Perhaps I am just a bad typist. But I have always thought it odd that eight times out of ten I should mistype ‘nuclear’ as ‘unclear’. Finally it all makes sense – perhaps my fingers are trying to tell me something.

The recent accident in Japan could not have done more to cloud the future of nuclear power. Tokaimura was Japan’s worst nuclear accident. It exposed nearly 50 people to radiation and affected more than 300 000 nearby residents.

An official assessment by the STA (Science and Technology Agency) later revealed that the level 4 accident might be upgraded to level 5 – giving it the unenviable honour of being the second worst nuclear accident, on a par with Three Mile Island.

It would seem that the facility was run more like the fictional “Springfield” nuclear power station in ‘The Simpsons’ than a strict processing plant. One might expect Homer Simpson to flaunt the rules but not supposedly trained professionals. JCO, the private company running the site, had allowed staff to bypass government safety regulations for more than four years.

Hiroyuki Ogawa, head of the plant’s planning group, admitted that the operating manual had been changed without seeking government approval. It also failed to inform the company’s headquarters.

Workers at the plant had not only disregarded safety standards but also ignored the safety standards set out in the modified manual.

According to JCO, the accident was caused by three workers who used a 10-litre stainless steel bucket, rather than the correct container designed to regulate the amount of uranium solution being transferred into a mixing tank. The supervisor also told the workers to pour 16 kg of uranium into the tank as opposed to the regulation 2.4 kg. This was done to cut the time taken for the procedure from three hours to 30 minutes.

In attempt to allay public fears the Japanese government has ordered a nationwide inspection of all nuclear fuel production facilities. Chief cabinet secretary, Hiromu Nonaka said that “this accident contradicts what Japan is renowned for and its standing as a leader in technological development”.

This may or may not be true. But the reality is that Japan will soon become “renowned” as a nation with a poor record on nuclear safety. There have been

several accidents over the last four years which have caused widespread criticism.

It was only last year we heard of another incident which was badly handled. On that occasion news of the incident took an unusual amount of time to reach officials of a government-run agency who were found to be out playing golf.

These accidents are certainly not the norm, but such bad press does the nuclear industry no favours. On the technology front it could damage the future market prospects for advanced US designed nuclear plants. It also brings into question the commercialization of the European PWR being jointly developed by Siemens and EDF through its subsidiary NPI.

Environmentally, pro-nuclear campaigners can argue that nuclear is one of the few solutions that can help countries reasonably meet their Kyoto objectives. High profile cases like Tokaimura,

however, provide more ammunition to the anti-nuclear lobbies seeking to close down nuclear plants around the world.

Germany has had its fair share of calls to decommission its nuclear plant, as has Sweden. Even the French government is coming under pressure from the Greens who are threatening to quit the government if premier Lionel Jospin does not prevent EDF from building a new generation of nuclear reactors.

It will be interesting to see what happens in France once the units there reach the end of their operating life. No doubt the rest of Europe would probably welcome any decision which would see a long term end to France’s nuclear generation. Environmental arguments aside, it would eventually eliminate the cheap electricity from France’s nuclear plant which some fear will dominate the deregulated market.

It may not make sense for some countries to close down nuclear plants, when in many cases the alternatives make less economic sense. But when a “Tokaimura” rears its ugly head, the word nuclear goes past being a typing error. It takes a step closer to becoming a word whose days may be more short-lived than the time it takes for news of a radiation leak to reach officials out playing golf.