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Expert: 5 Japanese Nuclear Workers Inhaled Plutonium, But This Used To Be Fairly Common

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Five Japanese nuclear workers were exposed to high levels of radiation Tuesday after a bag containing plutonium broke during an inspection.

The workers were opening the lid of a container holding 0.7 pounds of plutonium and uranium at a nuclear fuel research center in Oarai. The internal bag holding the radioactive materials was broken and radioactive material fell out.

The cause of the accident is not yet clear, but has raised concerns about how Japanese nuclear workers are protected.

Three of the five men had radioactive contamination inside their nostrils, according to the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA). All five men had radioactive material on their limbs, even after removing protective gear and taking a shower. The level of exposure is not enough to constitute an immediate health problem, but will likely increase the risk of cancer.

A bag containing plutonium broke while the men were inspecting equipment. The cause of the accident is not yet clear, but the incident raises concerns about how Japanese nuclear workers are protected.

“Such events are not common these days in nuclear facilities because of strict worker protection precautions and procedures to prevent any contaminations,” Lake Barrett, former deputy director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“However, mistakes can happen and personnel can become locally contaminated,” she said. “Decades ago, this sort of incident was fairly common without any news coverage, however these days there are much stricter precautions in place due to the great public sensitivity on all things nuclear.”

Shunichi Tanaka, the chairman of the Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, said the incident was caused by “work routine complacency.” He said regulators are investigating possible safety violations at the facility.

“[T]oday’s openness and transparency demands result in widespread coverage of something that is localized and likely not of significant health concern to the workers involved,” Barrett said.

“But it is a loss of control that should not have occurred and likely indicative of not implementing proper work precautions at the facility,” Barrett said. “So even though it has little health significance, it is a operational breakdown that JAEA needs to evaluate and take proper corrective actions to improve to prevent it from happening,”

The Oarai site houses several experimental nuclear reactors as well as an environmental reactivity monitoring center. Japan has a surplus of plutonium, which they recycle for continued electricity generation.

Japan hasn’t restarted as many nuclear plants as planned because of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Prior to the disaster, the country planned to build enough reactors to provide 50 percent of the country’s electricity.

The country now plans on restarting at least 32 of the 54 reactors. Officials want nuclear power to account for 20 percent of Japan’s total electricity generation by 2030.

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