National | Regional Voices: Hiroshima

Nuclear energy exhibit to be turned into clinic for doctor-hungry Yamaguchi town

Chugoku Shimbun

In an unusual move, a nuclear power exhibition facility in a small town in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which has been seeing a steady decline in the number of visitors in recent years, will reopen as a medical clinic when a new doctor starts work there in April.

Chugoku Electric Power Co., which runs the facility in the town of Kaminoseki, closed its Miraikan exhibition down on Feb. 3 for renovation. The utility denies it did so because the firm’s efforts to promote nuclear power have hit a snag, stressing that it is merely playing its part in helping assuage a shortage of doctors in the town.

But the move nonetheless comes after the facility — a ¥100 million project originally constructed in 1999 to coincide with the planned debut of the Kaminoseki nuclear power station — saw a plunge in visitors following the 2011 nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture.

The facility long displayed an array of exhibits and offered visitors hands-on experience aimed at educating them on the need for nuclear energy.

Among the items showcased were examples of steel planks as thick as 170 millimeters that are used in a reactor’s pressure vessel, as well as reinforced steel bars 51 millimeters in diameter used to construct reactor buildings. The facility also entertained visitors by allowing them to measure the amount of radiation emitted from everyday food items such as rice and produce electricity themselves using a hand-crank generator.

There was also an open lounge with tatami mats that was equipped with massage chairs where local residents could sit for leisurely chats.

“I come here everyday,” a 73-year-old housewife who lives nearby said with a smile ahead of Miraikan’s temporary closure on Feb. 3.

Having long grappled with the shortage of doctors, Kaminoseki recently arranged for a physician to work full time there starting in April. The town, however, found itself hard-pressed to locate a clinic that could accommodate the new doctor before ultimately turning to Chugoku Electric, requesting that the company temporarily lease out the Miraikan facility so it could be turned into a clinic.

“We understand that securing enough doctors is an issue of utmost urgency for the town,” Chugoku Electric spokesman Yoshinori Matsuoka said. “We’ve decided to lease the facility for the time being so that we can coexist and prosper together” with the local community.

With Miraikan about to be converted into something entirely different from its original purpose, Chugoku Electric says the firm will work harder in other ways to raise public awareness of nuclear power policies and issues, such as by canvassing neighborhoods.

According to 10 major electric power companies, it is unheard of to transform nuclear promotion facilities like Miraikan into entities unrelated to the energy industry. As one power company spokesperson put it, “at a time when our effort to promote nuclear power faces a critical moment, facilities like these cannot be replaced by anything else.”

Many power producers once established facilities like Miraikan near nuclear power plants. From its opening through fiscal 2018, a total of 217,636 people visited the exhibition, but the annual number of visitors — which peaked at 17,273 in its first year of operation — plummeted to 5,437 in fiscal 2018.

“At the beginning, we balked at the idea of using a nuclear-related facility, but this was the only option we had for opening a clinic,” Kaminoseki Mayor Shigemi Kashiwabara said.

The mayor said the revamp will be thorough, noting all of Miraikan’s current exhibits will be dismantled.

“We feel bad for Chugoku Electric given the investment it made over the years, but we will make sure the new place will feel like a real medical clinic,” he said.

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on Feb. 1.

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