OMAEZAKI, Japan (Reuters) - Like many who live near Japan’s Hamaoka nuclear plant, Yoko Konishi is torn between concern for the time bomb-like danger she has been told it represents and the economic opportunity she has watched it create.
“We’ve always been told it was safe, that it had the power to resist a major quake,” said Konishi, 67. “I can’t say I‘m surprised that Hamaoka could have to be shut down, but I wish they had given more thought to the future for us.”
On Monday, plant operator Chubu Electric Power Co, was considering an unprecedented government request to shutter Hamaoka, in the city of Omaezaki 200 km (125 miles) southwest of Tokyo, until the company can ready better defenses against a tsunami like the one in March that knocked out a nuclear plant in Fukushima 240 km north of the capital and touched off the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
The request by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, under fire for his government’s response to the March 11 earthquake and nuclear crisis, represents the first step in a reformulated energy policy expected to slow a planned push toward a higher reliance on nuclear power.
Activists have long warned that Hamaoka’s location makes it Japan’s riskiest nuclear power plant, and saw Kan’s announcement as a hard-won victory that represents a change in the political momentum in their favor.
“Too many people here thought Japanese technology was perfect. Maybe I was one of them. I never thought seriously about the risks of nuclear power before,” said Yukie Tokura, a translator and former overseas aid worker who lives in nearby Kakegawa.
Tokura has dedicated her time and savings to an effort to win support for closing Hamaoka since the March earthquake, collecting over 6,000 signatures for an online petition. She sees Kan’s request to Chubu as a first step toward abandoning the Hamaoka plant completely.
“There is no way that this plant can be made safe,” she said. “Anyone who looks at it can understand that.”
Nestled behind a thin line of sand dunes on the Pacific Coast, Hamaoka was built in the 1970s at a time when Japan’s economy was booming and the shock of rising oil prices drove the first wave of the nation’s investment in nuclear power.
Locals say the plant creates demand in the shops and restaurants, keeps more than 1,000 employed directly and has spun off subsidies for schools and other projects.
“We would have liked the government to listen a little more to the local perspective and for that to have been reflected on the governance of national nuclear power policy,” Omaezaki mayor Shigeo Ishihara told reporters.
But critics, including leading earthquake experts, have warned that the plant’s location at the tip of a sandy peninsula jutting out into the Pacific south of Tokyo also puts it at particular risk among the country’s 54 reactors from another massive earthquake and tsunami.
Chubu decommissioned the plant’s No.1 and No.2 reactors in 2009 after concluding it would cost too much to make them meet tougher seismic safety standards. It says the three other reactors on the site are now designed to withstand a magnitude 8.5 quake.
Chubu had planned to build a sixth reactor at the plant, which serves an area of central Japan that includes the headquarters of Toyota Motor Corp and some of its key plants.
In the wake of the Fukushima crisis, Chubu said it would delay construction of a new plant until 2016. It also said it would delay implementing a controversial plan to use a plutonium-oxide mixed fuel known as MOX at the plant until 2013 or later. The use of plutonium is a key part of Japan’s controversial plan to reprocess spent uranium.
A theme-park like museum overlooking the Hamaoka plant features a pair of animated characters in an display meant to show the safety of that “recycling” process that critics see as both a safety and security risk.
At the same museum, a popular local attraction for school children, a digital version of Chubu’s peppy nuclear mascot, Yuyu, explains how the plant’s nearby reactors boil water to spin turbines and create power.
Elsewhere, however, there are concessions to the reality of the still-running nuclear crisis in Fukushima. A display on how Chubu would manage a nuclear disaster has been removed, and a sign on the door of the museum warns that demonstrators are not welcome.
“If you consider that a major earthquake is almost certain, then I can understand how you need to shut this down now,” said Masahiro Norizuki, 67, a local resident who was touring the Hamaoka museum.
Outside, the rolling green hills of trees and tea farms that surround Hamaoka sit near the unsteady junction of two tectonic plates - the Philippine Sea Plate and the Eurasian Plate. The area, known as the Tokai region, has experienced massive earthquakes before. One, in 1707, caused nearby Mount Fuji to erupt and killed an estimated 20,000 people.
Tokura, the local activist, said it was hard for many local residents to think about the potential risks that surround them. In a 2007 poll by Tokyo’s Meiji University, 87 percent of locals said they were very or somewhat concerned about an earthquake hitting the plant.
One group of Shizuoka residents has filed suits four times in the past decade to try to force the closure of Hamaoka. Their latest bid was rejected by a local court in 2007 and has been awaiting an appeal hearing at a higher court in Tokyo.
Outside the plant on Monday morning, Pedro Satake, 52, was packing up to go home after a night of fishing along the sandy beach. The warm water that spills out from the plant attracts flounder and other fish, he said.
“As a fisherman, I would be sorry to see this close,” said Satake, who immigrated to Japan from Brazil five years ago. “But if it’s too dangerous, then I understand that nothing can be done.”
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher