| SATSUMASENDAI, Japan, April 14
SATSUMASENDAI, Japan, April 14 On the main road
leading from the Sendai nuclear plant in southern Japan, a
construction crew is laying down asphalt to widen the evacuation
route in the event of a future disaster.
For many here, that's a hopeful sight. It means they are
edging closer to re-starting two nuclear reactors that have been
an economic engine for nearly three decades in a remote coastal
town that has few other options.
Satsumasendai never felt the earthquake that triggered the
Fukushima nuclear disaster some 1,600 kms (994 miles) to the
north in March 2011. But residents saw their friends lose jobs
and felt their future was threatened when the Sendai nuclear
plant run by Kyushu Electric Power was idled along with
the rest of Japan's reactors for a more stringent round of
safety checks after Fukushima.
"I know it was a horrible accident, but right now I'm more
concerned about the economy and my job," said Hiroya Komatsu,
28. "We saw it on TV, but it could very well have been the
Philippines. It didn't feel like it was Japan."
Like Komatsu, many here support a pro-nuclear mayor who
remains hopeful that a now-shelved plan to build a third reactor
may some day be revived. The Sendai plant is on the fast-track
for a safety review by the Nuclear Regulation Authority and
could come back online as early as August. Proponents hope
Satsumasendai will be a test case for a nationwide effort to
bring other nuclear plants back onto the grid in coming months.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government last week approved a
long-delayed energy policy statement that
describes nuclear power - which once generated 30 percent of the
nation's power - as a key energy source. Currently, all 48 of
Japan's reactors are shut down. Analysts see a good chance to
bring at least 14 back online in a review process that begins
with Satsumasendai, a remote town of about 100,000 people.
A quick re-start here would be good news for Kyushu
Electric, which is seeking a $1 billion capital infusion from
the government-run Development Bank of Japan. The shutdown has
been costly. While reactors have been idled, Japan's nuclear
plant operators, including Kyushu Electric, have had to spend
around $87 billion to burn replacement fossil fuels. They have
posted combined losses of close to $50 billion as of March and
seen $60 billion wiped off their market value.
Satsumasendai, meanwhile, has received more than $250
million in government subsidies since 1974 for hosting the
plant. Subsidies and tax income from the plant have paid to
build community centres and parks and to repair roads, creating
jobs in a prefecture where pay is around a fifth below the
"We have the strictest regulatory standards in the world,
and the fact that our plant is considered first in line to
re-start means we have the most reliable power plant here," said
Hideo Iwakiri, Satsumasendai's mayor. Iwakiri won his second
term in 2012 after promising to lobby for a quick re-start.
"PEOPLE ARE AFRAID"
For now, shutters remain drawn on many city shop windows, a
legacy of the 1980s economic downturn. Once-bustling motels,
filled with plant workers, stand empty.
"This whole town used to be booked up and you couldn't get a
room even if you made reservations months ahead," says Daisaku
Fukuyama, the owner of Hotel Otori. Fukuyama, who heads the
local hotel union, said several local motels have closed since
The local chamber of commerce says the Sendai plant
contributes up to $25 million a year to the local economy,
mostly from twice-yearly maintenance checks that bring around
3,000 workers to stay for up to four months.
A nearby Kyocera Corp plant also supports 4,000
workers and a paper pulp processing plant on the Sendai river
employs a few hundred more. But for construction, hotels,
restaurants and other service industries, the shutdown of the
Sendai plant has meant a significant drop in business.
The winding road leading to the Sendai plant is surrounded
by empty fields and sloping hills. A sign a few kilometres from
the plant reads, "No Nukes!". Closer to the plant, another sign
says, "Developing Towns With Nuclear Power".
The mayor and his supporters say those against nuclear power
are outside agitators. Opponents say many are intimidated
against speaking out. Local media have reported that in the past
Kyushu Electric packed a government-sponsored town hall meeting,
and some managers were found to have encouraged employees to
send in fake emails of approval to re-start one of its nuclear
plants in 2011.
Katsuhiro Inoue is a rare local dissenter. As one of two
local city council members opposed to the Sendai re-start, Inoue
holds a placard outside a darkened Kyushu Electric building on
the city's busiest road, protesting with a handful of other
Inoue says many residents are worried about how the town
would evacuate in the event of a Fukushima-style crisis, but
many are afraid to speak up because of the town's economic
dependence on the plant.
"I have a cousin who works for a subcontractor and we never
talk about the re-starts," he said. "Every family knows someone
who benefits from the plant and people are afraid to speak out
Abe has said Japan will defer to the prefecture and host
city for the final decision on any reactor re-start. The
governor of Kagoshima says it will hold a few town hall meetings
in Satsumasendai and cities that are closest to the plant.
Around 100 protesters gathered last week on a windy beach
near the Sendai plant where activists released coloured balloons
in a demonstration intended to show how far radioactive fallout
could travel carried by the wind.
Yukio Nakano, 55, a nearby resident and a conservationist,
says he knows the plant will eventually re-start. He lives alone
in the mountains overlooking the plant. Most of his former
classmates now work there, one as a security guard, many others
as construction workers.
"Even if you're personally opposed, everyone has brothers,
parents, friends who are in industries that benefit," says
Nakano, who walks the beach behind the plant every day to pick
up trash and protect turtle eggs from predators.
"I can't imagine not being able to go home like those people
in Fukushima. The people in my village have lived on this land
for 70, 80 years. I want to die here."
(Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Ian Geoghegan)