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Explosion at PNC Tokai reprocessing plant

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(March 14, 1997) On 11 March, at around 8:14pm (local time), an explosion occurred at the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Tokai-mura (Ibaragi Prefecture, east Japan). It took place in a building of Bitumen Solidification Facility, where low-level liquid radioactive waste is treated. Windows and doorway shutters were blown off by the explosion.

(468.4653) WISE-Amsterdam - The accident followed the small fire that had started in the same building earlier (at around 10am). It is likely that the extinguishment of the fire was not complete.

The explosion occurred in the room where workers combine low-level nuclear waste liquid with asphalt and put them into drums, according to Donen (PNC) officials. The explosion blew a door open, allowing radioactivity to escape from the plant, according to the findings of a Donen survey team that inspected the explosion site. One employee on the team was quoted as saying, "(The room) was damaged more severely than we had expected." The cause of the explosion has not been determined. Donen released 30 minutes of unedited videotape footage of the explosion site shot 3 hours after the explosion, and it showed the door was still open.

The function of the bituminization facility is to solidify condensed nuclear waste, combine it with asphalt and put the material into drums. Asphalt catches fire at about 250 degrees centrigade. The facility is designed to allow the temperature to rise no higher than 195 degrees, but the temperature control mechanism failed, Donen officials said.

PNC officials said that as of 12 March 4:40am, 21 workers had been exposed to radioactivity in the morning fire and later explosion at the facilty. However, Dutch radio news on the same day, claimed 35 workers inhaled radioactivity. Donen is forbidding entry to a 10,000-square-meter area around the facility, even though according to them, radioactivity in the area returned to normal levels on wednesday morning.

No confidence in government.
This accident is another blow for the Japanese nuclear society. After the sodium fire at the Monju Fast Breeder Reactor in December 1995, protest increased and public support for nuclear energy decreased.

More than one-half of all Japanese citizens have lost confidence in their government's statements concerning the safety of nuclear power, according to the latest survey conducted by the Research Council for Energy and Information Technology, in October last year. The figures, which showed that 57% of people surveyed had little or no confidence in government statements on nuclear energy, comprise the lowest vote of confidence since the surveys began.

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto criticized Donen officials' failure to notify the Science and Technology Agency of the emergencies promptly. Donen notified the agency about the fire at 10:40am, 30 minutes after the fire broke out. Hashimoto said that Donen should have notified the agency immediately after the fire broke out instead of waiting while they inspected the fire site.

Also on 11 March, the utility Kyushu Electric Power Co. withdrew plans to built two pressurized-water reactors at Kushima. Kyushu originally thought the location was very promising. But in October 1993, the municipal assembly initiated a law requiring a referendum to be held. The project was "mothballed" since then. Company officials say that the withdrawel is a consequence of strong opposition from local residents and fear for the outcome of a referendum to be held this summer. In August a referendum was held at Maki town. Sixty percent of teh voters said "No!" to the proposed construction of a four-unit nuclear reactor complex. (see WISE NC 457.4527).


  • Magpie Country Nukes Headliner #970311, 11 March 1997
  • Asahi Shimbun (Japan), English internet version, 12 March 1997
  • Dutch radio broadcast news, 12 March (12am, local time)
  • The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 3 March 1997

Contact: WISE Tokyo