Nuclear disaster no deterrent in push to restart reactors


The prime minister says the country needs the plants – but many still have safety worries

“THEY CHOSE the most stunning places in Japan for nuclear plants,” says Jiku Miyazaki, and it is hard to disagree in Oi. The small fishing town shelters in a rugged cove ringed by rice paddies and mountains that once cut it off from the cities of Kyoto and Osaka.

The postcard beauty is only slightly marred by towering orange pylons and cables that traverse the mountains to the four-reactor power plant near the bay.

Since the 1970s, these power lines have fed electricity to Japan’s second-largest concentration of people and industry, the vast urban area called Kansai. In return the plant’s remote host, population 8,800, has become strikingly prosperous. New schools, hospitals and recreation centres dot the countryside. A hulking, underused hot spring resort and a baseball stadium dominate either end of Oi.

The reactors that generated this largesse, however, have been shut since last year and are being kept idle by Japan’s post-Fukushima fear of nuclear energy.

Miyazaki, a veteran opponent of the nuclear industry, is one of many who hopes they never start again. “I never liked having the plant nearby, but I didn’t know till March 11th, 2011, exactly how terrifying it is,” he says.

The shockwaves from last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, the worst in 25 years, rippled across the planet, accelerating the industry’s demise in Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

In Japan, the crisis forced about 200,000 people to evacuate and triggered an agonised and unresolved national debate that has put this dot on the map, 250 miles west of Tokyo, under an increasingly uncomfortable spotlight. If the government has its way, Oi will become the first host town since the crisis struck to restart its idling reactors. Last night prime minister Yoshihiko Noda said that Japanese society “cannot survive” without the plants. He is expected to give the green light to the Oi plant’s reactors 3 and 4 next week.

Anti-nuclear protesters camp permanently in the town. Supermarkets have put up signs warning reporters not to harass customers for their views on the sleeping nuclear giant. The local government has been inundated with calls, many of them hostile, demanding information on when, or if, the reactors will restart. “I’ve no idea why we have been chosen to carry this burden,” laments Oi spokesman Yasufumi Saruhashi.

Oi has one of the planet’s heaviest concentrations of nuclear power generation: 13 reactors at four plants strung along a 50km-odd stretch of the Japan Sea coast – an area known as the “nuclear Ginza”.

Further up the coast is the seven-reactor Kashiwazaki complex, the world’s largest – part of a 50-reactor network that supplied about a third of Japan’s electricity before March 2011. One by one over the last year, the reactors have been powered down for inspections, leaving the nation nuclear-free for the first time since the 1970s. Before they can restart they must pass new stress tests, and win the backing of their local hosts.

Opponents such as Tetsuen Nakajima insist that the plants can never be made safe from seismic disaster in a country that accounts for a fifth of the world’s strongest earthquakes each year. “There will certainly be another quake along the Japan Sea coast,” says Nakajima, a prominent Buddhist monk. “History shows us that.”

Among his worst fears, he says, is that radiation from a future disaster will poison Lake Biwa, which supplies drinking water to about 15 million people in Kansai.

Nakajima’s fears don’t appear to resonate in Oi. A survey in May by state broadcaster NHK found 64 per cent of the town’s population in favour of restarting the plant’s idling reactors, with just 28 per cent against. But support declines sharply at the town’s borders. In the next town of Obama, about 10km away, 55 per cent oppose the restart.

Post-Fukushima, most Japanese say they are anti-nuclear. Many in Oi, however, say they can’t start soon enough. “We need nuclear power in this country,” says Ishinobu Ide, a local small businessman. “We don’t have any resources here.”

Such views are not hard to understand. The nuclear plant employs about 450 of Oi’s working population of 2,670. Factor in ancillary businesses and services and perhaps 40 per cent of the townspeople would be directly affected by its closure, estimates local assembly man Takumi Saruhashi. “The plant brings about $170 million (€136 million) into the town every year,” he says. According to the Asahi newspaper, Oi received nearly half a billion dollars in government subsidies between 1974 and 2010, about $57,000 for every man, woman and child.

The town’s mayor Shinobu Tokioka is not immune from that river of nuclear cash. The metalwork company he founded, and which his son runs, supplies pipes and other materials to the plant, a relationship that has been worth nearly $6 million since 2003.

The mayor has been among the most hardline proponents for a reactor restart: last month he said the town’s future was “pitch black” without its nuclear benefactor, the powerful Kansai Electric Power Co.

Nakajima likens Oi’s dependence on the nuclear industry to an addict mainlining on hard drugs. “In my view the town’s people are nuclear victims and this money is used to anaesthetise their pain.”

He says residents of nuclear hosts like Oi are living in denial. “They say there won’t be another accident like Fukushima; that there is no history of tsunami in this area. But all accidents are different.”

Prime minister Noda has pledged to keep Japan on what he calls “a path toward” phasing out nuclear power. But in the meantime he and the industry have pushed relentlessly to start reusing the country’s hugely expensive nuclear hardware. Officials have shuttled back and forth to Oi and neighbouring towns, repeatedly seeking the “understanding” of sceptical locals. The government has promised to set up a surveillance system linking the Oi plant directly to the prime minister’s offices in Tokyo, and to permanently station a senior minister at the facility.

Millions of Kansai residents have been warned to expect a long hot summer if the reactors are not switched back on. A government report in May said the authorities could be forced to demand a reduction in power usage of 20 per cent in the region.

Pro-nuclear advocates point out that the nuclear drought has increased Japan’s bill for oil and gas imports by $100 million a day, leaving the country with its first trade deficit in three decades. The nation’s biggest newspaper and most powerful business lobby, the Keidanren, have made dire predictions about a future without nuclear power.

Nakajima and others denounce those warnings as scare tactics, but if so, the strategy has been effective: Kansai’s most famous nuclear opponent, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, backed down last month and gave his consent for restarting reactors 3 and 4, though only “limited” to the peak summer months. On May 14th, Oi town assembly voted 12-1 in favour of the restart. Although not a legal requirement, that green light was important. Saruhashi, a lifelong communist, was the only dissenter. In an 18-minute speech to the assembly, he said the plant operators could not guarantee its safety.

Many people believe it is only a matter of time before the Oi reactors operate again. Saruhashi says if opponents can stall the restart till Japan’s traditional summer peak, August 15th, the public will see that the threats of the nuclear and business lobbies have been a bluff. “Something has definitely changed in Japan since the Fukushima crisis,” he says. “We have yet to see how much.”

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