Japanese nuclear dump poisons village goodwill

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The Independent Online
Rokkasho does not look like a divided community. In fact, it does not look like a community at all. A scattered, rather dismal village of 12,000 fishermen and farmers, it straddles a narrow isthmus at the very northernmost end of Honshu, Japan's main island.

Swans and Siberian geese glide over a couple of marshy lagoons; now and then a jet fighter passes overhead, from the American air base at nearby Misawa. But appearances are deceptive: the trouble coming to Rokkasho is still far out at sea.

In about two weeks' time - the date is a closely guarded secret - the British-owned ship Pacific Pintail will dock at Mutsu-Ogawara, the port of Rokkasho, carrying a 112-ton steel flask of high-level radioactive waste.

After being hoisted by a giant purpose-built crane, the flask will begin a slow journey through the village to its destination, the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities. There it will be opened and 28 smaller canisters, each containing 400kg of radioactive by products, will be lowered by robots into narrow shafts sunk deep into the earth. There they will remain for up to 50 years.

When the Pintail left Cherbourg, battleships escorted it out to sea and the marines were called in to prise Greenpeace protesters off the quayside.

Until Japan Nuclear Fuels Ltd (JNFL) arrived in Rokkasho 10 years ago, it was a contentedly anonymous village; the prospect of becoming a cause clbre, the Sellafield of Japan, upset many inhabitants.

But, in other ways, the plant has brought great benefit to the area. Aomori Prefecture, of which Rokkasho forms an insignificant corner, is one of the most isolated in Japan with a shrinking, ageing population, well behind national averages in wages, growth and life expectancy.

At the height of construction work, 8,000 jobs were created. By the time it is completed at the end of the century, 2,500 permanent staff will man the huge site - which will eventually enrich its own plutonium as well as reprocessing and storing waste.

Government subsidies worth 40bn yen have been lavished on the project, half of which will go to the village. A gymnasium and a new museum, incongruous in a village of Rokkasho's size, have been built. The ultimate Japanese luxury - a golf course - is under way.

"Rokkasho people used to be very conservative and obstinate,'' said Hiroshi Tsuchita, the village mayor, "but many people have come to live here from all over Japan, and we have become much more educated, more refined."

Not everyone is happy. Earlier this month there were rallies and a five- day hunger strike outside the Aomori prefectural HQ.

Critics point out that only 60 of the new jobs have gone to villagers, and what Rokkasho gains in cash and employment, it may well lose forever in terms of tourism and markets for its fish.

There are angry stories of corruption, and backhanders to local assembly men who accepted the plant on the community's behalf.

"People oppose it inwardly," said Yosaburo Takada, a local fisherman who leads the anti-JNFL movement, "but they are afraid to say anything in case members of their families lose their jobs."

When villagers sold their land to the regional government, the talk was of a large petrochemical complex; JNFL and radioactive materials were not mentioned.

Grimmest of all are the safety fears. In December, a powerful earthquake shook Aomori; local protesters display photographs of gaping concrete walls and cracked roads - a few hundred yards from the radioactive storage bays.

JNFL engineers insist their buildings could withstand "the maximum expected level" of seismic damage. But three months after the Kobe disaster, such assurances sound hollow, and they refuse to specify what the maximum expected level is.

"At the end of last year we signed a safety agreement with JNFL," Mr Tsuchita said. "They promised that Rokkasho would not be the final site for the waste; but the final site is not decided, and the cargo arrives in two weeks.

"They say they will make up their minds by the year 2040. I wonder ..."