Fear finally takes hold among Japan's nuclear faithful

FUKUSHIMA, Japan, March 14 Mon Mar 14, 2011 3:34am EDT

FUKUSHIMA, Japan, March 14 (Reuters) - Japan's nuclear power industry is accustomed to criticism but rarely from its loyal army of nuclear-power workers and their families -- until now.

"My distrust just increased," said Mikiko Amano, a 55-year-old woman who had been recently evacuated from her home close to the quake-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.

She was talking to Reuters at a town outside the 20-km evacuation zone around the complex, owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), which continued to urge calm despite broadcasters showing a plume of smoke rising from the plant.

"I was at home at the time of the first explosion. It was a huge sound. After that, I evacuated. I went for a radiation check at the hospital today and breathed a sigh of relief that I was OK," Amano told Reuters.

"The company has been saying such a thing would not happen and the plant was fine even after 40 years in operation...It only raised my distrust of TEPCO."

Amano's family and tens of thousands of others evacuated from their homes around the complex depend on the company for their livelihoods, and many were remarkably stoic at first in the face of what appeared to the rest of the world as imminent nuclear catastrophe.

Even as authorities waived Geiger counters over evacuees clothes and gave them doses of iodine as a precaution against radiation poisoning, local communities at first spoke confidently about their employer's ability to avert a crisis.

Hideki Kato, a 41-year-old worker at the Fukushima Daiichi complex, just wanted to get back to work.

"I think nuclear power plants are necessary. I am worried about the job," Kato said at a school gym serving as an evacuation centre in Kawamata town, outside the evacuation zone in Fukushima prefecture.

"Can we make a living? Can I ever go back to work at the plant?" he asked as his two children lay on the floor beside him, wrapped in blankets. His son played with a cell phone while Kato's parents looked on.

FEARS GRIP THE NUCLEAR FAITHFUL

Kato's question is one echoed around the world, with serious doubts emerging over public support for the global nuclear power industry if Japan fails to avert disaster.

With nuclear energy accounting for 26 percent of power consumption in Japan, and more than half in countries like France, public trust in the industry is vital in the face of constant criticism from a committed anti-nuclear lobby.

Fukushima prefecture is the land of the nuclear faithful: outside its nuclear power plants, the region north of Tokyo is mostly characterised by rural and fishing communities with some light industry. Here, nuclear power pays most of the bills.

Shinichi Watanabe, 63, from Futaba worked for two decades at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. On Sunday, before the second explosion at the plant, he was still keeping the faith.

"Thanks to the nuclear power plants, young people do not have to leave to find work," he said.

His friend, 73-year-old carpenter Masao Takahashi, agreed, saying: "Without the plants, our town is just a deserted place."

But, with yellow-suited health officials hosing down dozens of evacuees in tented treatment centres, Takahashi suddenly did not sound so sure:

"We had been told by the nuclear power plant people that it's 100 percent safe no matter what typhoon or tsunami, but I am worried about radiation exposure." (Writing by Mark Bendeich)

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