A year after Japan’s worst nuclear power plant accident shook the nation and riveted the world, one secluded fishing town has become the unlikely battleground for the future of nuclear power in Japan.
Like several other scenic spots around Japan, Oi, located about 250 miles southwest of Tokyo in Fukui Prefecture, owed its status to the presence of a nuclear power plant and the subsidies that go with it – until last year's disaster. Oi's four reactors were shut down as part of a phased-in nuclear freeze that concluded with the closure of the last of Japan's 50 working reactors in May.
Less than two months later, Oi’s nuclear plant is about to stir back to life after Japan's prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, announced Saturday that it would be the first to go back on line since the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi.
But the conflict and mixed opinions surrounding the decision highlight how unready the country may still be to restart its nuclear power program.
Mitsuhiko Watanabe of Toyo University in Tokyo is among those who believe the restart may have come too soon. He does not oppose nuclear power, but believes scientific evidence points to the possibility of "shattered zones" or active faults, beneath the Oi power plant. If his theory can be disproved, Professor Watanabe says he would have "no opposition to the resumption of the operation of the Oi nuclear power plant. However, at this stage," he says, "I believe those who want to give the green light to the restart of these reactors should not offer indirect arguments, but rather should state clearly, 'safety is not secured, but we are allowing restart for various other reasons.' "
Oi's rugged coastline and breathtaking seascapes are similar to the area ravaged by last year's tsunami. Its center is a collection of narrow streets lined with grand, wooden homes. Its mountainous backdrop once heightened Oi's sense of seclusion from the rest of Kansai, an area of western Japan with an economy only slightly smaller than Mexico's. But since the 1970s, the town has given the region's 24 million people an economic boost: a plentiful and, until recently, uninterrupted supply of nuclear-generated power.
Despite frequent visits to Oi and an impassioned warning on TV about the potential economic costs of a prolonged nuclear estrangement, Mr. Noda has failed to build a national consensus behind the restart. Local mayors from across Japan have submitted a written protest to the prime minister. Some 2,200 protesters turned out at a rally in Fukui city the day after the announcement despite the reassurances from Noda.
What if there is an accident?
Noda's reassurances mean little to residents such as Miwako Inoue.
Ms. Inoue, her husband, and their two young daughters moved to Ayabe, a town not far from Oi, after they were forced out of their home in Minamisoma, near the Fukushima plant, last March. "Prime Minister Noda says he will take responsibility if there is an accident, but he hasn't explained how," she said during a recent meeting with a representative of Oi's mayor, Shinobu Tokioka, attended by the Monitor.
"How are schoolchildren going to be evacuated? How will evacuees be looked after? Will they have the means to make a quick exit? The town authorities need to tell us exactly what would happen before they approve the restart."
In a nationwide poll by the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, 71 percent of respondents shared Inoue's misgivings, while just 25 percent sided with the prime minister. But in Oi, support for the restart stood at 64 percent at the end of last month, according to the public broadcaster NHK, although the same proportion said they were concerned about the risk of a major accident.
In communities outside the town that are less dependent on the plant for income but would be affected by a major disaster, support stood at only 38 percent.
An evacuation similar in scale to Fukushima's would cause chaos among tens of thousands of people who live in neighboring towns, says Masahito Kodama, an anti-nuclear power plant campaigner from Nantan in neighboring Kyoto prefecture. "But the Oi town office refuses to listen to our demands not to restart the reactors and to release data for simulations of the spread of radiation following a major accident."
Nuclear power 'money tree'
Few were surprised Oi’s Mayor Tokioka supported the government’s decision. Some campaigners have suggested that as the founder of a company, now run by his son, that supplies pipe and other materials to the plant, Tokioka's enthusiasm for an early restart is motivated by pure self-interest.
But his isn't the only family that benefits financially from Oi's role as nuclear host. An estimated 450 of the town's working population of 2,700 people are directly employed at the plant, and as many as 40 percent would have been affected by its prolonged closure.
Oi is part of a heavy concentration of nuclear reactors – 14 in all – stretching along 31 miles of coastline on the Japan Sea. In return for hosting the facilities, Japan's "nuclear alley" has so far received 346 billion yen ($4.4 billion) in government subsidies, according to the Asahi Shimbun.
Nuclear industry money has helped pay for the town's infrastructure, a hot spring facility, the "mushroom forest" theme park, and a large town hall that serves a population of just 8,800.
"Nuclear power is like a money tree around here," says Jiku Miyazaki, a local Buddhist priest and anti-nuclear campaigner. "If we don't let go of that mentality we're in trouble. After everything that happened at Fukushima, people are still saying the same could never happen here."
Hiromichi Muramatsu is typical of many local business owners who are torn between fears over safety and concern about the town's economy. "My sales have plunged since the reactors were switched off, so from a financial point of view I'd like things to go back to the way they were," says Mr. Muramatsu, who runs a liquor store.
"The government has to make sure it does this properly to ensure safety, but I'm not sure it has thought through every possible scenario. For me, the restart has come too early."