Oi - the town at the heart of the Japanese power row - goes nuclear

The country's reactors have lain idle since the tsunami that crippled the Fukushima plant. Now the government wants to turn them on again, starting in Oi – a picturesque town that is bitterly divided on the issue. David McNeill reports

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"They chose the most stunning places in Japan for nuclear plants," says Jiku Miyazaki, and it is hard to disagree when you are in Oi. The small fishing town shelters in a rugged cove ringed by rice paddies and mountains which once cut it off from Kyoto and Osaka. The postcard beauty is only slightly marred by towering orange pylons and cables which traverse the mountains to the four-reactor power plant near the bay.

Since the 1970s, these power lines have fed electricity to Japan's second-largest concentration of people and industry, the vast urban area called Kansai. In return, the plant's remote host – population 8,800 – has become strikingly prosperous. New schools, hospitals and recreation centres dot the countryside. A hot spring resort and a baseball stadium dominate either end of Oi.

The reactors that generated this largesse, however, have been shut down since last year and are being kept idle by Japan's post-Fukushima fear of nuclear energy. Mr Miyazaki, a veteran opponent of the nuclear industry, is one of many who hope they never start again. "I never liked having the plant nearby, but I didn't know till 11 March, 2011 exactly how terrifying it is," he says.

The shockwaves from last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster, the worst in 25 years, rippled across the planet, accelerating the industry's demise in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. In Japan, the crisis forced about 200,000 people to evacuate their homes and triggered an agonised and unresolved national debate that has put this dot on the map, 250 miles west of Tokyo, under an increasingly uncomfortable spotlight.

Anti-nuclear protesters camp permanently in the town. Supermarkets have put up signs warning reporters not to harass customers for their views on the sleeping nuclear giant. The local government has been inundated with calls, many of them hostile, demanding information on when, or if, the reactors will restart. "I've no idea why we have been chosen to carry this burden," laments Oi spokesman Yasufumi Saruhashi.

If the government has its way, Oi will become the first host town since the crisis to restart its idling reactors. On Friday, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda made a televised appeal for the country to get behind a restart at two of Oi's reactors, saying it was crucial to ensure a stable power supply. But despite many sympathisers in Oi, the government has a long way to go in broadening that support outside the towns which directly benefit from the plants. The further you go from Oi, support for a restart melts away.

Oi belongs to one of the planet's heaviest concentrations of nuclear power generation: 13 reactors at four plants strung along a 50km-odd stretch of the Japan Sea coast – an area known as the "nuclear Ginza". Further up the coast is the seven-reactor Kashiwazaki complex, the world's largest – part of a 50-reactor network that supplied about a third of Japan's electricity before March 2011. One by one during the past year, the reactors have been powered down for inspections, leaving the nation nuclear free for the first time since the 1970s. Before they can restart they must pass new stress tests and win the backing of their hosts.

Opponents such as Tetsuen Nakajima insist the plants can never be made safe in a country which has a fifth of the world's strong earthquakes. "There will certainly be another quake along the Japan Sea coast," says Mr Nakajima, a Buddhist monk. "History shows us that." Among his worst fears is that radiation from a future disaster will poison Lake Biwa, which supplies drinking water to about 15 million people in Kansai.

Mr Nakajima's fears do not resonate in Oi. A survey in May by state broadcaster NHK found 64 per cent of the town's population in favour of restarting the plant's idling reactors, with only 28 per cent against. But support declines sharply at the town's borders. In Obama, about 10km away, 55 per cent oppose the restart. Post-Fukushima, most Japanese say they are anti-nuclear. Many in Oi, however, say they can't come online soon enough. "We need nuclear power in this country," says Ishinobu Ide, a local small businessman. "We don't have any resources here."

Such views are easy to understand. The nuclear plant employs about 450 of Oi's working population of 2,670. Factor in ancillary businesses and perhaps 40 per cent of the townspeople would be directly affected by its closure, estimates local assemblyman Takumi Saruhashi. "The plant brings about $170m into the town every year," he says. According to the Asahi newspaper, Oi received nearly half a billion dollars in government subsidies between 1974 and 2010, about $57,000 for every man, woman and child.

The town's mayor, Shinobu Tokioka, is not immune from that river of nuclear cash. The metalwork company he founded supplies pipes and other materials to the plant, a relationship that has been worth $6m since 2003. He has been among the most hardline proponents for a reactor restart: he told the media that the town's future was "pitch black" without its nuclear benefactor, the powerful Kansai Electric Power Co.

But Mr Nakajima likens Oi's dependence on the nuclear industry to an addict mainlining on hard drugs. "In my view the town's people are nuclear victims and this money is used to anaesthetise their pain." He says residents of nuclear hosts like Oi are living in denial.

Officials have shuttled back and forth to Oi and neighbouring towns, seeking the "understanding" of sceptical locals. The government has promised to set up a surveillance system linking the plant to the Prime Minister's offices in Tokyo, and to station a minister at the facility.

Millions of Kansai residents have been warned to expect a long hot summer if the reactors are not switched back on. A government report in May said the authorities could be forced to demand a reduction in power usage of 20 per cent in the region. Pro-nuclear advocates point out that the nuclear drought has increased Japan's bill for oil and gas imports by $100m a day, leaving the country with its first trade deficit in three decades. The nation's biggest newspaper and most powerful business lobby, the Keidanren, have repeatedly made dire predictions about the nation's future without nuclear power.

Mr Nakajima and others denounce those warnings as scare tactics, but if so, the strategy has been effective: Kansai's most famous nuclear opponent, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, backed down last month and gave his consent for restarting reactors 3 and 4, though only "limited" to the peak summer months. On 14 May, Oi Town Assembly voted 12-1 in favour of the restart. Mr Saruhashi, a lifelong communist, was the only dissenter. He told the assembly the plant operators could not guarantee its safety.

Many believe it is only a matter of time before the Oi reactors begin operating again. After Mr Noda's speech on Friday, observers say the cabinet could make a formal decision as early as this week.

Mr Saruhashi says if opponents can stall the restart till Japan's traditional summer peak, 15 August, the public will see that the threats of the nuclear and business lobbies have been a bluff. "Something has definitely changed in Japan since the Fukushima crisis," he says. "We have yet to see how much."

After Fukushima: the world reaction

France Two weeks after the accident, French PM Francois Fillon orders an "open and transparent" audit of France's nuclear installations.


Italy Italians vote against nuclear power in a national referendum on 13 June, leading to cancellation of future nuclear power plants.


India A review of the safety and designs of all reactors is ordered.