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Monday, April 4, 2011

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Child's play: Japan Times staff writer Eric Johnston tries out an arcade-style nuclear reactor game at the atomic energy science museum At Home in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, last week. ERIC JOHNSTON

Kansai region wonders: Could it happen here?

Fukui is home to Japan's largest concentration of nuclear plants


Staff writer

TSURUGA, Fukui Pref. — On a hillside overlooking Tsuruga, about a dozen children and their mothers are enjoying the day at At Home, the Fukui Atomic Energy Science Museum. Inside, kids rush to play free arcade-style games spread across the two-floor facility. Some feature the latest computer graphics technology, while others are reminiscent of games like pinball.

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A mascot outside the museum is designed to help children understand the benefits of nuclear energy. ERIC JOHNSTON

One particular game catches the eye. It looks like some kind of machine that dispenses prizes. Press the start button, though, and a chirpy recorded voice explains the purpose is not to shoot bad guys but to save a nuclear reactor core from melting down.

Using the plastic gunlike device to suck up little white balls representing neutrons as they attack the reactor core and heat it up, the players have one minute to collect enough neutrons to prevent the reactor from overheating. What happens if they fail?

"The temperature inside the reactor went up too much. Too bad. We're waiting for you to try again," the voice says.

At Home is not just fun and games, though. It's a place that aims to educate Fukui parents and their children about electricity, power generation and all forms of energy, including nuclear power. Hitomi Taguchi, a center spokeswoman, says about 100,000 people visit the center annually.

With 14 reactors inside a roughly 60-km radius, Fukui Prefecture is home to Japan's, and possibly the world's, largest concentration of nuclear plants. For more than four decades, nuclear power from Fukui has provided up to half of all electricity for the adjacent Kansai region. In return for hosting the plants, prefectural residents received central government and utility subsidies. These helped make possible not only centers like At Home, but also the local roads, bridges, port facilities, streetlights and basic municipal services city people take for granted.

But when the March 11 quake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Fukui's residents, including those who enjoyed the attractions at At Home, became concerned for their prefecture's own safety standards, although they say they can't see any options available for Fukui or Japan's nuclear reactors in the short or midterm future.

"I think nuclear power can be safe. But it has to be managed much better. Everyone in Fukui is concerned about whether or not our disaster response policies for a nuclear accident in case of a natural disaster are sufficient, especially since it's obvious nuclear power isn't going to be replaced anytime soon," said Etsuko Kawashima, 32, who was with her son at Atom House.

Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, all but guaranteed of being re-elected on April 10, has called on Tokyo to review its safety standards. In some areas, Fukui already has tougher policies than the central government, and the governor has suggested Fukui's policies might provide Tokyo with some lessons.

For example, under Tokyo's guidelines, when outside radiation levels are between 10 and 50 millisieverts, people in wooden houses are told to avoid going outside and to shut their windows. When the levels rise above 50 millisieverts, the government can order people in concrete buildings to remain or to evacuate.

However, Fukui has a three-stage response. When radiation levels are between 5 and 10 millisieverts, those living in wooden homes are told to remain indoors and keep their windows shut. When they are between 10 and 50 millisieverts, those in concrete buildings are also told to avoid going outside. Any level over 50 millisieverts requires evacuation.

Yet, while stressing the need for stronger safety measures, Nishikawa has made it clear he still supports two new reactors being built at Tsuruga which are scheduled to begin operations in 2016 and 2017. In addition, the governor wants assurances from Tokyo it will not abandon the Monju fast-breeder reactor, also in Tsuruga.

Originally designed to burn pure plutonium but closed after a December 1995 accident and coverup bid, the troubled plant is now part of a central government and prefecture-supported plan to serve as an international research center for fast-breeder reactor technology.

"We've called upon the central government and the utilities to review their safety procedures, especially before building new nuclear reactors or planning new ones. As for Monju, we must ensure its safety features continue to operate in an emergency. It's an important project in Japan's overall energy policy," Nishikawa said late last month during a visit with Tokyo officials.

It's also important to Fukui politicians and businesses that rely, directly or indirectly, on nuclear power for their economic survival. In his campaign, Nishikawa is reminding voters that, while Japan's unemployment in January was 4.9 percent, Fukui's was only 2.7 percent, one of the lowest in the nation.

While it's difficult to say exactly how much Fukui's nuclear power plants support local towns and villages in terms of direct and indirect employment and revenue for local service industries like hotels and restaurants, the central government's investment in Fukui over the years has played a huge role in its economic development.

According to the Fukui Prefectural Government, between 1974, when central government subsidies began, and 2007, over ¥282 billion went to Fukui. Eighteen towns and villages received about ¥131 billion and the prefectural government got nearly all of the remaining ¥151 billion.

Four of the towns in the central and southern parts of the prefecture that host nuclear reactors had received over ¥100 billion of this total by 2007, with Tsuruga getting the most, ¥36.5 billion. And these figures do not include other forms of direct and indirect subsidies and gifts provided to the local governments over the years by Kansai Electric Power Co.

Miwako Ogiso, one of Fukui's most prominent antinuclear activists, agrees that the prefecture's heavy reliance on central government subsidies has made many residents fatalistic or resigned to living with nuclear power plants for some time to come.

But she says even those who support nuclear power are concerned and are asking specific questions in the aftermath of Fukushima about just how safe the prefecture would be in the event of a similar disaster.

"First is the problem of evacuation. Smaller roads in and out of Fukui towns and villages running through the various peninsulas where the power plants are located could be damaged, preventing people from being able to evacuate.

"The second problem is that the concentration of nuclear power plants in such a small area could mean many of them could be damaged, complicating rescue efforts," she said.

Finally, since the closest Fukui nuclear power plants are only about 30 km from the northern shore of Lake Biwa, the freshwater source for millions of Kyoto residents, it can't be just Fukui Prefecture that thinks about what would happen if the plants were damaged.

"The possibility of a natural disaster damaging plants in Fukui is a problem that all of Kansai, which benefits from Fukui's nuclear plants, needs to make contingency plans for," she said.



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