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Thursday, July 14, 2011

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Nuclear decision: This photo taken in 1976 shows the No. 1 reactor building of Chubu Electric Power Co.'s Hamaoka nuclear power plant in the former town of Hamaoka, now the city of Omaezaki, in Shizuoka Prefecture. OMAEZAKI CITY/KYODO

Hamaoka host city at crossroads

Nuke plant site faces decision: Cut or preserve atomic ties?


Nagoya — With Chubu Electric Power Co.'s Hamaoka nuclear power plant in limbo, the complex's host city faces a tough decision: Stick with atomic power — and all the riches that come with it — or look for opportunity elsewhere and dismantle the potentially deadly cash cow.

Chubu Electric had to shut down the Hamaoka plant in the city of Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture, in May over safety concerns after the March 11 Tohoku temblor and tsunami triggered the atomic crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power complex.

The Hamaoka plant, built on a major active fault line that runs through the city, is thought to be in the focal area of an anticipated magnitude-8-class earthquake.

Given the unprecedented crisis at Fukushima, the government ordered the shutdown of the Hamaoka plant over the lack of sufficient quake and tsunami protections — even though the plant had met all conditions required for operation at the time.

At the very least, Hamaoka's resumption is not expected until measures — such as a very high concrete seawall — are taken.

The once-impoverished town has flourished on government subsidies for and revenues from the 3.8 million-kw plant, which accounts for more than 10 percent of Chubu Electric's power capacity and supplies one of the nation's key industrial zones.

The town has now arrived at a crossroads: Should it wait out the shutdown, with an eye toward the plant's resumption, or consider shifting away from its nuclear reliance?

"We cannot go back to the years of poverty," said Yoshiro Kamogawa, 83, recalling the town's postwar situation. Kamogawa was mayor of what was formerly Hamaoka, a town that merged with the town of Omaezaki to create the city of Omaezaki in 2004.

"It was at any rate an impoverished town. On several occasions, we just could not even form a town budget," said Kamogawa, who was born into a family that farmed the meager land on which they lived.

In 1967, Chubu Electric proposed building the nuclear plant in Hamaoka, an offer many in the town considered a boon.

One local official said, "It was like a crane that lays golden eggs landing in one of our rice paddies."

Toshio Suzuki, 72, was a town employee who worked to hear out and consolidate views of residents about the proposal at a time when people were not well-informed about what impact nuclear technology could have on their lives.

"We did have conflicting feelings, but officials from the central government and Chubu Electric came to make the offer humbly," Suzuki said. "We accepted it on condition that safety would be ensured and measures taken to invigorate the local economy."

Golden eggs were laid as expected. Omaezaki has received ¥45.6 billion in subsidies. The city saw a rush of large-scale construction projects — including a hospital, a library and a heated swimming pool. "We achieved a leap in development," said Suzuki.

But some were skeptical of the purported safety of the plant.

"Why a nuclear power plant in Hamaoka, where the Tokai Earthquake is expected to come?" asked Minoru Ito, a 70-year-old resident of the former Hamaoka. "It should be decommissioned."

The Tokai Earthquake refers to seismic activity of at least magnitude 8 repeated at intervals of 100 to 150 years originating in an area around Hamaoka. With more than 150 years having passed since the last temblor in 1854, experts anticipate a new quake could strike soon.

Ito staged a vigorous movement against the nuclear plant when there was talk of building a fifth reactor at Hamaoka.

But the movement's efforts were in vain.

The town — by now addicted to the constant flow of nuclear subsidies — needed ever more funds to maintain its atomically augmented infrastructure.

Eerily, this has proven to be a situation similarly faced by other communities hosting nuclear plants and a reason why atomic power subsidies are often likened to drug addiction.

"We became reliant on nuclear power both in material and psychological terms," Ito said of the town he grew up in.

"For this town to change, we cannot be bound by the chains of the past."

In the city of Kosai, Shizuoka Prefecture, about 55 km west of the Hamaoka plant, Mayor Hajime Mikami is preparing a lawsuit seeking to have Chubu Electric decommission the plant.

After seeing more than 90 percent of votes against nuclear power in a recent referendum in Italy, the mayor was overjoyed.

"It is major progress toward accelerating a global move away from nuclear power," Mikami said.

"If Hamaoka, facing the Tokai Earthquake threat, were to have an accident, its impact would not be limited to Omaezaki," Mikami said. The Hamaoka plant is 180 km west of Tokyo, closer to the capital than the Fukushima No. 1 plant, at 220 km to its northeast.

Running just over 10 km north of Hamaoka are the Tokaido Shinkansen Line and the Tomei Expressway, the main trunk lines linking Tokyo to key cities such as Nagoya and Osaka.

At the five-reactor Hamaoka complex, reactors 1 and 2 were permanently shut down in 2009. Chubu Electric estimates around ¥84 billion will be required for work to decommission the pair, a job that could take 30 years.

"The construction industry does not have a future, but if we could handle a massive volume of waste (from the reactors), it will be a huge business," said a construction executive.

An Omaezaki City Hall employee added, "Since (out of all the country's nuclear power plants) Hamaoka alone was suspended, it is like the government admitting it is the most dangerous plant in the world. Even if we break away from nuclear power, I would think no businesses or people would be interested in coming here."

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