Living next to 'most dangerous' plant on planet

Japan’s major Hamaoka nuclear complex near Tokyo sits above two unstable tectonic plates

Japan’s major Hamaoka nuclear complex near Tokyo sits above two unstable tectonic plates

NORIHIKO WATANABE is pointing to his home, 600 metres from what he calls the most dangerous nuclear power complex on the planet. “There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world,” he says, eyes widening. “If it blows up, we’re all finished.”

For years, Watanabe’s unofficial tour of Omaezeki, a small city of about 30,000 people, has included a pit stop at the exhibition centre in the Hamaoka nuclear plant. The centre, complete with cartoon figures for children, says the energy it generates is safe, cheap and clean: one section explains how seawater from the plant’s cooling system is used to incubate shellfish.

From the observation deck of the centre, the five-reactor complex can be seen nestling between a bank of trees and the azure Pacific. Just beyond its gates is Omaezeki, foregrounded by a peninsula of rolling emerald countryside with neat lines of tea trees stretching into the distance. The tea, along with fish from the sea, provided the area’s main income until Chubu Electric Power Company came 40 years ago.


Today, about 3,000 people work at the plant. Even its opponents acknowledge it has brought in more than 700 million dollars in subsidies since the 1970s. Locals are asked in return to ignore it is a catastrophe waiting to happen, says veteran anti-nuclear activist Eichi Nagano. “All of us thought that this would be where disaster strikes, not Fukushima. This could be next.”

Nagano carries around in his pocket samples of local rock, which he crumbles in his hand. “The company was in a rush to build and they didn’t pay enough attention to these foundations,” he says. “They should never have come here.” Hamaoka’s first two reactors were already online before modern seismology developed an accurate study of earthquake activity in the area, which sits almost on the boundary of two restless tectonic plates: the Eurasian and the Philippine Sea.

The studies forced the authorities to accept that an 8-magnitude quake could strike the region at any time – government forecasts 30 years ago predicted an 87 per cent chance of a powerful quake in the area. The possible consequences for Tokyo, 180km away, are chilling: a Fukushima-scale accident would force 30 million people in the country’s beating political and economic heart to evacuate, “signalling the collapse of Japan as we now know it”, seismologist Ishibashi Katsuhiko warned recently.

Hamaoka is built to withstand an 8.5 magnitude quake and an 8m tsunami, says Chubu Electric, Japan’s third-largest power company. Both of these “strengths” have been destroyed by the Fukushima crisis, triggered when last month’s magnitude-9 megaquake knocked out that complex’s external power. A subsequent 14-15m tsunami drowned the plant’s back-up generators, leaving its uranium fuel uncooled. The fuel partially melted down and the reactor buildings filled with hydrogen and exploded, showering the area around it with radiation and forcing the evacuation of 80,000 people – and counting.

Japan’s Nuclear Safety Agency this week announced it is instructing power companies across the country to “reassess quake-resistance”, a process likely to take years, state broadcaster NHK said.

The move was partly an acknowledgement that despite years of analysis, Japan’s lattice of subterranean faults are still a mystery: the agency says a fault line 50km from the Fukushima plant previously thought inactive moved during an aftershock. Four years ago, another undetected fault caused a 6.8 quake close to the seven-reactor Kashiwazaki complex in Niigata Prefecture – the world’s largest nuclear plant. The quake caused a fire, burst pipes and a radioactive discharge into the sea.

Hamaoka is of special concern to opponents due to the presence of plutonium on site. Chubu is the only utility in Japan to have signed a contract to process mixed plutonium and uranium (MOX) fuel with the Sellafield plant in the UK.

The industry’s clout, its collusion with government watchdogs and a largely compliant media have helped smother concerns about this potentially explosive collision of state-of-the-art atomic power with primordial seismic instability, say the opponents. For decades, they have tried and failed to use the courts to shut down any of the country’s 55 reactors. “We have never won because we’re not only dealing with the power companies or the reactor manufacturers, but with a national project,” explains Yoshika Shiratori, who is leading a lawsuit against Hamaoka.

“The higher up the judicial system you go, the more conservative the judges become, so it’s almost impossible to win,” he adds. Shiratori’s suit is now being aired in the Tokyo high court after being dismissed by the local Shizuoka district court in 2007. “We don’t expect to win, even now. My intention is to spread the word through the courts, because that forces the media to cover them. Eventually public opinion will turn.”

One of the consequences of the Fukushima disaster is that some of the more liberal media companies have begun asking tough questions. An editorial this week in the mass daily Tokyo Shimbun advised against allowing Chubu Electric to restart Hamaoka’s reactor 3, which is undergoing inspection, in July. “Simulations show that the radiation would reach Tokyo in half a day if disaster were to strike,” said the newspaper. “Chubu Electricity says it is ready for emergencies. But it’s far from being secure.” But few mainstream media outlets advocate shutting down Hamaoka, and none demand the mothballing of Japan’s entire nuclear-power complex, which generates just under a third of the country’s energy needs.

Recent anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo drew about 10,000 people, a relatively small number in a metropolis of 28 million. A survey this week by Shizuoka University found 90 per cent of residents in the prefecture were “concerned” about their proximity to Hamaoka. Closest to the complex, however, protest is almost entirely muted. “It would be a lie to say that I’m not worried, but the company says it is making the plant safer and I believe them,” said Rika Onodera, a housewife in a local supermarket. “Japan is so small, and we have no resources, so we don’t have any choice about making nuclear power.”

This attitude is typical, says Watanabe. “We once had 50 people in our protest group, but it dwindled as people were threatened or bought off.” He claims the authorities called the employers of protesters to have them fired. But he acknowledges another factor in the apparent nonchalance of local people. “Living this close to such a scary place, it’s better to just blot it out. If something happens, what can they do?”


JAPANESE PRIME minister Naoto Kan has stunned Japan’s power industry by asking for the closure of the country’s most controversial atomic plant, eight weeks after a huge earthquake and tsunami sparked the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

Kan said the authorities in Japan had long accepted the high probability of a major jolt underneath the Hamaoka complex, about 200km southwest of Tokyo. “This is a decision made for the safety of the Japanese people when I consider the special conditions of the Hamaoka plant,” he said.

Some seismologists have dubbed Hamaoka the world’s most dangerous nuclear power facility. Government forecasts have predicted an 87 per cent chance of a powerful quake in the area, which sits on two major subterranean faults. A major accident would likely force the evacuation of greater Tokyo, home to 28 million people.

The plant’s cooling systems were destroyed by March’s magnitude-9 quake and the 14-15m tsunami that followed. Hamaoka is built to withstand only an 8.5 magnitude quake and an 8m tsunami.

Kan’s formal request to Japan’s trade minister means that plant operator Chubu Electric Power Co will temporarily shut down reactors 4 and 5 and cancel the resumption of Hamaoka’s No 3 reactor, which was due to be restarted in the summer.

Reactors 1 and 2 have been permanently mothballed. A sixth reactor is also planned. Kan said the directive would continue until “appropriate” safety measures were taken, including the strengthening of tsunami walls around the complex.

It was not clear last night how Chubu Electric and the rest of the country’s powerful nuclear industry will react to the order. Legal experts said the prime minister did not have the authority to stop power plants from operating.