Hamaoka locals evasive on no-nuke future

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

It has been about nine months since the operator of the Hamaoka nuclear plant succumbed to a government request to suspend operations, and it now awaits the time when it will be allowed to restart, while building a huge sea wall designed to reduce the risk of tsunami damage.

With no clear prospects of restarting the reactors at Chubu Electric Power Co.’s plant in Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture, some people who live in the vicinity acknowledge the need to step up discussions to prepare for a future that no longer relies on the massive economic benefits that go to a city for hosting a nuclear facility.

But it’s an open question whether such a move would gather steam in the community, where many appear to feel uncomfortable speaking out against the plant even though Japan is going through the world’s worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

“This area is a nuclear power plant colony. Because so much money has poured into the economy in the form of subsidies, contributions and property tax, people have stopped thinking about developing the city without it,” said Minoru Ito, 70, a former factory manager who lives about a kilometer from the plant.

The area used to form the town of Hamaoka and is now part of the city of Omaezaki.

Over the decades, the city had received ¥45.6 billion in government subsidies as of fiscal 2010 for hosting the plant, creating what Ito calls “gorgeous” public facilities for a municipality with only 36,000 people.

Nuclear plant-related revenue accounted for some 40 percent of the city’s initial general account budget for the current fiscal year through March.

The central government has promised not to reduce the amount of subsidies due to the plant suspension, a sum usually paid in accordance with the amount of power it produces. But the impact of the Fukushima crisis, which has thrown national nuclear policy into disarray, is already overshadowing the city’s finances.

Because a plan to build a new reactor has stalled after the crisis erupted last March, subsidies for the project will drop to ¥140 million from the initially expected ¥980 million for fiscal 2011.

Still, shutting down the power plant was not entirely bad for the local economy. Many construction workers have rolled in for Chubu Electric’s ¥100 billion project to install various measures to counter tsunami, including a 1.6-km-long sea wall along the coast reaching 18 meters above sea level.

“The sea wall construction has helped us,” a woman managing an inn close to the plant said. “Workers have come not only from Tokyo, but from across the country.”

She knows, however, that the economic boom is only temporary.

“After the workers leave, the outlook is totally bleak,” she said.

A Chubu Electric official said around 2,000 employees from subcontracting companies are currently working at the plant.

But he is not sure whether the same number of jobs will be maintained if the plant suspension drags on for five or six years.

Ito, who has long been the oddball in his community for openly opposing the plant, said many residents are probably aware they have to “do something” to make the city stand on its own feet economically, but “there is no concrete plan.”

At the same time, he seems frustrated with the people in the district who have kept mum in past gatherings, even though deep down in their heart they may be unhappy about the plant, which faces a high probability of being rocked by a massive earthquake.

The government has predicted there is an 87 percent chance of a magnitude 8.0 quake hitting the Tokai region within the next 30 years. It was the major reason behind then Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s decision last May to ask Chubu Electric to halt all of the facility’s reactors until sufficient tsunami countermeasures are taken.

“Even after the Fukushima accident, people in this community don’t voice their real feelings. Maybe they are afraid to be in a disadvantageous position,” Ito said.

Masato Fukuyo, 44, who runs a home building firm, said he is afraid his business might be affected if he doesn’t take an “indecisive attitude” on the issue of whether the Hamaoka plant should start running again.

“What if I can’t get as many orders as I have now when I say that I am against the plant? I need work to finance school expenses for my son,” he said.

Meanwhile, another municipal assembly less than 10 km from the plant has called for permanently closing the nuclear facility.

But Yoshiharu Shimizu, 61, of the Omaezaki Municipal Government, also suggested that a complete shutdown wouldn’t provide a fundamental solution to the dangers of hosting the plant.

“Even if we decide to scrap the nuclear reactors tomorrow, it takes 30 or 40 years to do that. And as long as we have dangerous nuclear fuel inside the buildings, there is a large probability that the worst could happen,” he said.