Accident kills 4 at nuclear power plant in Japan

Non-radioactive steam burns workers

5 hurt


TOKYO - Superheated steam erupted from the ceiling of a nuclear power plant north of Kyoto yesterday, killing four workers and severely burning five others. It was Japan's worst nuclear accident.

Officials said the steam was not contaminated by radioactivity. No evacuations were ordered of the town of Mihama, where the plant is located. The Sea of Japan port is about 40 miles north of Kyoto, the country's historic capital.

"Radioactive materials weren't contained in the steam that leaked out," an official for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said at a news conference here.

Kansai Electric Power Co., the owner of the 28-year-old reactor at Mihama, said in a statement, "This incident will have no radiation effect on the surrounding environment."

But the accident is likely to add to Japanese concerns about nuclear power, just as high oil prices and the war in Iraq make it more attractive to economic planners here. With the world's third-largest nuclear power industry, after the United States and France, Japan relies on 52 nuclear power plants to generate almost one-third of the nation's electricity. But it has also been heavily dependant on oil imports from the Middle East and has worked aggressively with Russia over the last year to explore oil and gas deposits in Siberia.

A government plan calls for building 11 more nuclear plants and raising the percentage of the nation's power supplied by nuclear energy to nearly 40 percent by 2010. But these plans have stalled as the public has become increasingly wary of nuclear power. Many towns have held referendums, voting against building nuclear plants.

Wariness has been fueled by accidents and by a cover-up culture in which employees show far greater loyalty to their companies than to the public's right to know.

Last summer, Tokyo Electric Power Co, the nation's largest utility, was forced to close all 17 of its nuclear plants temporarily after admitting that it had faked safety reports for more than a decade.

"After the Tepco scandal of two years ago, today's accident would accelerate people's worry and suspicion about the safety management of the nuclear power plants," Satoshi Fujino, a staff member at Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, a private nuclear power watch organization, said in an interview. "This plant is pretty old, and there are many plants even older."

While the accident yesterday apparently did not involve radioactive releases, the horrific nature of the deaths has augmented the publicity.

"Staff rushed in screaming," a 65-year-old company cafeteria worker told Kyodo News. "I put in a container all the ice I could find and gave it."

Company officials said the accident took place in the turbine building of the No. 3 nuclear reactor in Mihama, which was scheduled to be closed Saturday for routine maintenance.

About 200 workers were in the building at 3:30 p.m., when a 2-foot-wide hole burst in a steel pipe that carried steam, pressurized and heated to as much as 400 degrees.

All of the dead and injured men had been working in the second-floor room where the pipe burst.

"The ones who died had stark white faces," Yoshihiro Sugiura, a doctor who treated them, told the Associated Press. "This shows they had rapidly been exposed to heat."

The United States had a similar accident at the Surry nuclear power plant in southern Virginia almost two decades ago, when an 18-inch steel pipe burst and released 30,000 gallons of boiling water and steam, killing four people.

Japanese nuclear safety officials it would be impossible for the leaked steam to contain radioactivity because the water in the steam turbines does not come into contact with water used to cool the reactor.

Kansai Electric said it closed the 826,000-kilowatt nuclear generation unit at the reactor and was not sure when it would be restarted.

A Kansai Electric official said at the news conference that the company was trying to determine the cause of the accident, and that the other two reactors at the complex would continue running.

Yosaku Fuji, president of Kansai Electric, apologized and bowed deeply before reporters at the televised news conference.

"We are deeply sorry to have caused so much concern," he said. "There is nothing we can say to the four who lost their lives. We pray for their souls from the bottom of our hearts and offer our condolences to their families. We are truly sorry."

With the accident occurring on the 59th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, political and industry leaders were quick on Monday to assure the public that a thorough investigation would take place.

"I think we must do our best to investigate the cause, to prevent a repeat, and to implement safety measures," said Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

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