Residents of a remote village in Niigata Prefecture must choose between jobs and safety as they weigh a request to restart the world’s biggest nuclear plant, shut for more than a year after a deadly earthquake triggered a fire and radiation leaks.
A committee appointed by the prefecture said Wednesday it agrees with the judgment of Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the central government that one of the reactors is now safe to restart. The decision comes two weeks after a fire at the station — the eighth since the shutdown — revived fears that the plant isn’t ready.
“I live near the plant, and I’m scared when I think about something happening,” said Kyoko Sato, 66, a housewife in the village of Kariwa. “But I also know that financially, the restart is essential for the village. I can’t decide — it’s difficult.”
As Japan faces its worst economic crisis since World War II, the 5,000-strong community is counting more than ever on its biggest employer. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant provides jobs for 8,665 people in a district where there were 30 percent fewer manufacturing jobs in January than a year earlier, according to the labor ministry.
Kariwa depends for about half its budget on revenue from the plant.
The magnitude 6.8 temblor that struck the area in July 2007 rocked the plant more than was assumed in its design and claimed 15 lives in the area.
Tepco later said it had known since 2003 that a fault running near the site was active, contradicting a previous survey submitted to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nuclear industry.
METI’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has signed off on structural strengthening work done to the No. 7 reactor, and Tepco now needs local approval before a restart.
“If it’s as safe as the government and the company said, why didn’t they build it in Tokyo Bay?” asked resident Chie Kuwahara, a mother of two children. “I can’t believe the temblor didn’t cause any major damage.”
Even before the earthquake, mistrust among residents was stoked in 2002 when Tepco said it fabricated safety reports. The government ordered it to halt all 17 of its nuclear plants, and the chairman and president resigned. In February 2007, five months before the earthquake, then President Tsunehisa Katsumata said the utility had found hundreds more incidents of faked safety data.
Earlier this month, the local fire department ordered Tepco to improve safety after a blaze started March 5 when workers were cleaning a pump. Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida said March 11 that local governments won’t approve the restart until Tepco submits a plan for improving fire safety.
For the central government, getting the plant back online is part of a broader energy policy to increase nuclear generation to cut carbon emissions and reduce fossil fuel dependency. Japan aims to get 49 percent of its electricity through nuclear power by 2030 from about 31 percent in 2005.
Tepco has hosted 16 briefings for local residents since the earthquake and invited people to visit the plant so the utility can answer questions and ease any concerns, spokesman Manabu Takeyama said.
“There’s no merit in opposing the nuclear project,” said Tomonori Shinada, 35, whose family runs one of only three restaurants in Kariwa. “Even when it was hit by such a big earthquake, there wasn’t a major accident, and the city and the village get too many benefits from having the plant here.”
Kariwa estimates it will get ¥2.88 billion in revenue from the plant for the year that ends March 31, 47 percent of its total income. The money comes both from taxes paid by Tepco and subsidies from the central government for hosting the nuclear station.
The city of Kashiwazaki, which neighbors Kariwa, was once a boomtown with companies including Nippon Oil Corp., now the country’s biggest refiner, drilling in nearby fields. By 1930, the wells dried up and so did many jobs. When local boy Kakuei Tanaka became prime minister in 1972, he brought the nuclear plant project to his home district to revive the area’s flagging economy. The first reactor was completed in 1985.
Regional utilities operating nuclear plants offer more than just jobs. They build facilities such as gymnasiums and swimming pools and invest in local enterprises to woo residents.
In Kariwa, Tepco plans a ¥3 billion joint project with local businesses to sell sweets produced from the area’s famous peaches along with building a restaurant, spa, inn and soccer fields.
Nakayama Kazunori, 53, whose company was chosen to run the restaurant and make peach sweets, hopes the business will provide jobs. Although born in Kariwa, he later moved to Tokyo in search of work when he couldn’t find a job in his hometown.
“There’s no industry, no business here,” Nakayama said.
“We got subsidies for hosting the nuclear plant, but that can’t go on forever. We need something that can revitalize the village and make it famous for something that can eclipse the image of nuclear energy as scary.”
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