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Thursday, May 23, 2013
- For the past two decades Masao Ishiji (59), has been fighting tooth and nail to ban the operation of four nuclear reactors that dot the western coastline of Oi in the Fukui prefecture facing the Japan Sea.
Earlier this week, that desperate battle reached a critical front. When the Oi municipal assembly passed a new resolution Monday to restart Unit 3 and 4 reactors that had been closed for a year for stress tests, anti-nuclear activists knew they had reached a crucial juncture in their fight to eradicate nuclear power from the country.
“The new Oi decision is a blow to the anti-nuclear movement,” explained Yuki Sekimoto of Greenpeace, Japan. ” It is also a stark reminder of the excruciating position faced by the local residents. They have to chose between their jobs or stopping nuclear power, a very unfair situation.”
Indeed, Mayor Shinobu Tokioka, who now faces the difficult task of approving the local assembly decision, told the Japanese media on Monday that his main consideration was the potential damage to the local economy brought on by a prolonged halt of the reactors.
Local surveys conducted by Ishiji and his supporters from Wakasa, a town of 9000 people sandwiched between the Oi reactors, indicate residents are torn between loosing their jobs and facing a possible accident similar to the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe caused by a massive earthquake and tsunami last March.
More than 90 percent of the 400 people polled said they were concerned about the lack of a safe evacuation plan in the face of another earthquake severe enough to damage reactors.
But the risk of ordinary people like local shopkeepers and innkeepers, who cater to the nuclear industry, loosing their jobs, also remains a grave threat.“These are their biggest concerns. The Oi decision to restart the reactors has created a tense situation in the surrounding areas,” Ishiji reported at a large meeting of anti-nuclear NGOs in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Trend of nuclear-powered employment
The Oi nuclear reactors were built in the mid 1970s when local towns and villages comprised of farmers and fisherfolk grappled with a declining youth population and a faltering economy.
Ishiji said he used to work for the local forest industry that was hit by cheap timber imports from Asian countries.
“Japanese timber could not compete with Asian resources, leading to the neglect of our forests. The younger people moved to the big cities in search of better paying jobs, leaving behind a vulnerable local economy,” he explained.
During that period, many of Japan’s cash-strapped local economies turned to nuclear power plants, which rich utility companies and government bureaucrats were touting as a safe way for Japan to pursue economic growth.
The building of reactors was accompanied by generous subsidies from the central government for the construction of roads, schools and other infrastructure that brought jobs and revitalised the local economy.
But the destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor last year was a drastic jolt to the long tradition of ‘nuclear-powered’ employment. Tens of thousands suffered radioactive contamination, and businesses and agriculture faced bankruptcy.
The incident thus created widespread anti-nuclear public sentiment – more than 70 percent of Japanese now report they do not trust nuclear power, making local politicians wary of restarting nuclear reactors in their constituencies. In fact, 50 operational nuclear reactors have closed down since early May.
Oi’s reactors are owned by Kansai Electric Power Company, the second largest utility company after Tokyo Electric Company, which is now saddled with debt after the disastrous Fukushima nuclear accident.
Utility companies have warned of looming power cuts this summer as a result of the nuclear power plant closures. Nuclear power currently provides at least 30 percent of national energy and was set to increase to 50 percent, until the accident last March brought things to a standstill.
Professor Takao Kashiwagi, expert at Japan’s prestigious Tokyo Technology Institute and a governmental adviser, pointed out that Fukushima has paved the way for more stringent safety measures for nuclear reactors, including higher tsunami barriers and the involvement of independent experts to monitor utility plants.
“Japan’s energy security must not be a political issue,” he told IPS. “The restart of nuclear reactors must have firm leadership based on concrete scientific research,” he said.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, say they remain undaunted by the Oi decision, which has become a watershed moment in their activism.
Aileen Smith from Green Action, a leading environment organisation, said that Fukushima was a brutal awakening for many to nuclear power’s fatal toll on humanity and the environment.
Additionally, “Fighting against nuclear power is closely linked to supporting employment,” said Ishiji who is now advocating for the development of alternative energy sources in Fukui.