Perspective from 4th Anniversary of the JCO Criticality Accident Nuke Info Tokyo No. 97

Since the criticality accident of September 30th 1999, the inside of the conversion test building, the site of the accident, has been closed to the public. In September, four years after the accident, JCO opened the conversion test building to the mass media as well as to the investigative committee of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan (AESJ). However, other than this they haven’t shown any signs of opening.

Just before that, in August, JCO submitted an application to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology for permission to dismantle and remove the inside of the conversion test building. They say that, as soon as permission is granted, all the machinery inside the conversion test building will be dismantled and stored on site as radioactive waste.

It is a fundamental principle that, for the purpose of elucidating the causes of the accident, the evidence must be preserved and made available to the public. The attitude of JCO, dismantling and removing the site so soon, when it has only been open to the public for such a limited time, will irreversibly eliminate the chance to verify the causes and preserve the lessons of the accident.

Since JCO announced in April that it would close down its business and remove the equipment inside the conversion test building, the JCO Criticality Accident Comprehensive Assessment Committee, a research project staffed by Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center and Japan Congress Against A- and H- Bombs, has continued to criticize the decision to remove the equipment. They have also requested that the conversion test building be preserved and opened to the public, but they haven’t received any reply from JCO. On September 5th Tokai Village also submitted a request that for the time being the removal of the equipment be halted. It further indicated that, without an “explanatory meeting for the local residents,” “opening of the facility to the local residents,” and “consultation with the village,” etc, removal of the equipment is unacceptable. Actually, however, the fact that this request came from Tokai Village and not the central government reveals that the safety culture that the Nuclear Safety Commission and others of their ilk keep reciting is just lip service and that what they really want is for this accident to fade into oblivion.

In future JCO will produce nothing. It will continue to exist only in order to sort out compensation for damages and the management of the radioactive waste. JCO’s maintenance costs are around 800 million yen per year and are no small burden for its parent company Sumitomo Metal Mining. The company traces its origins back to the Edo era, having grown from a copper mining and refining business, but it is now regretting its diversification into nuclear energy etc and is indicating that it will concentrate on its core business.

The reason why the Sumitomo Group, a metal industry corporation, went into nuclear energy was because it believed in the fast breeder reactor paradigm, with its presumption of fast breeder reactor development. At one stage Sumitomo Atomic Energy Industries Limited, a sibling company of JCO, participated with Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC, currently JNC; Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute) in research into the reprocessing of fast breeder reactor spent fuel.

However, their predictions proved to be off target. Processing of uranium for the fast breeder reactor didn’t become JCO’s main line of work. Rather, the conversion test building became a small backwater burdened with all the stresses of the nuclear industry.

(Satoshi Fujino, CNIC)

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