Seawall project brings temporary windfall but future subsidies in doubt

Hamaoka plant halt leaves locals in economic limbo

Kyodo

The May 14, 2011, shutdown of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station amid the Fukushima No. 1 plant crisis is clouding the economic prospects of its host town, Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture.

“We don’t see any prospects for an industry that could replace nuclear power, or about the future of our town,” said one resident.

The Chubu Electric Power Co. power plant is one of the nation’s biggest nuclear complexes. It began operating in 1976, so long ago that reactors 1 and 2 are already retired.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake and its tsunami triggered the catastrophe at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant, reactor 3 at the Hamaoka facility had already been shut down for routine inspection and maintenance, leaving only reactors 4 and 5 operating.

Soon after the Fukushima crisis started, the central government under then Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered Chubu Electric to halt those two reactors as well out of fear that a major quake could hit the area and overwhelm the plant’s insufficient quake and tsunami defenses.

To step up preparedness, work began on constructing an 18-meter-high seawall around the plant to guard against tsunami, with completion scheduled for this December.

The construction project employed an average of 800 workers a day for round-the-clock building at the peak in late April, so far shielding the Pacific coast city of 36,000, including about 1,000 foreign residents, from the economic effects of the plant shutdown.

“We were worried about a drop in guests as a result of the shutdown. But in fact we’ve seen an increase, thanks to the construction work,” said an employee of an inn near the plant. “Some even have reservations until December, when the construction is slated to be finished.”

But residents are worried about their economic future once the construction workers leave.

“Even if we have good demand for rooms now, we don’t know what’s going to happen later,” said an employee of another inn. “I would think we will feel pinched right after the construction finishes.”

With the city’s future uncertain, another citizen said, “I wonder what would happen if the nuclear power plant remained suspended indefinitely.”

Chubu Electric announced back in 2008 a plan to build a sixth reactor, possibly to start operating around 2020. The Fukushima crisis has forced the plan to be shelved.

Now the future of the plant itself is uncertain, with lawsuits filed by residents asking courts to order the indefinite suspension of plant operations or the decommissioning of the reactors.

According to the city’s association of commerce and industry and other sources, about 2,800 workers were employed by the nuclear plant and related businesses before its operations were totally suspended.

The seawall project provided a short-term burst of 4,100 jobs. Some inns, hotels and restaurants are even reporting greater sales than before the May 14, 2011, shutdown.

“The seawall generates only temporary business demand,” said Takao Abe, the head of the industry and commerce association. “For an economic recovery, we need to increase jobs urgently by inviting businesses.”

But that task is much more difficult now than before the Great East Japan Earthquake, because people are afraid of another nuclear plant crisis, he said.

Suspension of the reactors has also impacted the municipal government’s finances.

For fiscal 2012, Omaezaki had to slash outlays by ¥730 million from a year earlier to ¥16.05 billion. That is the smallest budget since 2004, when the town merged with Hamaoka to create the current municipality.

As the plant remains idle, subsidies for Omaezaki related to nuclear power generation from the central and prefectural governments dropped by 35 percent, forcing the city to write a smaller budget.

If the plant remains offline, spending will deteriorate further.

City officials say the number of tourists visiting also dropped sharply after the March 2011 quake, with no effective measures so far worked out to revive tourism.

“Unless the city presents a future vision without reliance on nuclear power, people will feel all the more anxious about visiting,” an official in the city’s tourism association said.

But a 45-year-old worker at the Hamaoka plant said: “If the nuclear plant remains shut down, I will be out of a job. A vision for the town, sure. That’s important. But I want security for my day-to-day life.”