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Tuesday, October 12, 1999 Published at 12:55 GMT 13:55 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Japan admits fresh radiation leak

The latest admission is unlikely to calm local health fears

The Japanese government has admitted that a ventilator was mistakenly left open for 12 days at the scene of Japan's worst nuclear accident, allowing radioactive particles to leak into the atmosphere.

Japan's nuclear crisis
The ventilator at the Tokaimura uranium processing plant was only turned off on Monday, three days after emissions of the radioactive substance iodine 131, higher than the legal limit, were detected around the plant.

Officials of the company which owns the plant, JCO, turned off the fans and sealed all the doors and windows.

"Looking back now, we think we should have measured the iodine much sooner," said Shinji Saeki, said a JCO spokesman.

The admission is likely to add weight to charges that officials in the Japanese nuclear industry have taken a lax approach to safety issues.

Health fears

Radioactive iodine, which can cause thyroid cancer, was blamed for the deaths of thousands of people after the 1986 reactor explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.

[ image: Owners of the plant have been accused of lax safety standards]
Owners of the plant have been accused of lax safety standards
A government official from the Japanese Science and Technology Agency said the iodine was not harmful to humans, but environmentalists and scientists say the blunder means radiation could have spread much further than previously thought.

The official also admitted that at first there had been no iodine monitors at the site.

He said there was a delay in turning off the fan after the link had been discovered because it took to install the right kind of filters so that it could be safely turned off.

The accident happened after three workers illegally used steel buckets to pour 16kg of uranium into settling tanks, creating the conditions for an self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

Two of the workers are in a critical condition and at least 47 other people were also exposed to high levels of radiation.

Japan is conducting an investigation into the accident and on Wednesday, a three member team from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna will arrive to start their own inquiries.

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