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Saturday, 18 October 2014

With nuclear plant idled, townsfolk in better position to chart future course

 Onagawa town assembly member Mikiko Abe stands against the backdrop 
of Tohoku Electric Power Co.'s Onagawa nuclear power plant. 

October 18, 2014
POINT OF VIEW/ Mikiko Abe:
ONAGAWA, Miyagi Prefecture--As an opponent of atomic energy, I have watched this town for more than four decades--from before Tohoku Electric Power Co. began constructing the Onagawa nuclear power plant here.
It is my hope that our town can stand on its own without the massive subsidies associated with the installation of nuclear reactors and fixed asset taxes paid by the power utility. It’s not about asking if we can revert to that state of things. I believe we have to do it now.
I live in temporary housing because my home was swept away by the tsunami generated by the Great East Japan Earthquake.
I was elected to the town assembly eight months after the March 2011 disaster, which claimed the lives of some of my fellow activists. In the hope of conveying their anti-nuclear message to younger generations, I ran in the assembly election as an independent candidate.
The disaster left nearly 10 percent of Onagawa's 10,000 population dead or missing, and nearly 90 percent of homes here were damaged. Some residents believe that a restart of the nuclear plant is essential for rebuilding the town.
Around 1970, when the Onagawa plant had yet to be built, local fishermen banded together to express opposition to the nuclear facility. Thousands took part in a protest rally held near the seashore. About 10 buses, each with 50 seats, arrived from a neighboring town to join it.
But Tohoku Electric began approaching nuclear opponents and secured agreement to engage in small talk from some people. They included, for example, owners of large fishing vessels that operated far from coastal waters. They had large crew and held senior positions in the local fishermen’s union.
There is no significant opposition movement in Onagawa now.
I studied at a university in Tokyo after I graduated from senior high school. I took an interest in the issue of Minamata disease (caused by mercury pollution) and joined a sit-in outside the head office of Chisso Corp., the chemical company responsible for the pollution. I thought the economy was being put ahead of humans--the same picture that applies to atomic power generation.
After I graduated in 1975 and returned home, I found my community polarized between nuclear opponents and proponents. I was told that residents living along the same seashore had been so estranged that they no longer even spoke to each other when they attended funerals of people in the other camp.
The opposition movement gradually cooled its heels after the fishermen's union decided to accept financial compensation, and after construction of the No. 1 reactor of the Onagawa nuclear plant began in 1979.
Some people had relatives working for the nuclear plant, while others supplied food to the plant workers.
They could no longer openly state they were opposed, even if they felt differently in their hearts.
A sense of resignation gradually spread. In the words of Tohoku Electric: “We obtained their understanding through persistent dialogue.”
The Onagawa nuclear plant now has three reactors.
The Great East Japan Earthquake damaged part of the power supply systems at the Onagawa plant, although it was spared from being swamped directly by the tsunami triggered by the March 11, 2011, quake.
I was driving a car in the neighboring city of Ishinomaki at the time. I returned home in the evening after being caught in a traffic jam and found it had been swept away by the tsunami. I lived for some time on the second floor of a relative’s home, whose ground floor had been flooded. I listened to news about the Fukushima nuclear disaster on the radio, but somehow, the situation at the Onagawa nuclear plant never crossed my mind.
Tohoku Electric has been boasting that the Onagawa nuclear plant “withstood the quake and tsunami.” I have also been told that a gymnasium on the grounds of the plant served as an evacuation shelter for more than 300 residents for three months. Some inhabitants are thankful for that.
But I later learned that the plant grounds lay only 80 centimeters above the towering tsunami, which measured 13 meters in height, and only one of the five external power supply systems survived without damage. Perhaps it was a matter of sheer chance that a serious accident was avoided.
The town government has so far received 21 billion yen ($195 million) in subsidies associated with the installation of nuclear reactors. This is in line with three laws governing the siting of nuclear power plants. The town also has a huge revenue source as a result of fixed asset taxes paid by Tohoku Electric. Sumptuous facilities that exceed our means have popped up one after another.
In looking to the future and making decisions about the town’s finances, a key consideration is whether we should bank on cash revenue from a future restart of the Onagawa nuclear plant.
When I attended a debate session in the assembly, I raised an objection to a young man who called for community development based on coexistence with the nuclear plant. Nobody presented follow-up opinions. And that was the last time the nuclear plant issue was raised. It remains difficult to this day to speak your mind.
But some people have begun reflecting on the future of the nuclear plant, even though they don’t speak out. The president of a company that does business with the nuclear plant once blurted out, when he was alone with me, “We cannot rely on the nuclear plant forever.”
Three of the 12 members of the Onagawa town assembly are opposed to the nuclear plant. Some of the other nine are taking a wait-and-see attitude and are less than wholeheartedly pro-nuclear.
I believe that, with the nuclear plant idled in the wake of the quake and tsunami disaster, now is a good opportunity for the townspeople to discuss their own future among themselves.

* * *

Mikiko Abe, 62, operates a liquor shop and a shipping agency, which markets fish caught from outside Onagawa, with her parents. Abe has one son and four daughters.

(This article is based on an interview by Ryoma Komiyama.)
Source: Asahi Shimbun
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