Analysis: Japan reactor restart debate swells beyond nuclear frontline

OTSU, Japan Fri Apr 13, 2012 3:43am EDT

1 of 6. Kansai Electric Power Co's Ohi nuclear power plant No. 3 (R) and No. 4 reactors are seen in Ohi, Fukui prefecture, in this January 26, 2012 file photo. Prefectures like Shiga, which have never been courted by the nuclear industry but lie close enough to reactors to be wary of them, are emerging as a serious complication for government and industry efforts to get nuclear power running again.

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato/Files

OTSU, Japan (Reuters) - Japan's nuclear power industry had never spent much time or money winning over the hearts and minds of people like Susumu Takahashi, a fisherman angling for small sweetfish from the serene shores of Lake Biwa, a world away from any nuclear reactor.

But with the industry paralyzed after last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster, and badly in need of public trust to get moving again, it may wish it had gone to the trouble.

"If Lake Biwa gets contaminated, then that would be irreversible," said Takahashi, a doctor who regularly casts his line into the mountain-ringed lake in western Shiga prefecture, which contains none of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors but sits next to Fukui prefecture which hosts 13 of them.

"The lake is in our hands now but it is also for future generations, and contamination would be passed down for generations. I am against the restarts of halted reactors," adds the 61-year-old, sitting near a box crammed with fish, each no bigger than a finger, soon to be fried and served as tempura.

Prefectures like Shiga, which have never been courted by the nuclear industry but lie close enough to reactors to be wary of them, are emerging as a serious complication for government and industry efforts to get nuclear power running again.

With only one of the nation's reactors online - and due to shut down for maintenance next month - Japan could face a second summer of power shortages unless the government can persuade local authorities that it is safe to begin restarting them.

So far, Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who holds the energy portfolio, has focused his attention on prefectures that host the nuclear reactors, areas traditionally supportive of nuclear power after decades of employment and generous industry and government subsidies.

Even that is a challenge, but now other prefectures further from the nuclear front line, such as Shiga, are demanding they too have a say in any decision to restart reactors - a demand Edano needs to handle carefully.

"We cannot say yes to restarts until we are certain that they are absolutely safe," Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada said in an interview with Reuters last week.

She belongs to a union of local governments in and around Japan's second-biggest metropolitan area of Osaka, including Shiga and the ancient capital of Kyoto, which has called for the government to heed their concerns.

The union covers the politically powerful Kansai region and nearby areas, with 16 percent of the nation's population, a constituency that Edano and his boss, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, can ill afford to upset especially with his government's support rating hovering at around 30 percent.

The Union of Kansai Governments, which is involved in setting electricity conservation targets, remains unconvinced that nearby Fukui's reactors can be restarted safely, despite assurances from the government and the region's nuclear utility, Kansai Electric Power Co.

"We, along with Kyoto, have asked Trade Minister Edano to come and explain," said Governor Kada, parts of whose prefecture are not much more than 10 km (6 miles) from some of the reactors in Fukui whose string of power plants is known as Japan's "nuclear arcade".

WHAT IS A SAFE DISTANCE?

For prefectures such as Shiga, whose Lake Biwa is one of Japan's largest sources of drinking water, the Fukushima disaster showed that regions once considered a safe distance from reactors were also at risk of contamination.

The Fukushima plant in northeast Japan, devastated by a huge tsunami in March 2011, spewed radiation across eastern Japan, leaving some food and water contaminated and forcing 80,000 people to flee from the plant's 30 km (18 miles) radius.

The disaster sparked an awakening around the Kansai region, from the tranquil shores of Lake Biwa, which supplies drinking water to more than one in 10 Japanese, to bustling Osaka, where popular mayor Toru Hashimoto, a former TV celebrity, has become a vocal critic of Noda's administration and Kansai Electric.

On Tuesday, an Osaka energy panel proposed eight conditions it said should be met before nearby reactors could be restarted, including a requirement that Kansai Electric sign safety agreements with local governments within a 100-km (60-mile) radius from the Ohi plant, which would include Shiga and Osaka.

For the Ohi plant, Kansai has signed safety agreements only with Fukui prefecture and with Ohi town.

"The reason why we are coming up with this is because this is politically effective. The voters will make a decision, so we will leave it to the public to decide in an election," Osaka mayor Hashimoto told reporters this week.

Edano is expected to visit Fukui soon as part of his effort to get at least two of the four reactors at Ohi up and running again in time for the approaching summer. Shiga's governor wants him to make a trip to her prefecture as well.

ALL RISKS, NO REWARDS

Lake Biwa spans over 670 sq km (260 sq m) and is home to trout and carp. In spring, fall and winter, the wind often blows from the north - from the plants in Fukui.

Unlike Fukui, and other prefectures that host nuclear plants, Shiga feels as though it shares the risks of the nuclear industry but reaps few if any of the rewards.

"In the case of Fukushima, the local communities that had hosted the plants used to see some positive elements through subsidies, employment and the economy," Kada said.

"Shiga has absolutely no benefits in that sense. If we were just to receive damage, then I cannot explain that to the residents," said the 61-year-old Kada, a former professor of environmental sociology.

Shiga gets no tax revenues from nuclear plants. Two towns bordering Fukui received about 140 million yen ($1.2 million) in subsidies because of their proximity in the 2010/11 financial year.

That contrasts with Fukui prefecture, where about 12 billion yen ($150 million), or some 13 percent of its tax revenue, came from nuclear power-related levies in addition to 9 billion yen in subsidies.

Towns in Fukui hosting plants have built expensive facilities, such as cultural and recreational halls. Communities living close to plants in the prefecture are set to receive about 20 billion yen ($247 million) in taxes or subsidies linked to nuclear plants in 2012/13, the Mainichi newspaper reported.

"There are few merits to having them around, even though if there is an accident, we're in the same position as Fukui," said Masanori Sugimoto, 68, a Shiga resident who nonetheless supports the restarts due to concerns about the impact on Japan's economy.

Kansai Electric, which is lobbying Fukui residents actively over planned restarts, says communities closest to its reactors deserve different treatment to those living further afield.

"There is a difference," said Akihiro Aoike, a spokesman at Kansai Electric, referring to the level of explanations given to those in hosting towns and those nearby.

"We have said that we want to explain in a way that we can win their understanding, so if we have any requests, we will consider them and respond sincerely," he said about communities outside of Fukui.

($1 = 80.9950 Japanese yen)

(Editing by Linda Sieg, Mark Bendeich and Alex Richardson)

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