Officials find Oi split on reactor restarts

Locals realize the economics but very wary of safety claims

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Officials from the central government announced they made progress on convincing residents that it is safe to restart two idled reactors at Oi’s nuclear plant during a meeting Thursday evening.

But only around 540 people turned up for the event, less than 6 percent of the town’s inhabitants and only 10 percent of its registered voters.

Attendees’ questions on restarting reactors 3 and 4 at Kansai Electric Power Co’s power station indicated that while many fear the local economy will continue to suffer as long as they remain offline, they nevertheless feel the central government’s definition of safety is overly narrow and technical, and fails to explain the situation in a clear and easy to understand manner.

“My personal opinion is that while some people who asked questions were opposed to restarting the two units, the general atmosphere was not one of strong opposition” to such a move, Mitsuyoshi Yanagisawa, senior vice minister at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said immediately after the meeting.

Many residents who attended the meeting, meanwhile, told reporters that they are not antinuclear per se, and are hoping for an early resumption of operations, mainly due to economic factors.

Security was extremely tight for the invitation-only meeting, with attendees having to empty their pockets and pass through metal detectors normally used at airports. Security guards also checked all their bags using an X-ray machine, and even scanned their faces and bodies with hand-held devices.

In addition, no food or drink was allowed inside the venue — including bottled water — even though the meeting ran for two hours and the local weather was humid Thursday. A public park adjacent to the hall was also closed to keep antinuclear protesters away, while private security guards stopped and inspected every car and truck headed to the venue, resulting in many attendees being ferried to the meeting in chartered buses.

Yanagisawa, along with the other visiting officials from the central government and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, met with members of the Oi Municipal Assembly just before their session with residents, and were presented with a list of demands that included economic assistance for lost jobs and business earnings.

Oi locals also want Tokyo to cover the economic damages local businesses have sustained since the reactors were taken offline, or provide guarantees of assistance as a bare minimum.

The importance of nuclear power to the town’s economy is illustrated by the more than ¥6.3 billion nuclear-related funds it was allotted for fiscal 2012 — 58 percent of its total budget — but the officials had little to say on the area’s economic woes at the meeting.

Despite harboring economic concerns, however, several residents who attended the meeting expressed unease over the way Kansai Electric and the government are handling the issue, and said they are still seeking more practical and comprehensible answers.

“We need to have the reasons the reactors should be put back online explained in nontechnical, simple terms. Not just for us, but for the sake of our children and grandchildren,” said Shizukana Fujisawa, an elderly resident who admitted she feels resigned to the reactors resuming operations at some point, despite local opposition.

Akihiko Isomura, who at 27 was one of the youngest at the meeting, said that economic concerns over the town’s future are leading many locals to conclude that restarting the reactors is a necessary step.

“If the reactors are really safe, I’m in favor of having them restarted,” Isomura said.

But simply dividing residents into pro- and antinuclear camps is complicated, because many residents who had initially hoped for a resumption are now opposed to such a move, at least until the government more fully addresses their safety concerns.

On April 21 and 22, two antinuclear groups conducted a door-to-door survey of 348 of the town’s inhabitants, in which locals were not directly quizzed on whether they favor or oppose firing up the reactors, but were instead asked to list their top three concerns.

Some 144 residents, comprising 51 men and 93 women, ranked the possibility of another Fukushima-like nuclear disaster occurring in Oi as their biggest fear — about 41 percent of those surveyed. Another 107 residents, or 31 percent, selected the area’s current unemployment rate as their No. 1 concern.

During Thursday’s meeting with residents, the central government and NISA officials stressed that the chances of Oi experiencing a nuclear disaster on a similar scale to the Fukushima crisis are extremely remote. Many attendees, however, appeared to be at odds with the government’s definition of exactly what constitutes “safety” in regard to the two reactors.

Pointing out that about 300,000 people are living in 10 municipalities within 30 km of Oi, local assembly members and residents questioned the state officials over how they planned to evacuate the area in the event of a catastrophic accident.

They stressed that only a few roads lead out of Oi toward the Kansai region and Nagoya, while only one local train line runs along Fukui Prefecture’s coast. If an accident were to occur in the middle of winter, evacuees could also find some of the smaller country roads blocked by heavy snow.

But the officials offered nothing more than vague promises, and appeared completely unprepared to address concerns about local transportation in the event of a major accident.

“We in Oi have lived with nuclear power for 40 years. We want people to understand the difficult position we’re in,” said Kinya Shintani, who heads the Oi Municipal Assembly.