• Kahoku Shimpo

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Even though it’s around 430 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, a village in Aomori Prefecture is still enduring the repercussions of the meltdowns at the facility almost a decade ago.

For the past 10 years, Higashidori has been facing an economic crisis because Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. has suspended construction of a nuclear plant, and another nuclear power plant operated by Tohoku Electric Power Co. was shut down.

In the budget for fiscal 2017, Higashidori was projected to be short by around ¥100 million, causing the village to turn to the so-called nuclear village — pro-nuclear groups in government, industry and academia.

Higashidori made a series of attempts to save their finances. The village sold part of a piece of land that would have been a central residential area to Tohoku Electric for the price of ¥100 million.

“We barely escaped from going into deficit,” said a village official in charge.

Before the nuclear disaster, Higashidori had been compiling an annual budget of about ¥10 billion. But the figure shrunk to the region of ¥6 billion to ¥8 billion from fiscal 2012, as it no longer was able to issue bonds relying on future revenue from the Higashidori nuclear plant that would be used for repayment.

Despite the budget cut, the fiscal hardships continued. In order to help finance the village, in fiscal 2018 and 2019, Tokyo Electric and Tohoku Electric each donated ¥400 million via the furusato nо̄zei (hometown tax donation) system for businesses.

From fiscal 2019 to 2021, Higashidori is expected to receive a total of ¥1 billion from the central government in subsidies allocated to regions with power plants.

Since the subsidy is usually provided the following fiscal year after a nuclear power plant starts operation, Higashidori’s case is rare.

Tokyo Electric started construction of Higashidori nuclear power plant in January 2011, aiming to start its operation in March 2017, only for work to be suspended two months later due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“The village’s fiscal plan was drafted on the premise that there would be a revenue of ¥5 billion in fixed asset tax from the Higashidori nuclear power plant in fiscal 2018,” explained an official at the village’s planning division.

A shift in the policy of it’s operator, Tokyo Electric, is also a factor delaying the process.

In 2017, the power company decided to solicit collaborators for the development of the Higashidori nuclear plant, instead of its initial plan to construct it on its own.

Tokyo Electric has explained that it is still in the process of seeking a joint project, with construction not likely to resume anytime soon.

Local economies in Aomori Prefecture, where many nuclear plants are located, continue to face difficulties, as many depend on tax revenue from the nuclear power industry and its related businesses.

Among them, Higashidori has been dealt the heaviest blow.

According to Aomori Prefecture, Higashidori’s gross product plunged 60.2% in fiscal 2016 — the latest figure available — from fiscal 2010. In the same period, neighboring Mutsu’s figure dropped 2.5%, while the figure for Oma, further around the coast, dropped 7.7%, prefectural data showed. An interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel is being built in the former, while a nuclear plant is under construction in the latter.

Higashidori’s dire economy directly impacts small business owners such as Dai Minamikawa, 28, who runs a family-owned inn for nuclear plant workers.

“There were days when we didn’t have any guests at all, so I took another job and used my savings to make ends meet,” said Minamikawa.

He has witnessed many neighboring stores, including a convenience store, a gasoline station, a bento shop and a construction company, disappear one after the other in the past 10 years.

But Minamikawa is holding on to his business in the hope that the village will flourish once again due to the nuclear power plant business.

Resuming operations at Tohoku Electric’s Higashidori nuclear plant is also an uphill battle.

Though the utility applied to the Nuclear Regulation Authority for screening under new safety standards in June 2014, the process has taken years, since it is difficult to assess the risk of a fault running under the plant’s premises.

The business environment surrounding Tohoku Electric has also changed. Since the liberalization of the retail power market in 2016, Tokyo Electric, which split the construction cost for the Higashidori nuclear plant with Tohoku Electric, has now become Tohoku Electric’s competitor.

With uncertain prospects facing the nuclear plants and accumulating deficits damaging the economy, Higashidori is going through a dark, cold winter.

The village is like the local kandachime horse breed, persevering through winds and snow under the winter sky, awaiting the advent of spring.

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published Nov. 29.

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