March 9

This Day in History

Disaster

Mar 9, 1981:

Japanese power plant leaks radioactive waste

A nuclear accident at a Japan Atomic Power Company plant in Tsuruga, Japan, exposes 59 workers to radiation on this day in 1981. As seems all too common with nuclear-power accidents, the officials in charge failed to timely inform the public and nearby residents, endangering them needlessly.

Tsuruga lies near Wakasa Bay on the west coast of Japan. Approximately 60,000 people lived in the area surrounding the atomic power plant. On March 9, a worker forgot to shut a critical valve, causing a radioactive sludge tank to overflow. Fifty-six workers were sent in to mop up the radioactive sludge before the leak could escape the disposal building, but the plan was not successful and 16 tons of waste spilled into Wakasa Bay.

Despite the obvious risk to people eating contaminated fish caught in the bay, Japan's Atomic Power Commission made no public mention of the accident or spill. The public was told nothing of the accident until more than a month later, when a newspaper caught wind of and reported the story. By then, seaweed in the area was found to have radioactive levels 10 times greater than normal. Cobalt-60 levels were 5,000 times higher than previous highs recorded in the area.

Finally, on April 21, the Atomic Power Commission publicly admitted the nuclear accident but denied that anyone had been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Two days later, the company running the plant declared that they had not announced the accident right away because of Japanese emotionalism toward anything nuclear. The public also learned for the first time that, in an earlier incident at the same plant in January 1981, 45 workers had been exposed to radiation.

All the fish caught in Wakasa Bay following the accident were recalled and reports indicate that fish in the area displayed far more mutations than normal for several years after the incident. In May 1981, the president and chairman of the Japan Atomic Power Company resigned.

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