METI official talks up Oi reactor restart in Fukui


Staff Writer

A visiting official from the industry ministry on Thursday apologized to the town of Oi, Fukui Prefecture, over the government’s failure to create a new nuclear watchdog by April 1, but stressed that the town’s idled atomic reactors have passed all the requisite safety tests to resume operations.

Reactors 3 and 4 at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi nuclear power station were the first to pass the government’s stress tests, which employ computer simulations to gauge nuclear plants’ robustness in the event of a massive, unforeseen natural disaster. The tests were introduced after the triple-meltdown crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant last March.

Security was tight ahead of two meetings in Oi on Thursday, at which officials from the central government attempted to explain the state’s rationale for approving restarts at the two reactors to local municipal officials and residents, and antinuclear activists appeared to have been kept at bay.

“There would be a big effect on Oi (if the reactors stay offline), especially on the town’s service industries, so we want to restart them,” said Mitsuyoshi Yanagisawa, senior vice minister at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

At a meeting with members of the Oi Municipal Assembly, Yanagisawa suggested the local economy would continue to suffer as long as the two reactors remain idled.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Oi assembly chief Kinya Shintani said the town would continue to press the central government for support to offset any negative impact the plant’s idling has had on the area’s economy.

He also called on other leaders in the Kansai region to reflect on Oi’s concerns about nuclear safety, especially the negative impact on its economy.

“We in Oi have lived with nuclear power for 40 years. We want people to understand the difficult position we’re in,” Shinatani said.

Police and private security guards patrolled the grounds next to the meeting venue, which was closed off to prevent any antinuclear demonstrations. Unlike the antinuclear rallies that greeted METI chief Yukio Edano when he visited the city of Fukui earlier this month to meet with Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, Oi was quiet Thursday afternoon.

There were concerns, however, about the number of Oi residents who were expected to show up to hear the state’s official views on getting the two reactors back online.

To attend the gathering, residents had to return a postcard that municipal authorities had sent out inviting them to the meeting, which was held at a venue with a seating capacity for more than 1,000 people. As of Wednesday evening, however, only about 700 residents had returned the postcards.

Recent public and private opinion polls show Oi residents are split over restarting the reactors. Although many locals say they would prefer to live without atomic energy, they also worry about the economic consequences of keeping the reactors offstream, as the nuclear industry has been a major source of support for the local economy.

About 58 percent of Oi’s fiscal 2012 budget is nuclear-related, and segments of the local service industry depend on atomic-related business for a good part of their annual revenue. In addition, the service industries in larger towns nearby, including Obama, have also benefitted economically from the Oi nuclear plant.

There was also a feeling of anger in the town toward other parts of Kansai, especially Shiga and Kyoto prefectures, whose governors strongly oppose restarting the reactors. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s push to end nuclear power has further upset some residents.

“Too many people in Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka have no idea what nuclear power means economically to Fukui Prefecture. They should put more thought into the economic realities of nuclear power here before they push so hard to stop the Oi reactors,” said a woman who runs a local shop, declining to be named.