TOKYO – Japan pledged better safety practices for its troubled nuclear industry Tuesday after an accident at a government research facility that exposed 33 people to minor excess radiation was not immediately disclosed.
Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura, whose agency oversees research at the facility in Tokaimura, north of Tokyo, said the government will tighten oversight.
“It is crucial for a nuclear research facility to give top priority to safety measures,” Shimomura said. “Their lack of safety awareness and insufficient safety management systems apparently invited the problem.”
Japan’s nuclear industry has been in crisis since the March 2011 accident at the tsunami-hit Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986. The government has revamped its regulatory regime and is drafting stricter safety standards as troubles mount.
The accident occurred Thursday at the Hadron Experimental Facility of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex in Tokaimura, where at least two previous radiation accidents have occurred. Shimomura said the government will set up a panel to discuss reform and safety compliance at the government-run JAEA.
Researchers were trying to generate particles by directing a proton beam at some gold when their equipment overheated, causing the evaporation and release of radioactive gold, the JAEA said. The leak originally was thought to have been contained inside the lab, but it spread to other areas when a ventilation fan was switched on.
Out of 55 people tested, 22 had no excess exposure and 33 received radiation dosages of up to 1.7 millisieverts. That is about as much background radiation as a person in Japanese typically receives over a year.
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority rated the accident as Level 1, or third from the lowest level on a nine-level international scale. The March 2011 accident at the tsunami-hit Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, the country’s worst ever atomic energy disaster, was rated a 7, the top level on the scale.
No radiation was released to the outside environment in Tokaimura, but the accident’s handling and a failure by the JAEA to report the leak until more than a day later has added to concerns over safety standards and transparency in the industry.