Japan says it needs nuclear power, can host towns ever trust it again?

Japan says it needs nuclear power, can host towns ever trust it again?

World News

Growing up, Mika Kasahara saw the nuclear power plant that hugs the coast of her hometown simply as the place where her father worked, a familiar fortress of cooling tanks and steel lightning towers overlooking the Sea of Japan.

“We thought that as long as nothing bad happened, it’s fine,” Kasahara, 45, said.

After the disaster 11 years ago at a nuclear power station in Fukushima, where an earthquake and tsunami led to a triple meltdown, Japan took most of its nuclear plants offline. Now, Kasahara, spooked by security breaches and damaged infrastructure at the power station near her home, wants it shuttered for good.

Kasahara symbolizes the long road Japan faces as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, confronting threats to fuel supplies posed by the Ukraine war and vowing urgent action to reduce carbon emissions, intensifies efforts to reboot the country’s nuclear power network.

For the first time since the Fukushima catastrophe, a small majority of the Japanese public has expressed support for bringing the plants back online, indicating a growing awareness that the world’s third-largest economy may struggle to keep the lights on as it confronts its own limited resources during a time of geopolitical upheaval.

But the decision to restart the plants is fraught with emotions and political calculation, not to mention the gargantuan technical task of fortifying the stations against future disasters in an earthquake-prone nation.

In Kashiwazaki, a midsize suburban city, and neighboring Kariwa, a small village, which together host the seven-reactor plant — the world’s largest — in Niigata prefecture in northwestern Japan, the fate of the nation’s idled power plants is deeply personal.

When Kasahara’s father died of esophagus and lung cancer three years ago, she wondered if his two decades inside the plant had been a factor. A traffic jam during an evacuation drill left her fearing that she and her family would be trapped by a nuclear accident.

“I was honestly very afraid,” she said.

Business leaders and workers whose livelihoods depend on the plant warn that if it does not come back online, the area will deteriorate, like many rural Japanese communities that are experiencing steep population decline. Currently about 5,500 people are working to maintain the idled plant, although employment would be likely to grow if it reopened.

Many local residents work in the plant or know friends and family who do.

“I think that there are more people who understand the necessity of the plant,” said Masaaki Komuro, CEO of Niigata Kankyo Service, a maintenance contractor at the facility.

Public polling presents a muddier picture. According to a 2020 survey by the city of Kashiwazaki, close to 20% of residents want to decommission the plant immediately. About 40% would accept the temporary operation of some reactors, but ultimately want the plant shut down. Just over half of prefectural residents oppose a nuclear restart, according to a 2021 survey by Niigata Nippo, a local newspaper.

The public wariness will be tested in an election for governor this month in Niigata prefecture. The current governor, Hideyo Hanazumi, 63, is backed by the governing Liberal Democrats but has remained vague about his restart intentions. His challenger, Naomi Katagiri, a 72-year-old architect, promises to block the resumption of operations in Kashiwazaki and Kariwa.

The stakes are high because an unwritten government policy requires local political leaders to ratify nuclear reboots. Kariwa’s mayor, Hiroo Shinada, 65, is a vociferous proponent, while the mayor of Kashiwazaki, Masahiro Sakurai, 60, is investing in wind power but would support the temporary operation of some reactors.

“Japan is not like Communist China that can impose a project” on communities, said Daisaku Yamamoto, an associate professor of Asian studies at Colgate University and a native of Kashiwazaki. While the national government influences local decisions, host communities “are not powerless either,” he said.

Local opposition is not the only obstacle to restarting nuclear power stations. All plants must adhere to strict new guidelines adopted by Japan’s nuclear regulator two years after the Fukushima disaster. Operators are required to erect higher sea walls, build backup cooling pools and install filtered vents that would reduce radioactive discharges.

Out of 60 reactors in Japan, 24 have been decommissioned and five are currently operating. Another five have been approved to restart but are suspended for routine checkups, and three are under construction. The rest have not been approved to restart.

Nuclear power now contributes less than 4% of the nation’s electricity, down from nearly a third before the Fukushima disaster. Japan currently draws more than three-quarters of its electricity from fossil fuels, and about 18% from renewable sources.

Since 2014, the Liberal Democrats have said nuclear plants should generate more than 20% of Japan’s electricity by 2030. The war in Ukraine and the threat of a blackout in Tokyo after a strong earthquake this spring have made the public more receptive to this message.

In a March poll by the Nikkei business newspaper, 53% supported a restart of the plants. As recently as four years ago, more than 60% of the Japanese public opposed rebooting nuclear power.

In hopes of accelerating regulatory approvals, some Liberal Democratic lawmakers have submitted a proposal to loosen requirements for physical barriers to terrorism at plants.

“The people who say that they are afraid of war or terrorism attacks against nuclear plants are probably the type of people who would oppose the restarts no matter what,” said Tsuyoshi Takagi, secretary-general of the Liberal Democrats’ task force on energy stability.

In Kashiwazaki and Kariwa, the national regulator has suspended approvals, citing concerns about the safety culture at the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator.

Last year, Tokyo Electric revealed that a plant worker had used a colleague’s security card and bypassed biometric systems in 2020, gaining entrance to a control room. The company admitted flawed welding work and a failure to install fire prevention machinery in a reactor. It reported that an earthquake in 2007 had damaged two concrete pegs in a building foundation, and the regulator found a risk of liquefaction in the ground beneath a sea wall protecting reactors.

Officials at Tokyo Electric say they are addressing the issues. The company has spent about $9 billion reinforcing the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.

The setbacks have raised doubts among residents about the competence of the company, which also operated the Fukushima plant where the meltdowns occurred 11 years ago.

“I only feel distrust,” Miyuki Igarashi, 33, said as she loaded her 6-month-old daughter into an SUV at a strip mall in Kashiwazaki. “I think they are hiding things.”

Some local residents say the problems have been overblown by anti-nuclear activists.

“People who oppose the restarts keep pointing out things that are wrong, and there is no end to it,” said Motonori Nishikata, 44, who worked at the plant for seven years before opening a grilled beef restaurant in Kashiwazaki.

The community is already preparing for an eventual restart, in part by readying for a possible accident. Public shelters have installed filters to keep out radioactive contaminants. Pharmacists stock iodine pills, meant to block the most harmful effects of radiation.

Those who lived through the 2011 Fukushima crisis say the risk is not worth it.

Junko Isogai, 48, was raising two young daughters with her husband in Koriyama, a city in Fukushima prefecture, when the meltdowns occurred 42 miles away.

Worried about their daughters’ health, the couple decided that she and the girls should move to Niigata, although her husband stayed behind for the next five years, working to pay the mortgage on a house they had built just before the disaster.

In Niigata, her elder daughter, Suzu, was bullied at school, called “dirty” by a classmate because of her Fukushima roots.

Three years ago, Isogai ran for a seat in the prefectural assembly, opposing a restart at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. She lost but plans to run again next April.

“I don’t want anyone else to be in the situation that I was put in,” she said.

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