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Nuclear plants rural Japan’s economic fix

by Eric Johnston

Part I: Nuclear doubts spread in wake of Niigata
Part III: All cost bets off if Big One hits nuke plant

TSURUGA, Fukui Pref. — To understand why earthquake-prone Japan is unlikely to give up nuclear power anytime soon despite a series of accidents that have led to deep public distrust, a trip to Aquatom in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, provides some answers.

Aquatom, operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, is a combination science museum, library, theme park and community center in a stylish, modern building in downtown Tsuruga.

Fukui Prefecture hosts 15 nuclear power plants — the largest concentration in Japan — including the Monju plutonium fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga.

Inside Aquatom, visitors are greeted by blue-suited attendants and a glass-encased, cut-away model of the Monju plant, which has been shut since 1995 due to a sodium leak and fire, and a subsequent coverup attempt.

Kids can press buttons marked with different parts of the plant’s model and watch as that part of the plant lights up. Although nobody was injured in the accident, the Monju operator was lambasted as it tried to hide the extent of the damage by heavily editing the videotape of the leak site and falsifying reports on the attempted coverup.

There is little information on the 1995 accident among the Aquatom displays.

Hanging on the wall beside the Monju model are display panels that explain why Japan needs a plutonium reactor. As of 2006, the panels warn, the world had only enough oil for another 40 years, enough natural gas for another 65 years, enough coal for another 155 years, and only enough uranium for conventional nuclear plants to last another 85 years.

“Japan is a poor country in natural resources, importing 99.8 percent of its oil, 96.6 percent of its natural gas, 98.4 percent of its coal and 100 percent of its uranium. Therefore, Monju, a plutonium burning reactor, is necessary because plutonium can be used for thousands of years,” the panels say.

Aquatom is quite popular, packed with parents reading the panels and their young children enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere and interactive exhibits that teach not only about nuclear power but also the natural environment, especially the ocean. The message Aquatom imparts is clear. Nuclear power is not only critical for Japan’s energy needs, but is also an environmentally friendly energy source whose adoption will help stop global warming and save the planet.

Aquatom is perhaps the most visible example of how the central government and the utilities secure local-level support for the continued operation of nuclear plants. But support for atomic towns takes many different forms, most of which are far less visible.

Antinuclear activists have long noted that rural prefectures with nuclear plants, especially Fukui, that provide electricity to the Kanto and Kansai regions are little more than economic colonies of the central government. There is much truth to this charge because these local governments often rely heavily on annual subsidies to keep them from going bankrupt.

While traditionally these subsidies have been used for “hard” public works projects, including roads, bridges, sewerage facilities and the like, the laws were revised in 2003 to include money for “soft” projects, such as tourism promotion and social welfare services for the elderly.

The subsidies are allocated by the trade ministry and the education ministry. Subsidies budgeted for fiscal 2007 amounted to ¥124.4 billion for localities hosting nuclear and nonnuclear power plants. Of this, a little more than ¥50 billion was earmarked specifically for those localities hosting nuclear plants.

The money goes to a variety of projects. For example, in fiscal 2005, the ¥1.8 billion allocated by the education ministry to Fukui Prefecture funded 89 public works projects. Some of this money paid a portion of the salaries of people who work at libraries, parks and hospitals in Tsuruga and elsewhere in the prefecture.

Other beneficiaries included a tourism promotion project in the town of Mihama funded 100 percent by the subsidy. The Mihama area, known for its beach resorts, has three power plants.

Such subsidies, be they in the form of cash for projects that towns have requested or central-government planned and run projects like Aquatom, are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of total financial support. The power utilities themselves pour untold sums into nuclear power towns in the form of donations, grants and sponsorship.

How these funds are used is less clear, but they often go for projects that central government funding may not cover but local politicians and business leaders want, including a new movie theater or a local festival.

In the past, when the utilities needed to secure local cooperation and good will to build a nuclear power plant, they sometimes offered free study trips for select residents to learn about nuclear power in England and France, with lots of time to go shopping in London and Paris.

For those in the local service industry, the inspection period, when a power plant must be shut down for a few months for routine maintenance checks, is the most important and profitable time of year.

During this time, hundreds of nuclear power officials from Tokyo and from the utilities and their subcontractors pour into towns like Tsuruga for weeks on end, filling local hotels and inns, spending money at restaurants, bars and on taxis, and perhaps even doing a bit of sightseeing.

Some local residents who are farmers or fishermen during the rest of the year land jobs at the plants during the inspection period, earning good money for engaging in routine, nonspecialized tasks.

Tsuruga residents have mixed feelings about hosting nuclear plants.

The magnitude-6.8 earthquake in July in Niigata Prefecture has focused their attention on plans to build two new reactors by 2017. “A lot of people are opposed to the construction of these two new reactors. The Niigata quake has shaken up many people in the area, who now doubt the wisdom of building yet more nuclear power plants in their own backyard,” said Miwako Ogiso, a Fukui Prefecture resident and leading antinuclear activist.

“They also look at the postquake coverups and scandals related to (Niigata’s) Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant and increasingly worry (about the threat of another strong) earthquake,” Ogiso said.

But at the same time, many in town feel there is little they can do about the existing nuclear plants, and in fact they have long relied on those plants.

“Nuclear power is the economic lifeblood of Tsuruga, and hosting the plants has provided us with a far better lifestyle than we otherwise would have enjoyed,” said Chisato Hagi, a mother of two elementary school children.

“Yes, I worry about a severe earthquake damaging the plants and I don’t believe that nuclear power is as safe as we’re often told by the government,” she said. “But I’m more worried about what would happen to our community if the plants were all shut down and dismantled.”