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October 1, 1999

CONTACT: Dr. Edwin Lyman
(202) 822-8444


Washington, DC --- Dr. Edwin Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute, issued the following statement today on the September 30 criticality accident at the JCO Co. uranium fuel conversion plant in Tokai-mura, Japan:

"The Nuclear Control Institute would like to express its deepest sympathies to the workers and residents affected by the terrible accident yesterday at Tokai-mura, the most severe accident in the history of the Japanese nuclear program, and sends its hope that those injured will make a complete recovery.

"Yesterday's accident provides further graphic evidence that advanced nuclear fuel cycle development is the Achilles' heel of the Japanese nuclear power program. The full responsibility for this disaster clearly lies with the nuclear bureaucrats who continue to actively promote hazardous activities such as reprocessing of spent fuel, use of plutonium (MOX) fuel in existing light-water reactors and development of fast breeder reactors.

"It is our understanding that this accident occurred during the fabrication of fuel for the experimental fast breeder reactor Joyo, containing uranium enriched to nearly 19% in the fissile isotope uranium-235 (U-235). The risk of a criticality accident is much greater when working with uranium of this enrichment level than when working with low-enriched uranium for use in commercial light-water reactors (LWRs), which contains less than 5% U-235. Nevertheless, the plant operators did not take precautions appropriate for the increased hazard and in fact may have violated existing safety procedures.

"This accident joins a growing list of other dramatic failures plaguing Japan's nuclear fuel cycle program, including the 1995 leak of sodium coolant at the Monju fast breeder and the 1997 fire and explosion at the Tokai-mura reprocessing plant. It also bodes ill for Japan's ambitious plans to process and use plutonium on a large scale. The criticality risks associated with processing and use of plutonium are even greater than those associated with the medium-enriched uranium that caused the Tokai accident. Moreover, substituting plutonium fuel for low-enriched uranium fuel in power reactors will increase both the probability and consequences of a severe accident.

"It is time for Japan to finally put the dangerous breeder and MOX programs to rest and to concentrate its resources on improving the safety of its existing nuclear plants fueled with low-enriched uranium. Otherwise, Japan will lose public acceptance of its nuclear power program. The additional safety risks associated with using plutonium could lead to an even greater disaster than the one at Tokai. This would put an end to nuclear power in Japan once and for all."

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