his hospital bed Friday that the bucket procedure was used frequently, according to Japanese news reports.
The Tokaimura accident is considered the third-worst in history, after the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear disasters.
However, yesterday, Japanese officials permitted the last evacuees within 400 metres of the uranium processing plant to return to their homes and declared that the area around the plant is safe and that local crops, livestock and fish pose no health hazards.
by Michael Lev
TOKAIMURA, Japan - In the morning, this village northeast of Tokyo was an eerie ghost town that seemed populated only by police in gas masks hiding in their patrol cars.
No one walked the streets. Shops were closed. The toll booth off the highway was empty and the gate was up. Enter Tokaimura at your own risk.
In the afternoon there was life, as Japan's government gave the all-clear and announced that residents of this village 115 kilometres northeast of Tokyo could leave their homes. Technicians had stopped the radiation leak at a uranium processing plant where workers accidentally set off a nuclear chain reaction.
Radiation levels had returned to normal outside the plant in Tokaimura, officials said the day after Japan's worst nuclear accident. Samples of tap water, dust, soil and vegetables taken within a 10-kilometre radius of the plant showed no signs of radioactive contamination, they said. And medical checks of more than 4,600 residents revealed no abnormalities.
"Even in the long term, I do not foresee any health hazard" to the plant's neighbours, said Yoshitsugu Tanabe of the Ibaraki prefecture Nuclear Safety Committee.
But critics of Japan's accident-prone nuclear power industry said that assessment was premature and unduly rosy.
There was a sense of disbelief, and furious questions were being asked by people here: How could workers at the plant have been so careless and violated nuclear safety rules so flagrantly?
Officials from the government and the processing plant started offering details of what happened. The picture that began to emerge - while incomplete and only partially verifiable - is that the accident was caused by either extreme carelessness or a total lack of understanding of the danger involved in uranium processing.
"They showed a complete lack of respect for nuclear power," said Masaru Hashimoto, governor of Ibaraki Prefecture, where the accident occurred. "They treated us with contempt."
Keiji Kobayashi, an expert in nuclear reactor physics at Kyoto University, said the government had yet to release data showing how much of what kind of radiation had been spewed into the atmosphere. That's why assertions that the situation is now safe are not credible, he said.
"It is impossible to evaluate whether they are telling the truth since we do not know the amount or nature of the emissions," Kobayashi said in a telephone interview from Kyoto. "The government's priority is not to worry people, not to create panic or anxiety. This distorts the truth."
The World Health Organization said yesterday that the accident was " not a health concern outside the Japanese territory and is unlikely to have any public impact beyond the local population."
The Japanese government said it had not yet launched an investigation, but comments by officials and reports in the Japanese media suggested that three workers at the plant omitted several key safety steps.
The workers who were in the room when the nuclear reaction started with a blue flash of light were suffering from acute radiation poisoning and remained in hospital today. Two of them were in critical condition and were being kept in isolation rooms to protect their compromised immune systems.
At least 46 other people were exposed to radiation, but were allowed to go home and return for medical checkups in a week.
According to several media reports, the workers took a short-cut while repeating the purification process. They reportedly used a common cleaning bucket to pour a liquid uranium mixture into the settling basin, bypassing a complex filtering system. In doing so, far too much uranium was mixed together, causing the chain reaction.
"Someone decided to add 16 kilograms of uranium, instead of 2.4 kilograms -- a clear mistake in judgment," Science and Technology Agency chief Akito Arima told reporters. "Such an elementary mistake shows a decline in professional awareness among technicians and failure in safety management."
Officials from the plant operator, JCO Co., acknowledged causing the accident by violating safety rules and apologized, but they did not offer a specific explanation of why it happened. They also contradicted the description of the bucket, saying it was another kind of container, but it still shouldn't have been used.
"When I heard that they had not followed procedures according to the manual, I couldn't believe it," said Makoto Ujihara, JCO's Tokyo general manager. "Their way of handling it was not in the manual."
Makoto Morita, a JCO spokesperson, also acknowledged that the workers violated procedure.
"We have no words to express our apologies," he said. "We cannot escape our responsibility."
The company said the three workers were experienced nuclear technicians, but questions remained about their understanding of the procedure.
Japanese government officials also came under fire for delays in warning people living near the plant that there had been a serious accident. It took more than two hours for police to blockade roads around the plant.
"Unfortunately we must admit that we were behind in dealing with this accident," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka said.
"We admit that in deciding how serious the accident was, our assessment was inadequate."
Experts said there were likely to be no long-term health risks to people living in the area.
Rescue staff escort an injured worker,
second from right, to hospital on Thursday ,
after a radiation leak, blamed on careless staff,
at a uranium processing plant northeast of Tokyo.
by Liz Monteiro
"It is technically impossible," said Ted Gruetzner, spokesman for the Ontario Power Generation -- Bruce Nuclear Power Development.
Only one type of uranium -- the unstable isotope uranium 235 -- breaks apart and releases vast quantities of energy when there is a critical mass.
In Japan, and other countries such as the United States, Russia and a few European countries, atomic plants use uranium enriched to contain high quantities of the unstable U 235.
The accident Thursday in a Japanese town northeast of Tokyo is believed to have happened at a uranium process plant after workers loaded 16 kilograms of uranium into a container, nearly eight times the normal amount.
The mistake caused a flash of blue light inside the plant, which signals a nuclear chain reaction.
Canadian nuclear reactors use what is known as natural uranium and only trace amounts of the enriched uranium that can cause chain reactions, said Dr. Murray Stewart, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Nuclear Association, a 80-member group that represents the nuclear industry.
"We don't change that mix," said Stewart. He said the process used in Japan is very expensive and complex to handle.
The Japanese government declared the incident to be a "level four" on a scale of nuclear accidents, making it the country's worst ever.
by Peter Small
The kind of nuclear accident that occurred in Japan could almost certainly never happen in Canada because we don't use the sort of enriched uranium that led to that radiation leak, atomic energy officials say.
Canada is the only country that exclusively uses the much safer natural uranium to produce fission, said Murray Stewart, president of the Canadian Nuclear Association, an industry body.
Other countries use less stable enriched uranium fuel, which was produced at the Japanese facility for a reactor, he said.
"This couldn't happen here," Stewart said. "We don't do that."
Sunni Locatelli, a spokesperson for Atomic Energy Control Board, the industry regulator, said a similar mishap is highly unlikely here.
"You can never say never . . . nothing like that has ever happened and we would never anticipate anything like that to happen here."
In what may be Japan's worst nuclear accident, tens of thousands of residents in the northeastern Japanese town of Tokaimura were asked to remain indoors as officials tried to contain a radiation leak from a damaged uranium reprocessing plant that started Thursday.
Officials said 39 people had been treated for radiation exposure and three of them were in a critical condition receiving treatment in intensive care. It is believed that the accident occurred when 16 kilograms of uranium oxide was mixed with nitrate solution and transferred to a precipitation tank. Normally, the amount of uranium used is 2.4 kilograms.
The Japanese plant reprocessed spent fuel to recover enriched uranium and plutonium, Locatelli said. Canada doesn't reprocess spent fuel.
"There are different issues (in Canada) involving natural uranium but nothing that could cause what we call this criticality level, which is what they reached in Japan," she said.
"The uranium we handle here is handled in a solid state and only a small quantity of the enriched uranium is in the plant at any one time, and there are strick restrictions on the handling of that uranium," she said.
Stewart said because CANDU reactors in Canada use natural uranium, " our fuel is never in a situation that you can get a critical mass so that you actually start a chain reaction that normally should be constrained inside a nuclear power reactor."
Natural uranium has only a 0.7 per cent concentration of uranium 235 -- which creates a chain reaction when reaching critical mass, he said. Enriched uranium has a much higher concentration of uranium 235.
Fergal Nolan, president of the Radiation Safety Institute of Canada, agreed that the likelihood of a spontaneous reaction is remote here.
But his institute looks at the Japanese accident as a workplace safety issue.
"It brings to mind the necessity for a really well-developed safety culture for the workplace when you're dealing with radioactive materials," he said.
In Canada, 130,000 people work with radioactive materials, but fewer than 20,000 of those are in the nuclear energy industry, Nolan said. The rest work in other industries such as oil, steel, rubber, bottling and health industries.
"We sent a letter of sympathy to the (Japanese) workers yesterday," he said. There appeared to not be a highly developed safety culture in their plant, he added.
"This isn't just a nuclear accident. It's an industrial workplace accident and should be viewed in that context."
U.S. President Bill Clinton said yesterday that he had ordered a safety review of U.S. nuclear installations following the Japanese accident.
"I thought that we ought to have all of our people learn everything we could about what happened there, analyze our systems here and make sure we've done everything we can to protect ourselves," Clinton said. "There was a pretty good level of confidence that we had done that . . . but I think that when something like this happens, we realize we live in a world where perfection eludes us and we've got to keep working on this."
The president told reporters he had been informed of a similar incident that occurred in the U.S. about 30 years ago, apparently referring to fatal accident at a Rhode Island commercial nuclear reactor processing facility in 1964. The death of nuclear worker Robert Peabody in that accident remains the only fatality in U.S. history resulting from an accident at a commercial nuclear reactor.
Another accident similar to the recent incident nearly occurred at a facility in Wilmington, S.C., in 1991, said Edwin Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute, an independent research organization.
by Eric Siblin
Vow to use every means possible
to stop radioactive material
from passing through territory
Mohawk leaders are threatening "human resistance" to block Cold War plutonium from being shipped into Canada through the Kahnawake and Akwesasne reserves.
"I think it's pretty clear what that would mean: humans getting together and resisting," Grand Chief Joe Norton of the Kahnawake reserve said yesterday.
Norton declined to provide any details for the tough talk, saying only that Mohawk strategy will be as "secretive" as Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. has been about the project.
AECL is planning to test nuclear fuel containing plutonium from U.S. and Russian warheads at its Chalk River research reactor, northwest of Ottawa. The project -- which would mark the first time weapons-grade plutonium is transported in Canada -- is aimed at eliminating the stockpile of plutonium and making the world a safe place from nuclear weapons.
The radioactive material from Russia would be shipped through the St. Lawrence Seaway alongside Kahnawake, south of Montreal, and Akwesasne, before being off-loaded in Cornwall, Ont. From there the plutonium would be trucked along Ontario highways to Chalk River.
"We are totally dead-set against it and we will use every means possible to prevent it from coming through our territory," Norton said at a joint press conference in Kahnawake with Mike Mitchell, grand chief of the Akwesasne reserve that encompasses parts of Quebec, New York State, Ontario and several islands in the St. Lawrence.
The Liberal government has offered to burn plutonium from dismantled Russian and American warheads in Ontario Hydro nuclear reactors as part of Canada's contribution to nuclear disarmament. Yet the plan has set off alarm bells among anti-nuclear activists concerned that this country will become a dumping ground for plutonium.
An all-party foreign-affairs committee has come out against burning the so-called MOX (mixed oxide) fuel, which contains 3 per cent plutonium. The mayor of Cornwall is opposed, the mayor of Sault Ste. Marie's mayor has expressed grave concern, and firefighters have said they cannot ensure public safety in the event of an accident.
Transport Canada will decide whether to give the AECL project a green light on Oct. 29 following a month-long period of public consultation on the proposed delivery routes and emergency response plans.
Together with the Russian plutonium that will be shipped to Cornwall from St. Petersburg, the plan would also truck U.S. plutonium from Los Alamos, New Mexico, to Chalk River via Sault Ste. Marie. The first shipments would consist of 132 grams of plutonium from St. Petersburg and 119 grams from Los Alamos -- nowhere near the minimum 4,000 grams that the AECL says is required for an explosion to occur.
"The shipment is inherently safe," said AECL spokesman Larry Shewchuk. "It can't explode and the radiation is not an issue."
Despite such assurances, Akwesasne's Mitchell said the scheme is playing with nuclear fire. "One little molecule, one little gram can cause enormous damage. We found that out yesterday in Japan. One little mistake and boom -- you have an international health problem. This is not well-planned, not well-thought-out and we're trying to force a discussion.
"Today Mohawks have decided that there will be a strong reaction because the safety, the health and well-being of not only humans but the natural environment and the waterways, they're all at risk. And we don't wish to participate in one big experiment hosted by Canada."
He said that Kahnawake and Akwesasne would stand together on the issue, bringing to mind the 1990 Oka crisis when Warrior Society activists from both reserves blocked the Mercier Bridge and provided muscle for a 78-day armed standoff against the Sureté du Québec and the army.
by Stan Josey
Along with the Kincardine area, home to the Bruce nuclear plant, Clarington is the only other Canadian community on a short list of international sites for what eventually would be a global trial project.
The project for an International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which had been scheduled for completion in 2010, received a recent infusion of life in Canada with an announcement by the federal government that it will commit $1 million a year for three years to lay the groundwork for a possible pilot project in this country.
The federal money will be used to keep Canada at the forefront of the international search to find a site for the final phase of research on a nuclear fusion project. Japan and France are also considered favourites to win a competition for the reactor.
It's important that the site selected for the pilot project have access to skilled labour and a supply of tritium, a byproduct of a nuclear reaction.
Clarington Mayor Dianne Hamre, who is a member of the Canadian board of the project and whose town is the site of the Darlington nuclear plant, said she is pleased with the government's recent commitment.
"It's been a very good year for us with both federal and provincial governments committing support," she said. "Now we (Clarington) can continue to be part of the process."
If it is chosen, Clarington would stand to gain all the economic benefits associated with a research project of this magnitude, the mayor said.
"It brings large foreign investment and a boost to technological development. Scientists will come from all over the world with their families. It opens all kinds of doors for universities."
Many believe nuclear fusion to be the next generation of nuclear power production. But to date, many millions of dollars spent on research throughout the world has resulted in a nuclear fusion reaction of only two seconds.
At the heart of this process is a doughnut-shaped device called a tokamak, a Russian acronym, which uses vast amounts of electricity to produce the powerful magnetic fields that are the only way to contain swirling ions heated to tens of millions of degrees Centigrade.
In the fusion process, deuterium (heavy water) and tritium are forced together to form helium, releasing energy in the form of ion clouds.
These hot ion clouds, harnessed in the tokamak, theoretically can then be used to create energy by using generators, much the same as present hydro-producing nuclear reactors operating at Pickering and Darlington.
"People don't realize how active we are and how strongly we're going, " Hamre said. "We (Canada) have an approved (nuclear program) respected across the world."
An announcement on the host site, originally expected this year, is anticipated for 2003, she said.
The Independent (UK)
By Robert Fisk
Two military voices on the use of depleted uranium bullets in Kosovo. First from a K-For cove -- a spokesman, no less, in Pristina -- who insisted that "there's more risk from striking a match than from depleted uranium."
Quote of the week, quote of the year, perhaps.
Then there was the former NATO officer to whom I talked that same night, a weapons expert, former RAF, whose job is to wander Kosovo in search of unexploded (and exploded) weapons.
"I'm definitely suspicious any time I hear the word uranium," he told me. "A weapon isn't there to do you any good. The boffins have come up with this weapon. People who use it, or are on the receiving end, know only part of the facts. I'm very suspicious whenever I hear the word uranium."
So am I.
On Wednesday, April 14, NATO bombed a convoy of Kosovo Albanian refugees on the road between Djakovica and Prizren, saying, initially, that they may have been bombed by Serb aircraft.
A day later, along with Julian Manyon of Channel 4, I found -- beside the chopped-up corpses of the innocent dead -- a series of craters in the soft earth beside the highway.
"That's what the A-10 aircraft craters looked like in the Gulf," Manyon said.
And -- I prefer to forget the next bit -- I dug with my bare hands into the craters to see if I could find any piece of ordnance that carried some trace of the weapon's manufacturer. I did. I found metal fragments with codes stamped on them. They were American.
And NATO then admitted that it had bombed the Albanians "in error," because it thought they were a convoy of Serb armour.
But I put the pieces of shrapnel into a plastic bag, laid it on my hotel table in Belgrade. Small and burned they were, bright silver under my table lamp. Then I decided -- too late, perhaps --that they might be depleted uranium rounds, and dumped them in my hotel rubbish bin.
Did I carry U-238 in my schoolboy's shoulder-bag back to Belgrade that night, the detritus of nuclear fuel, the cause of all those cancerous tumours I saw breaking through the stomachs of Iraqi children less than a year before?
That question explains why I like to hear those K-For/NATO spokesmen telling me about the harmlessness, the absolute lack of hazard, of depleted uranium. I don't believe them.
But I'd like them to be right. I don't think they are. Here's why.
After Britain began the test-firing of depleted uranium (DU) shells in Cumbria and southwest Scotland, radiation reports showed serious contamination near towns in those areas. "Well above acceptable limits," the Ministry of Defence was to acknowledge later.
At Eskmeals, they fire shells into a tunnel that is then washed out, the dust sealed in concrete containers.
When a fire broke out at the Royal Ordnance Speciality Metals plant near Wolverhampton, where DU munitions are made, the National Radiological Protection Board said it had monitored "odd bits of DU."
In April 1991, the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority expressed concern about DU contamination in Kuwait.
"It would be unwise for people to stay close to large quantities of DU for long periods," it said. "There will be specific areas in which many rounds will have been fired where localized contamination of vehicles and the soil may exceed permissible limits and these could be hazardous to both cleanup teams and the local population."
In Iraq in 1997, I discovered thousands of civilians dying of cancers, families never touched by cancer before, mothers giving birth to children with leukemia, monstrous births of deformed babies, old men who lived in the farmlands south of Basra amid the very armoured wreckage that we, the Allies, had blasted with our uranium shells, who talked to me of sudden cancer deaths, of daughters with breast and liver cancer.
My favourite is a letter from the Ministry of Defence, sent almost word-for-word the same to several readers of The Independent. The author was Doug Henderson, then a defence minister, famous for his patriotic speeches during the Kosovo bombardment.
"The Government is aware of suggestions in the press, particularly by Robert Fisk of the Independent," he writes, "that there has been an increase in ill-health -- including alleged deformities, cancers and birth defects -- in southern Iraq, which some have attributed to the use of depleted uranium (DU)-based ammunition by U.K. and U.S. forces ... However, the government has not seen any peer-reviewed epidemiological research data on this population to support these claims."
I really like that bit about the "peer-reviewed epidemiological research data." Indeed, Henderson has seen none. Because the British have no intention of carrying out any such survey. The World Health Organization (now in Pristina) was originally asked by the Iraqis to conduct just such a survey. It never materialized.
So much for the "epidemiological research data."
But let's just remember the massive fire at the U.S. ammunition storage base at Doha in Kuwait in July 1991, when 3,200 kilograms of DU in tank rounds exploded.
"Uranium particles when breathed can be hazardous," the U.S. Central Command stated later.
"11ACR (the U.S. command at Doha) has been informed to treat the area as though it were a chemical area, that is, stay upwind and wear a protective mask in the vicinity."
And let's recall, too, the cleanup of DU contamination at the DU manufacturers in Concord, Massachusetts, and at Sandia National Laboratory and Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico (a test-firing range); the topsoil had to be removed, the U.S. army stated.
And the cost of cleaning just 500 acres of an Indiana DU proving ground has been estimated at around $7.5 billion.
In the Gulf, the U.S. Defence Department estimates 315 tons of DU was fired. And how much in Kosovo? We are not being told. No details. No comment. No cleanup.
Did the A-10s fire DU munitions around Pristina? Pec? Djakovica? Prizren? Mitrovica? And where did they fire these munitions in what we now like to call "Serbia proper?"
"What we say about DU," K-For's spokesman told me, "is that it is harmful if you digest it, like any other heavy metal. The most dangerous period is 15 minutes after the explosion. Then it goes to the ground and sinks."
Which is not true. The dust floats around, contaminates the air, almost certainly kills.
I read to the spokesman an aid agency's warning about DU -- the threat of contamination was very low, the warning said, but the residual dust "could pose an inhalation hazard. Children should not play on or near these vehicles. The minimum prescribed safe distance is no less than 50 metres."
Yes, said the spokesman, "these are the official lines -- I've seen this information in other briefings. There's nothing new in that, so to speak."
Oddly enough, the K-For man had, without knowing it, captured the very essence of depleted uranium shells and bullets when he talked about the supposedly greater danger of lighting a match.
For when they explode, DU rounds apply enormous kinetic energy over a small surface area of armour, igniting with a fire that veterans called "Dante's Inferno." It burns and pulverizes into a dust that soars into the sky in a heat column from a burning tank and drifts over the desert or fields.
Over 90,000 U.S. troops who served in the Gulf have reported medical problems.
There is no legislation specifically outlawing DU. But Article 35 of Additional Protocol 1 of the 1977 Geneva Convention states that "it is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment." So is DU legal?
Doug Rokke was a U.S. army doctor who went to the Gulf to help clean up the DU contamination after the 1991 Gulf War. But now his lungs are scarred, he has kidney damage and breathing difficulties, like some of the cancer sufferers in Iraq.
The aim of the Kosovo war, he said after the conflict had ended, "is to enable the Kosovars to return home. But unless the uranium is cleaned up, those that survive the Serb atrocities and the NATO aerial attacks will have to return to a contaminated environment where they may become ill."
Nothing new in that, I suppose. So to speak. Strike a light.
Volume 13 #55
Ontario Power Generation Inc. (née Ontario Hydro) is likely to try to return four of seven mothballed reactors to service. The OPGI board last month "reconfirmed its commitment" to return the four reactors of the 2,168 MW Pickering A nuclear generating station to service.
The Pickering A CANDU nuclear reactors, completed in 1971-1973, are Ontario's oldest, and until their shutdown were Ontario Hydro's worst performing units.
Pickering A and three reactors at Bruce A were shut after a 1997 critical assessment of Ontario Hydro's 20-reactor nuclear program by experts hired from the U.S. concluded that it was only operating at a "minimally acceptable" standard. This harsh conclusion led to a rapid reallocation of staff and money to the 12 newer reactors at Pickering B, Bruce B, and Darlington.
OPGI has now decided to extensively rehabilitate and restart Pickering A, and to raise its availability factor above an ambitious 88 percent. An OPGI statement indicated that the Pickering A restart "is subject to all regulatory approvals, including the successful completion of a thorough environmental assessment. The environmental assessment will begin this autumn, and will include extensive public consultation."
The statement coincided with the OPGI board's release of an undisclosed amount of money to prepare for the restart, on top of $46 million already allocated. Pickering station spokesman Don Terry stated that the new sums allocated cannot be disclosed or itemized, since contract awards are pending to one or more engineering groups, which are bidding to bring the reactors back into service. However, the total cost of the Pickering A restart, including the cost of the environmental assessment, is estimated at roughly $600 million.
A team of Duke Power and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. is reportedly on the short list of bidders for restoration and restart work. Another contender is Canadian Nuclear Engineers and Contractors, a consortium of Stone & Webster Canada Ltd., Canatom NPM, BFC Construction, and Comstock Canada Ltd.
OPGI's Pickering A commitment has angered Ontario groups opposed to the restart. "Ontario Power Generation is acting in bad faith proceeding with work on a Pickering A restart prior to completion of the environmental assessment," said Dave Martin of the Nuclear Awareness Project. "The Atomic Energy Control Board should demand a halt to all new work at Pickering A until the environmental assessment is completed."
Jake Brooks of the Independent Power Producers' Society of Ontario decried any measure such as a restart which allows OPGI preferential access to capital and more public debt, to the detriment of Ontario's new competitive electricity market due to start some time next year.
"It would be an unfortunate result indeed if, at the opening of competition, few or no competitors could close financing (for new generation projects) because special treatment of the nuclear units made nuclear marginal costs appear low, even though their overall costs were anything but competitive," Brooks commented.