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Friday, October 8, 1999 Published at 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Second nuclear leak in Japan

Police in protective suits clear roads around Tokaimura

A second radiation leak has been discovered in Japan, just one week after the country suffered its worst nuclear accident.

Officials said a small amount of radiation had escaped from two barrels of low-level nuclear waste in northern Japan.

[ image: About 50 people were exposed to radiation at Tokaimura]
About 50 people were exposed to radiation at Tokaimura
Tokyo Electric Power Co said it was investigating the cause of the leakage, but that the levels were too small to be harmful.

The barrels were among 1,760 barrels transported last month from one of the firm's nuclear plants in Fukushima to a nuclear waste disposal facility in Rokkasho village, owned by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.

A routine inspection, completed on Friday, showed that two of the containers had traces of leakage.

Tokaimura accident

The disclosure comes a week after around 50 people were exposed to radiation at a reprocessing plant in Tokaimura.

Japan's nuclear crisis
It is now expected the leak will be upgraded to the same level of severity as the US' Three Mile Island accident, 10 years ago - one level higher than first thought.

The accident on 30 September is thought to have happened when three workers at the plant transferred eight times the normal amount of enriched uranium into a chemical bath.

This caused nuclear fission and a self-sustaining nuclear reaction.

[ image: Buckets were used to transfer nuclear material by hand]
Buckets were used to transfer nuclear material by hand
Japanese police plan to press criminal charges against JCO Co Ltd, the operators of the Tokaimura plant.

The company has acknowledged serious lapses in safety procedures, including the practice of transferring nuclear material by hand in buckets.

More than 300,000 residents living near the plant were told to stay indoors after the accident because of the dangers posed by radioactive fallout.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi pledged to tighten safeguards in the country's nuclear facilities.

Japan relies heavily on nuclear power which provides about 35% of its energy needs.

In spite of the accident the government is pressing ahead with its nuclear energy programme with plans to bring another 20 nuclear reactors on stream by 2010.

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