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Japan's Hamaoka nuclear plant sees tsunami defense in (very big) wall

 Japan's controversial Hamaoka nuclear plant, shut down after Fukushima, wants to reopen once a 54-ft.-high, mile-long wall is finished. But the plant also sits on a seismic fault line, raising more than a few doubts.

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The utility company has a strong card up its sleeve: It has created thousands of jobs in Omaezeki and surrounding towns and paid hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies and taxes to the Omaezaki municipality over the past 30 years; that money makes up 40 percent of the town’s budget. The plant’s presence has also brought economic development to this rural, tea-growing region about 150 miles southwest of Tokyo.

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 “Before the plant, people around here just grew potatoes and vegetables,” recalls Katsuhiro Shimizu, who runs a restaurant in the shadow of Hamaoka. “If that’s the sort of lifestyle they want to go back to.”

 The economics of the situation certainly weigh heavily on many local people.

“I’m a district nurse,” explains Rie Suzuki as she heads into the local mall for her Saturday shopping with her young daughter. “When I see what happened in Fukushima I realize that Hamaoka should not reopen. But when I think of the city budget I can’t completely agree with keeping it shut, either. My salary depends on it. It’s a very complicated situation.”

The neighboring town of Makinohara is not so beholden to the plant.

Indeed, the municipal council voted last December never to approve a restart at Hamaoka because it sees the plant as an economic threat as well as a potential environmental danger. 

Makinohara earns seven times more from the taxes that a local Suzuki car factory pays than it gets in subsidies from the nuclear plant, explains town councilor Kazuo Oishi.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Suzuki began dropping hints that unless Hamaoka was permanently closed, the company might eliminate the risk of losing its factory to a new disaster by moving it elsewhere.

 “Other local firms began wondering whether they should follow that example,” Mr. Oishi recalls. “If that happened, our budget would collapse.”

Under the terms of a “safety contract” that Chubu Electric has signed with the governor of Shizuoka Prefecture, where Hamaoka is situated, the governor has the power to veto any reopening of the plant. “His decision will depend heavily on local decisions” taken by towns near the power station, says Oishi. “It would be very difficult for him to ignore our will.”

With so many jobs and so much money at stake for local communities, the future of the plant will be controversial. But in the wake of last year’s disaster in Fukushima, even many of those who depend on Hamaoka for their livelihood are now ambivalent.

Oishi has campaigned against Hamaoka for nearly 30 years, he says. He is not happy that it took a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima to give his case resonance among his constituents, but it has had that effect.

 “Before Fukushima happened, I was an outsider in the shadows,” he says. “Nobody listened to me. Now Fukushima is part of local people's everyday lives.”


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