Japan's nuclear complex

'We all said disaster would strike here, not Fukushima'

After a 40-year campaign, warnings about the vast nuclear power station on Japan's earthquake faultline are finally being heard. By David McNeill in Omaezeki and Nanako Otani

Norihiko Watanabe is pointing to his home, 600m from what he calls the most dangerous nuclear power complex on the planet. "There's nothing like it anywhere in the world," he says, eyes widening. "If it blows up, we're all finished."

For years, Mr Watanabe's unofficial tour of Omaezeki, a small city of about 30,000 people, has included a stop at the exhibition centre in the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant. The centre, complete with cartoon figures for children, says the energy it generates is safe, cheap and clean: one section explains how seawater discharged from the plant's cooling system is used to incubate shellfish.

From the observation deck of the centre, the five-reactor complex can be seen nestling between a bank of trees and the azure Pacific. Just beyond its gates is Omaezaki and in the foreground a peninsula of rolling emerald countryside with neat lines of tea trees stretching into the distance. The tea and fish from the sea provided the area's main income until the Chubu Electric Power Company arrived there 40 years ago.

Today about 3,000 people work at the plant. Even its opponents acknowledge it has brought in more than $700m (£420m) in subsidies since the 1970s. In return, the locals were asked to ignore the fact it is a catastrophe waiting to happen, says veteran anti-nuclear activist Eichi Nagano. "All of us thought that this would be where disaster strikes, not Fukushima. This could be next."

Mr Nagano carries around in his pocket samples of local rock which he crumbles in his hand. "The company was in a rush to build and they didn't pay enough attention to these foundations," he says. "They should never have come here."

Hamaoka's first two reactors were already online before modern seismology developed an accurate study of earthquake activity in the area, which sits almost on the boundary of two restless tectonic plates: the Eurasian and the Philippine Sea.

The studies forced the authorities to accept that an 8-magnitude earthquake could strike the region at any time – government studies 30 years ago calculated there was an 87 per cent chance of a powerful tremor in the area. The possible consequences for Tokyo, 180km away, are chilling: a Fukushima-scale accident would force 30 million people in the country's political and economic heart to evacuate, "signalling the collapse of Japan as we know it" seismologist Ishibashi Katsuhiko said recently.

Hamaoka is built to withstand an 8.5 magnitude earthquake and an 8m tsunami, says Chubu Electric, Japan's third-largest power company. However, that would not have been enough to cope with this year's crisis, which was triggered when last month's magnitude-9 earthquake knocked out the Fukushima plant's external power. A subsequent near 15m tsunami drowned the plant's back-up generators, leaving its uranium fuel uncooled. The fuel partially melted down, the reactor buildings filled with hydrogen and exploded, showering the surrounding area with radiation and forcing the evacuation of 80,000 people – and counting.

Hamaoka's oldest reactors, No 1 and No 2, are permanently closed after Chubu decided upgrading them for a stronger quake would be too costly. The company is inspecting Unit 3 with a view to restarting it in the sweltering summer. Pro tem just reactors 4 and 5 are operating. Reactor 5 was restarted this year after being shut down for 18 months by a 6.5 earthquake in August 2009. "We take every safety precaution," says company spokesman Nikio Inamata. He claims he has never heard Mr Nagano's allegations that Hamaoka is built on crumbly rock.

Less than two weeks after Japan's worst nuclear crisis began, Chubu Electric announced a "delay" in building Hamaoka's sixth reactor but plans to have it running by 2024. "We're exploring how to strengthen our tsunami preparation," says Mr Inamata. Kazuhiko Okabe, an executive at Chubu, said after the Fukushima crisis erupted the status of nuclear power in Japan "is unchanged". Japan's Nuclear Safety Agency last week announced that it is instructing power companies across the country to "reassess earthquake-resistance", a process likely take years, said state broadcaster NHK.

The move was partly an acknowledgement that, despite years of analysis, Japan's complicated lattice of subterranean faults are still a mystery: the agency says a fault line 50km from the Fukushima plant, previously thought inactive, moved during an aftershock. Four years ago, another undetected fault caused a 6.8 earthquake close to the seven-reactor Kashiwazaki complex in Niigata Prefecture, the world's largest nuclear plant. The tremor caused a fire, burst pipes and a radioactive discharge into the sea.

Making Hamaoka a special concern to its opponents is the presence of plutonium. Chubu is the only utility in Japan to have signed a contract to process mixed oxide fuel containing plutonium and uranium with the Sellafield plant in the UK.

The industry's clout, its collusion with government watchdogs and a largely compliant media have helped smother concerns about this potentially explosive collision of state-of-the-art atomic power with primordial seismic instability, say its opponents. For decades they have tried and failed in court to shut down any of the country's 55 reactors. "We have never won because we're not only dealing with the power companies or the reactor manufacturers, but with a national project," explains Yoshika Shiratori, who has instigated a lawsuit against Hamaoka.

"The higher up the judicial system you go up the more conservative the judges become, so it's almost impossible to win," he says. Shiratori's suit is now being aired in the Tokyo high court after being dismissed by the local Shizuoka District Court in 2007. "We don't expect to win, even now. My intention is to spread the word through the courts because that forces the media to cover them. Eventually public opinion will turn."

One of the consequences of the Fukushima disaster is that some of the more liberal media companies have begun asking tough questions. An editorial last week in the mass daily Tokyo Shimbun advised against allowing Chubu Electric to restart reactor 3 in July. "Simulations show that the radiation would reach Tokyo in half a day if disaster were to strike," it said. "Chubu Electricity says it is ready for emergencies. But it's far from being secure."

But few mainstream media outlets advocate shutting down Hamaoka, and none demand the mothballing of Japan's entire nuclear-power complex, which generates just under a third of the country's electricity needs. Recent protests in Tokyo drew about 10,000 people, a relatively small number in a metropolis of 28 million.

"Public opinion on nuclear power has definitely changed," says Aileen Mioko Smith, director of the anti-nuclear Green Action. "But we're concerned 'business-as-usual' will be back."

A survey last week by Shizuoka University found that 90 per cent of residents in the prefecture are "concerned" about their proximity to Hamaoka. Closest to the complex, however, protest is almost entirely muted. "It would be a lie to say that I'm not worried but the company says it is making the plant safer and I believe them," said Rika Onodera, a housewife in a local supermarket. "Japan is so small and we have no resources so we don't have any choice about making nuclear power."

That is typical, says Mr Watanabe. "We once had 50 people in our protest group, but it dwindled as people were threatened or bought off."

He says the authorities called the employers of protesters to have them fired. But he acknowledges another factor in the near nonchalance of local people. "Living this close to such a scary place it's better to just blot it out. If something happens, what can they do?"

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