Japan’s first commercial light-water nuclear reactor started operations in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, on March 14, 1970.
Fifty years later, those involved look back on the project with mixed feelings.
In that era, nuclear power was touted as a key future energy resource. But now, following the March 2011 triple nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture, public perceptions of nuclear energy have turned negative.
Reactor 1 at Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tsuruga nuclear power plant, which is currently being decommissioned, was the first built in the prefecture, paving the way for the 14 other commercial and research reactors that followed in Fukui.
Katsumi Tokunaga, 71, who served as deputy head of the Tsuruga plant, was a new employee at the firm when the reactor started commercial operations after 100 hours of continuous trial operations and all inspections were completed.
“Some 30 to 40 people in the main control room were shouting with joy,” Tokunaga said, recalling looking into the room from a window in a corridor at 4 a.m. on the day.
He was deeply impressed when the electricity generated from the reactor powered the lights at Expo ‘70, which opened in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, the following day.
“Everyone was positive and was determined to improve the technology,” said Tokunaga, who at the time was working in the firm’s maintenance management section.
However, in 1979, a serious accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, causing a partial meltdown. Then, in 1981, the Tsuruga plant operator faced harsh criticism after it failed to quickly inform the public and nearby residents when a radioactive sludge tank overflew — with some of the radioactive material flowing into the sea.
And the 2011 meltdowns were the last straw.
“Because of such accidents, I feel that nuclear power plants have become a burden for utilities,” Tokunaga said.
But as stricter safety regulations are introduced in Japan, he warned that staff members could become afraid of being proactive.
“If engineers become overwhelmed and become inward-looking, it would not lead to safety. I want them to look toward the future,” he said, adding that he hopes reactor 1 will play a role in demonstrating the secure decommissioning of a reactor.
Tsuruga resident Kenzo Furuichi, 79, who worked for the plant operator at the time of the 1981 accident, remembers how he responded to compensation demands from local marine product dealers hit by harmful rumors. “We had to face the local community faithfully and sometimes it was necessary for us to stand on the residents’ side and confront the firm,” Furuichi said.
“I think it was necessary to gather opinions on safety measures more broadly” long before the 2011 Fukushima accident, he said.
The first reactor at the Tsuruga plant, on the Tsuruga Peninsula, was a light-water reactor, which eventually became the mainstream.
“It was like a shower of gold was falling on us,” said 71-year-old Hidemune Komori, chairman of Kiko, a Tsuruga-based firm which sells industrial machinery and tools for nuclear plants, recalling the time when the city was booming economically.
At the time, Komori was working as a sales person at a different firm involved in the construction of the reactor. He started his own business at the age of 26 after the reactor started operations.
“Every single business sector, from construction and hotels to restaurants, was making profits,” he said.
His firm continued to increase sales, but after the 2011 Fukushima accident, the nuclear plant-related sales of the firm, which totaled ¥1.2 billion, dropped by 40 percent.
Komori said he is frustrated with utilities that had not been implementing sufficient safety measures. But at the same time, he said there is no way for his firm to survive other than by co-existing with the nuclear plant.
“The nuclear plant has brought in an incomparable number of people and funds into this place. No matter what anyone says, Tsuruga is a nuclear plant city,” he said.
Reactor 1, a boiling-water reactor with an output of 357,000 kilowatts, was set to be decommissioned after a 2015 decision.
Reactor 2, a pressurized-water reactor with an output of 1.16 million kilowatts, started operations in February 1987, but it has been idle since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The Nuclear Regulation Authority, which is conducting safety screening of the reactor, has pointed to an active fault running underneath the plant.
Plans in the works for decades to construct reactors 3 and 4 have been put on hold.
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published March 14.