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Thursday, October 7, 1999 Published at 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Nuclear plant faces criminal charges

Announcement follows Wednesday's massive police raids

Japanese police plan to press criminal charges against the operators of the uranium processing plant where the country's worst nuclear accident took place last week.

Japan's nuclear crisis
"We are proceeding with our investigation with a view to pressing criminal charges," against JCO Co Ltd, a police official said.

JCO's 61-year-old President, Hiroharu Kitani, is also likely to be charged for violating nuclear plant regulations. It is alleged that the company changed its operating manual without telling the government, which is illegal.

The company has acknowledged serious lapses in safety procedures in the plant, including the practice of transferring nuclear material by hand in buckets, rather than using the proper aparatus.

The BBC's Juliet Hindell:"The plant will be charged with breaking nuclear regulations"
Hundreds of police officers raided JCO's offices in Tokaimura, 120km (75 miles) northeast of Tokyo, and its headquarters in the capital on Wednesday.

The police statement came as the environmental group, Greenpeace, said the number of people in exposed to radiation during the accident was almost certainly higher than official estimates.

[ image: JCO worker Hisashi Ouchi suffered the most radiation exposure]
JCO worker Hisashi Ouchi suffered the most radiation exposure
Greenpeace said high levels of radiation appear to have been present at a distance of 500 metres from the plant during the critical period.

The group said this would have undoubtably affected hundreds of people nearby, not just the 50 or so claimed by the authorities.

The group also criticised the length of time it took to evacuate local residents, thereby exposing them to the radiation.

Tighter safeguards

There is growing public anger in Japan over alleged disregard for safety procedures at the Tokaimura plant and concern about nuclear installations in general.

Juliet Hindell: ''The company produced an illegal handbook allowing unsafe methods''
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi pledged to tighten safeguards in the country's nuclear facilities.

He spoke of ways to recover people's trust in nuclear energy during a visit to Tokaimura to met workers at the plant and local residents.

Tokaimura Mayor Tatsuya Murakami presented the prime minister with a lunch made from locally produced fish and vegetables.

Nuclear dependence

The accident on 30 September happened when three workers at the plant allegedly skipped key security steps and transferred eight times the normal amount of enriched uranium into a chemical bath.

[ image: Keizo Obuchi: Trying to regain people's trust]
Keizo Obuchi: Trying to regain people's trust
This caused nuclear fission and a self-sustaining nuclear reaction.

At least 49 people were exposed to dangerous radiation at the plant, and more than 300,000 residents nearby were told to stay indoors because of the dangers posed by radioactive fallout.

With few resources and energy hungry economy, Japan relies heavily on nuclear power which provides about 35% of Japan's energy needs.

In spite of last week's accident the government says it will press ahead with its nuclear energy programme with plans to bring another 20 nuclear reactors on stream by 2010.

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