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Friday, July 15, 2011

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Good neighbor?: Children run along a breakwater near the reactor building for J-Power's nuclear plant under construction in Oma, Aomori Prefecture, on June 25. BLOOMBERG PHOTO

Rejecting ¥160 million offer from J-Power, Aomori family left with view of nuclear plant


By CHISAKI WATANABE and STUART BIGGS
Bloomberg

OMA, Aomori Pref. — Atsuko Ogasawara's family rejected offers of some ¥160 million for their property on the northern tip of Honshu during a two-decade bid to prevent construction of a nuclear plant. The result: Their fenced-in house is little more than a stone's throw from a facility that opens in 2014.

News photo
Subsidized: A fishing boat is moored last month in Oma, Aomori Prefecture. BLOOMBERG PHOTO

The family's protest illustrates the challenges facing opponents when they go up against the nuclear industry, a pillar of Japanese energy policy since the late 1960s.

Ogasawara says her mother faced harassment that included letters from local authorities and neighbors pressuring her to sell, unidentified men following her and anonymous phone calls that included a threat to sabotage the family's fishing boat.

"The calls were so frequent my mother hated answering the phone," Ogasawara said in an interview last month in her living room, where a photo of her mother with a freshly caught tuna hangs on the wall. Her mother died in 2006.

"She came from a generation that knew of the dangers of radiation because of Hiroshima. She didn't care about the money."

Ogasawara says she is now the last holdout among 176 families that owned land where Electric Power Development Co., better known as J-Power, is building its first atomic plant, in Oma, Aomori Prefecture, a windswept town of 6,300.

The other residents agreed to the plant in exchange for government subsidies that have totaled almost ¥11 billion over 29 years since the plant was proposed, official data show.

While J-Power offered to buy the land, it didn't pressure Ogasawara's mother to sell, Masato Honda, a spokesman for the company, said. Honda declined to say how much the company offered.

The family's log bungalow, now surrounded by J-Power's land, is a focal point for the nation's antinuclear movement, attracting letters and visits from supporters across Japan. A supporter stopped by with a journalist on June 1 after driving nine hours from Tokyo. Ogasawara says the bungalow forced the company to move the reactor 250 meters away.

J-Power says the distance is about 300 meters to comply with government radiation guidelines.

Ogasawara's protest is part of the grassroots opposition facing the nuclear industry in the only country to be hit by atomic weapons, when the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Opposition to nuclear power, in recent years mostly confined to legal battles in courtrooms, has moved to the streets since the March earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns of three reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 plant, about 460 km south of Oma. According to nuclear companies' plans, Oma will be the first new station to come online since the Fukushima accident.

Antinuclear protests were held across Japan on June 11, three months after the Fukushima plant began spewing radiation.

More than 60,000 people marched in demonstrations in cities including Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukushima.

About 74 percent of the public supports the "gradual abolition" of nuclear power, which supplied a third of Japan's energy before Fukushima, the Asahi Shimbun said June 14, citing its own poll. A survey two weeks earlier found 48 percent of Aomori Prefecture residents want the Oma station scrapped.

The Fukushima crisis is giving Ogasawara's protest a second wind, even as the cranes visible through her window indicate the 1,383-megawatt nuclear plant is near completion.

Outside, a guard sits in a box at the end of the new private road leading to her house, monitoring all visitors.

"This is a great chance to think about a way of life and power generation not dependent on nuclear," Ogasawara said. "What happened in Fukushima was a man-made disaster."

A drive through Oma shows it fits the bill as the usual economically deprived rural area chosen by the atomic power industry to host a nuclear plant.

Oma also had a decreasing and aging population, town officials said.

What sets the town apart is Japan's most iconic fishery, where Pacific bluefin tuna weighing as much as 555 kg are still caught using a rod and line. In January, an Oma bluefin fetched ¥32.5 million at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

The importance of fishing made the nuclear plant a tough sell to residents, Hirofumi Hamahata, 69, the head of Oma's fisheries cooperative, said in his office decorated with pictures of some of the bluefin he's caught in a career that began at the age of 6. The 770-member cooperative was divided at first. About 99 percent of members supported the plant after receiving compensation of about ¥10 million each, he said.

"Of course we're worried about the plant," said Hamahata. "If people say they're not concerned, they'd be lying. No one ever dreamed of an accident like Fukushima happening."

He will be the last of three generations fishing for bluefin after his son took a job in the power industry.

"Without the nuclear plant, there'd be nothing here," Yoshifumi Matsuyama, the 66-year-old head of the Oma Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview at the chamber's offices, a few buildings up the street from where Matsuyama does his main job as the town's butcher. "If the plant had come sooner, we would be better off. The young people have already left."

Matsuyama's comments resonate in rural towns throughout the country as the government stepped up its promotion of nuclear power to meet shortages after the 1973 oil shock sent the economy into recession.

This fueled the growth of the antinuclear power movement, which became absorbed by leftwing groups invoking the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The city of Obama, Fukui Prefecture, turned down a station in 1972, forcing Kansai Electric Power Co. to build a 4,700-megawatt plant in nearby Ohi. Fukui has the highest concentration of nuclear plants in the world.

About 34 towns and cities around the nation have rejected nuclear plants since 1961, leaving them based in 15 areas, according to the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, a Tokyo-based group.

Other towns were more willing to take the money.

"I call it nuclear money fascism," said Tetsuen Nakajima, a priest at the 811-year-old Myotsuji Temple in Obama who opposed Kepco's plant. "Subsidies have always been used to sweeten nuclear deals."

In Oma, Ogasawara still has many of the business cards and letters sent to her mother by the mayor, lawmakers and local business leaders as they tried to persuade her to sell the land. One letter in 2001 from then Mayor Tsuneyoshi Asami says the nuclear power station was needed to finance the town's projects.

Asami acknowledged sending the letter and trying to persuade Ogasawara's mother to sell the land.

"The money helped the area because it was used to build an old people's home and to rebuild the hospital," Asami said.

In Oma and other Aomori towns, the grants helped offset declining revenues that threatened the survival of rural communities, officials said.

In Mutsu, a city of 60,000 about 35 km southeast of Oma, grants from hosting a Japan Atomic Energy Agency nuclear waste facility paid for a ¥6.2 billion sports dome, where residents can use a gym, pool, baseball fields and tennis courts for ¥300.

Aomori Prefecture, which this year received ¥3.9 billion from the government for hosting nuclear facilities, hasn't done a study to measure the economic impact of the industry, said Hiromi Arazeki, head of the prefecture's nuclear affairs division.

"Subsidies mean a lot to us as we try to restore fiscal health," he said.

"The industry has provided jobs to people who would have otherwise left the prefecture."

When Tepco's Fukushima plant was hit by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, officials in towns throughout Aomori began to worry. Nuclear subsidies make up 20 percent of Oma's budget, said Kenichi Ito, an official in the town's planning division.

Before Fukushima, there were plans to build at least 14 more reactors by 2030. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has ordered a review of policy and forced the halt of the Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture until tsunami defenses are improved. Construction of Oma was also suspended. J-Power says it still plans to open the plant in 2014.

"I'm not against nuclear power, even after Fukushima," said Matsuyama of Oma's Chamber of Commerce. "I just want them to go ahead with the plans quickly."

Ogasawara, who will be the first person affected if the new plant suffers a meltdown, isn't convinced.

She's equipped her house with solar panels so she won't need power from the plant. She noted the irony that after the quake, family and friends came to her house to charge mobile phones because electricity to the town was cut.

"If nuclear plants are safe for people to live near, they should build one in the middle of Tokyo," she said, pointing to the construction site.

"If the residents there are OK with that, I'll be OK to continue to live here."



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