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6 Given Suspended Prison Terms for Fatal Japanese Nuclear Accident - 2003-03-03

A court in Japan has handed out suspended prison terms to six officials of a nuclear processing plant after they were found guilty of negligence in the country's worst nuclear accident. Critics say the sentences are too lenient.

Monday's sentencing in the fatal nuclear accident has sparked an angry response from Japanese public interest groups. They say the punishment does not fit the severity of the crime.

In 1999, employees at the Tokaimura nuclear fuel reprocessing plant tried to save time by mixing uranium in buckets instead of special tanks, setting off an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. Two workers died from massive radiation exposure and 600 people were exposed to smaller doses of radiation.

The accident is considered the world's worst since the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, which blew a radioactive cloud across Europe.

On Monday, a Japanese court gave six officials suspended prison sentences. All worked for the JCO company, which operated the Tokaimura plant.

JCO was ordered to pay a fine of $8,500 and the plant's general manager was fined more than $4,000.

Baku Nishio is a representative for a nonprofit group called the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo. He says the fine may be the maximum legally allowed, but he thinks the sentence is very light from the public's point of view. His group wants more investigations and says the potential still exists for another accident to occur.

The judge in the case said Monday the accident had a huge impact on society, and shattered public trust in nuclear power. He also said the plant's operator did a sloppy job of overseeing safety and dismissed defense claims that the government was partly to blame because its inspections were not thorough.

However, he also took into account calls from the defense for leniency for the six officials, who had all pleaded guilty earlier.

Lawyers say neither the company nor the officials plan to appeal the sentences and fines.

Japan's nuclear power industry suffered another blow last year after Tokyo Electric Power, the nation's biggest utility, said its employees falsified nuclear safety records to hide problems. Tokyo Electric will shut its 17 nuclear reactors within the next two months for government-required safety inspections.