Town wants to wean itself off reactors

But perks, jobs, the mob hold sway over accident fears, tourism hopes


MIHAMA, Fukui Pref. — With its quiet coves, white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, the seaside town of Mihama already attracts lots of local surfers and sunbathers.

Local officials know it has the potential to draw others as well, and are attempting to promote the town nationwide as a great summer holiday destination.

There is just one problem.

Mihama is also home to three reactors, one of which was the scene of an accident last month that killed five subcontractor workers, although there was no radiation leak. The five were scalded by steam that burst from a corroded secondary coolant pipe that had not been inspected since the reactor started up in 1976, even though the utility had been warned to check it months earlier.

“It’s pretty difficult to develop other industries, such as tourism and agriculture, when Mihama is so reliant on the nuclear power industry for its revenue,” town assemblyman Teruyuki Matsushita said. “Not many people are going to want to swim in a bay with nuclear power plants nearby.”

Local residents, municipal officials and activists both for and against nuclear energy all agree that last month’s accident at the Mihama nuclear plant’s No. 3 reactor damaged local trust in promises by power utilities that atomic plants are safe.

Yet, at the same time, there is also a feeling of resignation among many that, whatever the dangers, there is little they can do to change things because the town is so economically dependent on the nuclear power industry.

The latest figures show that in fiscal 2002, Mihama, with a population of about 11,500, had tax revenues of nearly 3.1 billion yen.

Of this figure, two-thirds, or 2.1 billion yen, came from Kansai Electric Power Co., which operates the Mihama plant, and from other businesses related to the nuclear power industry.

“We need the nuclear power industry,” said Jitaro Yamaguchi, town assembly chairman. “Otherwise we’d be in far worse (economic) shape than we are now.”

But the financial contributions of the nuclear industry do not stop at tax revenues.

Since 1974, when the central government enacted legislation to provide towns hosting nuclear-related facilities with financial incentives, Mihama has received billions of yen in low-interest or no-interest loans and grants, from both the state and Kepco.

The money has been used to build modern facilities. A public gymnasium completed several years ago, for example, cost 2.6 billion yen. About half that figure — 1.35 billion yen — was paid for with grant money.

Then there are the free concerts and other cultural events Kepco often sponsors or underwrites for residents of both Mihama and neighboring Tsuruga, where many who work at the Mihama plant live.

They also receive free cable TV. The channel to keep an eye on, though, is Channel 9, the emergency channel run by the city of Tsuruga. When an accident, no matter how large or small, occurs at a local nuclear plant, a red buzzer attached to the cable box goes off, allowing residents in Tsuruga and Mihama to tune into a text broadcast about what happened.

Makio Tashiro, an antinuclear activist in Tsuruga, complained that such perks have turned Tsuruga and Mihama into “nuclear power colonies.”

“For the past 30 years, local residents have been getting all sorts of things from the central government or Kepco as a way to show gratitude for allowing nuclear power plants to be built,” he said.

“A lot of people now think it’s natural not to pay much, if anything, for concerts, art exhibitions, or first-run movies. They’ve become too economically and psychologically dependent on nuclear power to think independently.”

There are no official figures available on how many Mihama or Tsuruga residents work at the Mihama plant. Kepco says about 80 percent to 90 percent of the nearly 1,000 workers at 130 Kepco subcontractors who work in Mihama during normal operations are residents of Fukui Prefecture.

During a plant’s regular inspection period, which used to take three months but has been shortened to about 40 days due to cost-cutting pressures, 2,000 people working at 220 subcontractors take part in the inspections, Kepco said.

But as Tashiro and Matsushita note, these figures are not complete. They include only the known subcontractors and exclude those hired through job agencies and those who may have joined an official subcontractor temporarily.

“Subcontractors form a giant pyramid where life for the few at the top is pretty good,” said Tashiro, whose work includes assisting and advising nuclear plant workers.

“But the situation gets worse as you go farther down, to second, third, fourth, or fifth-level subcontractors,” he said. “Nobody really knows where the bottom is, only that those at the bottom have it the worst.”

Then there is the mob connection. Based on their conversations with police and gangsters themselves, Tashiro and Matsushita say they firmly believe Tsuruga-based Masaki-gumi, one of the main gangs in the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate, acts as a broker, providing unskilled and semi-skilled labor to the bottom-level subcontractors.

“There is no doubt that Masaki-gumi is involved,” observed Tashiro, who says he grew up and remains in contact with several of its members. “Although it is one of the newer gangs to join Yamaguchi-gumi, it is one of the wealthiest because of its involvement in the nuclear power industry.”

Fukui Prefectural Police would not comment on these allegations, claiming only that there was no conclusive proof of underworld involvement in the industry.

For Tsuruga or Mihama-based nuclear plant workers at the bottom of the subcontractor pyramid, the pay is not very good given the risks — an average of about 10,000 yen a day after taxes. For those with certain technical skills, the pay scale increases to 18,000 yen or even 20,000 yen a day during inspections.

But with inspections now shortened to 30 to 40 days, those who once counted on working for three months at between 10,000 yen and 20,000 yen a day now find themselves with a lot less income, adversely affecting the local economy.

In Tsuruga, the majority of stores on the main street in front of the station are boarded up, with only the odd restaurant or coffee shop open.

Even at the main shopping mall, with its ultramodern movie theater and restaurants, customers are few and far between.

“Business fluctuates. Whenever there are inspections at the power plants, we get an influx of people and things are good,” said Mie Akagawa, who works part-time at one of the restaurants. “But otherwise, things are pretty slow.”

In Mihama, where an estimated 60 percent of the workforce is employed, directly or indirectly, by the nuclear power industry, the August accident brought home the dangers of relying too heavily on nuclear power.

But with Matsushita the only antinuclear member of the 17-member Mihama assembly, changing entrenched local attitudes that see nuclear power as an economic blessing is tough.

Yet the recent accident, combined with the fewer jobs at the power plants and the knowledge that Mihama’s reactors are between 20 and 35 years old and may suffer further problems, has even pronuclear assembly members questioning the excessive reliance on nuclear power, he said.

“There is a growing realization among my fellow assembly members that we cannot rely forever on the nuclear power industry for our economic prosperity,” Matsushita said.

“Hopefully, Mihama will now start discussing how to reduce our financial reliance on nuclear power and develop other industries, such as agriculture and tourism.”