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Saturday, October 2, 1999 Published at 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Nuclear accident inquiry begins

Tokaimura streets are deserted despite the all-clear

Police in Japan have been questioning officials from the uranium fuel processing company at the centre of the country's worst-ever nuclear accident.

Japan's nuclear crisis
Following the admission that proper procedures at the plant were ignored, the Tokyo-based JCO company's head of production has been interviewed by police.

Police have also taken a statement from one of the three workers seriously injured by exposure to radiation.

BBC News' Jill McGivering: Recriminations starting now that immediate crisis is over
The other two are still said to be too ill to give information and are expected to be given bone marrow transplants.

People in the village of Tokaimura, where the accident happened, are cautiously leaving their homes, to buy food or to exercise dogs on streets which until recently were only patrolled by police officers wearing white radiation suits.

Town declared 'safe'

Japanese authorities say radiation levels have returned to normal in Tokaimura.

[ image: JCO President Koji Kitani kneels to appologise in front of the to affected local residents]
JCO President Koji Kitani kneels to appologise in front of the to affected local residents
The Governor of Ibaraki Prefecture, Masaru Hashimoto, said he received confirmation at 0615 on Friday (2115GMT) that the nuclear chain reaction at the uranium processing plant had stopped.

More than 300,000 local people have been told they can now leave their homes, although a 350-metre "exclusion zone" is in force around the plant.

Human error

The BBC's Juliet Hindell: Locals still worried about levels of contamination
The accident occurred after workers at the plant poured too much uranium solution into a tank, setting off a so-called criticality flash, which pushed radiation in the area to 15,000 times above normal.

One of the workers reportedly told an official that he had used about 16kg of uranium - nearly eight times the normal amount - during the process just before the accident.

The resulting chain reaction pushed radiation in the area to 15,000 times the normal level.

More than 30 workers at the Tokaimura plant are thought to have been exposed to radiation.

[ image: Students protest the government's nuclear policy aafter the accident]
Students protest the government's nuclear policy aafter the accident
The victims include builders who had been working at the plant, people who live nearby and firemen who helped in the rescue.

Schools were shut, train services halted and farmers were warned not to harvest their crops until safety checks had been carried out.

Crops from six areas near the nuclear plant have been checked and further testing is due to take place.

Businesses may be given state loans to help them get over the effects of the accident

Government apologises

The Japanese Government has apologised for the slowness of the official response to the accident.

In an emergency meeting of Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's cabinet, a special task force was set up.

The chief cabinet secretary met representatives of the three main opposition parties, who said new laws on safety were needed.

But although public anger and mistrust of nuclear power may be growing, there is no sign that Japan will abandon its policy of building more nuclear plants.

Japan has 51 commercial nuclear power reactors, providing one third of the country's electricity.

International reaction

Washington has announced that a joint American and Russian team is being sent to assist in the wake of the accident.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) described the incident as "extremely serious".

The leak is the latest in a series of accidents at Japanese nuclear facilities, including a previous one at Tokaimura in which 35 workers were exposed to radiation.

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