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Fallout of Japan's nuclear policy

Despite another accident yesterday, energy-hungry Japan remains

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For Japanese, the news of a nuclear accident yesterday provoked an uncomfortable sense of dj vu.

Helicopters, fire engines, and police rushed to seal off parts of the northern industrial town of Tokaimura in the sixth nuclear mishap in Japan during the past two years.

Workers at a local uranium processing plant saw a blue glow yesterday morning and reported feeling ill shortly thereafter. About 150 nearby homes were evacuated. Students and residents in schools and homes farther away were instructed to close their windows and stay indoors.

By early afternoon, local officials acknowledged that a spill at the plant had boosted radiation levels to 10,000 times above safety levels.

At press time, the seriousness of the accident and the injuries remained unclear. Some officials here say it could result in Japan's worst injuries from a nuclear accident to date.

For a nation that gets nearly one-third of its electricity from nuclear power, this latest leak underscores the tension between government plans to boost nuclear-energy output and the industry's poor safety record.

Troubled nuclear past

Accidents and controversy have dogged the nuclear industry here for years. In some past accidents, officials have attempted to downplay or cover up damage. Despite this history, widespread public concern, and the uncertainty of building nuclear plants on an island chain highly prone to earthquakes, Japan's commitment to developing nuclear energy remains strong.

Energy needs historically have driven Japan to take risks. But in this resource-poor archipelago, even those who oppose nuclear power admit that for now, it seems to be the only way that the nation can establish greater energy self-sufficiency.

"If there was a strong policy for safe, sustainable, renewable energy, many people would choose it instead of nuclear power," says Hiroshima-based antinuclear activist Satomi Oba. "But we have no alternative right now. We need electricity."

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