After the binge, a hangover for Japan's atomic alley

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The Independent Online

Between the Tsuruga Peninsula and the little town of Takahama, along what used to be one of the loneliest and most beautiful stretches of Japanese coastline, is the short strip of rocky promontories and beaches that the local people refer to as Genpatsu Ginza.

Between the Tsuruga Peninsula and the little town of Takahama, along what used to be one of the loneliest and most beautiful stretches of Japanese coastline, is the short strip of rocky promontories and beaches that the local people refer to as Genpatsu Ginza.

The second word alludes to Tokyo's most famous and elegant shopping district, a byword for upmarket good taste. The first word means "nuclear power plant".

For a language not rich in irony, Genpatsu Ginza is a deeply sarcastic term - in English you might translate it as "Nuclear Knightsbridge" or "Atomic Oxford Street".

From one end to another it is no more than 40 miles, but crammed into that space are 15 nuclear reactors, nearly a third of Japan's total, clustered along Wakasa Bay like radioactive department stores. Since the first began operating almost 30 years ago, they have transformed the prefecture of Fukui from one of the poorest in the country to a comfortable position in the middle ranks.

Cumulatively, Fukui provides 23 per cent of Japan's nuclear-generated electricity; its Monju reactor is pioneering Japan's ambitious fast-breeder reactor programme.

But for five years, Japan has been suffering the worsening consequences of its nuclear binge, and few populations have a worse hangover than the people of Genpatsu Ginza.

Fukui's dilemma is obvious in the small town of Takahama. Behind are low, snowy mountains where mushrooms and yams grow; the sea contains smelt, mackerel and squid and, for a few weeks in the summer, people come from Osaka to swim off the yellow beach.

There are dull towns like Takahama all over Japan. They have a few little inns, run by fishermen's wives, a noodle restaurant or two, and an unambitious group of local politicians who keep things ticking over. But Takahama has the 40-room Wave Hotel, with its exterior of violently aquamarine tiles; it has restaurants serving Italian-style pasta and American-style hamburgers; and it has a history of bitter political struggles and allegations of massive financial impropriety. The reason is 20 minutes' drive away, in an inlet by the village of Otom, crowded into a narrow valley, the cream domes, girders and cooling channels of the Takahama nuclear plant.

Here, escorted by two armed vessels and tracked by the boats of protesting environmentalists and local fishermen, a British ship arrived last autumn bearing Takahama's latest burden, a cargo of mixed-oxide fuel (Mox) reprocessed in Sellafield by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL).

The fuel, pellets in eight fuel assemblies, was to have been fed into the plant's fourth, and newest, reactor. But soon after the fuel's delivery, BNFL admitted it had faked results of quality and safety tests.

People in Takahama were nervous enough, after an accident last September at the Tokaimura nuclear plant, where a radiation leak killed two workers, but the BNFL scandal brought it to their front door. Local activists organised a petition, calling for a referendum on the future of the Mox programme, but the referendum was rejected out of hand by the local assembly.

They had collected 2,000 signatures, almost a quarter of the voting population, and a remarkable number given that 1,100 families in the town owe their living to the plant.

"From talking to people, we think 90 per cent of people are against the nuclear programme," says Takashi Watanabe, a councillor and anti- nuclear campaigner.

"There's a feeling of crisis here, and many people tell us if there was a referendum they would vote against plutonium. But they're afraid for their jobs and they're afraid of the consequences if it becomes known they supported us." The anxiety is well founded, for jobs are not the only benefit the nuclear plants bring.

Between 1974 and 1998, the nuclear power companies presented the prefecture with 142bn yen (£853m) in subsidies; tax income in the same period was 344.5bn yen (£2.05bn) from the nuclear industry alone.

"The taxes, especially, are like a drug," says Aileen Mioko Smith, of the environmental group Green Action. "The prefectures get addicted to them, and the more they need them, the more plants they need to build to keep the revenue up." There is a proposal to build two more reactors.

For the anti-nuclear campaigners, pointing out the dangers of nuclear fuel is not enough; they must also bring reassurance that something will take their place.

The question is simply: what would Genpatsu Ginza do without its sinister nuclear department stores? The name Takahama is no longer a draw for tourists, and the mountain mushrooms don't have much of a name any more either.

There is fishing of course, but the men of Otomi say this has never been the same since the plant has opened - that the seaweed is thin and straggly, and that the mackerel fleethe bay and stay away, far out to sea.

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