OSAKA - On a gray winter day late last month alternating between rain and sleet, many in the Sea of Japan town of Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, were feeling sunny. For the restart of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama plant No. 3 reactor means not only a return to nuclear power, but a return of the money stream that flows from it.
Since 1970, Fukui has been the home of the largest concentration of nuclear power plants in Japan — and possibly the world — hosting a total of 13 commercial reactors.
For the past 4½ decades, the plants, spread across the towns of Tsuruga, Mihama, Takahama and Oi, provided local employment and an array of other benefits.
When the reactors were shut down every 13-16 months for routine inspections, it was a bonanza for local businesses.
A flood of Kepco employees, safety inspectors and nuclear-power related specialists arrived, filling up local hotels and spending money in area cafes, restaurants and bars.
At the same time, the plants provided numerous part-time jobs for local farmers and fishermen who wanted to supplement their incomes.
Many of these jobs were hard, dirty and dangerous, but welcomed.
Of course, there were also the guaranteed subsidies from the central government that came with hosting the plants — money used to build civil engineering infrastructure and sway public opinion.
Elderly Fukui residents recall that, 40 years ago, it was not unheard of for the central government and Kepco to subsidize “nuclear power study tours” for select local leaders and citizens, whisking them away to countries embracing atomic energy such as France.
But even with the Takahama No. 3 reactor’s restart after sitting idle for years since the March 2011 Fukushima disaster — and with No. 4 waiting in the wings to be rebooted despite a radioactive water leak announced Saturday — Fukui still faces an uncertain economic future.
Earlier this month, Kepco announced decommissioning plans for the Nos. 1 and 2 reactors at its Mihama plant and Japan Atomic Power Co. announced plans for scrapping the No. 1 reactor at its Tsuruga plant.
By 2024, JAPC intends to have removed all fuel from the Tsuruga reactor, and plans to finish tearing down the reactor itself and its associated facilities by 2039. Kepco also announced plans to begin decommissioning its Mihama reactors in the next fiscal year, and expects the work to take three decades.
The Tsuruga reactor’s decommissioning will take place in three stages, and is expected to cost just over ¥36 billion. Decommissioning at Kepco’s Mihama reactors is expected to total ¥68 billion.
For local governments, decommissioning presents a dilemma. On the one hand, there is the issue of safety, especially the disposal of high-level radioactive material, where pressure is on the utilities to clean up quickly.
“We don’t want JAPC to fixate on a schedule for the spent fuel, but, rather get rid of it as soon as possible,” said Tsuruga Mayor Takanobu Fuchikami, following the announcement.
On the other hand, even decommissioning work offers the possibility of local employment. However, like the rest of the country, Fukui’s workforce is aging rapidly, raising questions about who will do the often gruelling and dangerous work.
A prefectural survey released in January 2015 showed that two-thirds of the workers in Tsuruga, Mihama, Takahama and Oi were employed in the waterworks, gas and utility, and the service industries. The same survey also revealed that between 23 and 29 percent of workers in each of the four cities were over the age of 65.
Alarmed at the aging population and worried they will be abandoned, local leaders in Fukui are trying to convince the central government that it must take care of the local economy, and not just the nuclear plants.
“After the reactors have finished operating, what’s necessary is not simply to think about decreasing subsidies, but to pass new laws and create a new framework for local industrial revitalization,” Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa told central government officials.
The extent, and speed, of economic assistance will at least partially depend on Fukui’s political power in the halls of the Diet — and Fukui does have powerful friends in Tokyo.
Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Tomomi Inada, a right-wing heavyweight and close aide to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, represents Fukui’s No. 1 district — the one without nuclear power plants, including the city of Fukui.
There, the major political concern is not nuclear power subsidies but whether Inada can use her influence to get the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line extended from Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, to the city of Fukui by 2020, cutting travel time to Tokyo via Nagano just in time for the Tokyo Olympics.
Meanwhile, Abe’s minister for reconstruction in the Tohoku region, and the man in charge of coordinating policy for revival after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, is Tsuyoshi Takagi, who represents Fukui’s No. 2 district, home to all of its power plants.
But with Fukui’s reactors aging as fast, if not faster, than its population, the amount of economic assistance required to both care for the elderly and keep the local economy going is likely to increase.
Scrapping more reactors will surely be a necessity in the coming years, as the Takahama Nos. 3 and 4 reactors are now over 30 years old.
While such work will bring a steady stream of income to the services industries, officials and residents within Fukui are well aware it will not bring back the economic glory days when Fukui was known nationwide as Japan’s Genpatsu (nuclear power) Ginza.
Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.