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Uranium Processing Plant Leaks Radiation in Japan

By Kathryn Tolbert
THE WASHINGTON POST -- TOKYO

A leak at a uranium processing plant about 75 miles northeast of Tokyo spread radiation Thursday over a densely populated area and sent three workers to the hospital, two of them in critical condition.

It was the worst accident in the history of Japan’s nuclear power industry, which has experienced a series of recent mishaps.

About 150 people living near the Tokaimura plant were immediately evacuated as the area was sealed off, and thousands of others within a five-mile radius were told over loudspeakers not to go outside until the radiation level decreased. Around the plant radiation had reached 4,000 times normal level, according to the government’s Science and Technology Agency.

In addition to the three hospitalized workers, 11 other plant employees and five local residents were being treated for exposure to radiation, according to local officials.

“A major accident resulting in a radioactive leak has happened. We apologize from the bottom of our hearts,” said Koji Kitani, president of JCO, the company that operates the facility, bowing deeply at a news conference in Tokyo.

The privately operated plant processes uranium into fuel for nuclear power plants. The nuclear reaction was set off when workers mixed too much uranium in the tank, said company officials.

“We are still trying to find what exactly happened but we believe the uranium reached the critical point,” said Makoto Ujihara, head of the company’s Tokyo office. He said the workers told others “they saw blue flame rising from the fuel” and complained of nausea.

Local officials monitoring radiation levels reported a surge in the late afternoon, leading to fears that nuclear reaction was continuing at the plant and that the radioactive material had not yet spent itself.

“The situation is one our country has never experienced,” a government spokesman said.

Among recent nuclear power incidents, a fire at a separate facility at Tokaimura in 1997 exposed more than 30 people to radiation. Last July a nuclear power reactor in Fukui prefecture was shut down after radioactive coolant water leaked within the container.