Editor's note: This is the third in a four-part series on the problems, such as the safety myth, inherent in the nation's nuclear power generation industry.
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Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa scrimped and saved. He cut expenses, reviewed projects and slashed his take-home pay to zero. But in the end, he was forced to return to the one reliable source of income to save the town in Fukushima Prefecture from bankruptcy.
Now, Idogawa and the 1,500 Futaba residents live in an evacuation center in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture.
"I have no idea when everyone can return to their homes," he said.
Futaba is now a ghost town. A large arch still stands holding a sign that reads, "Nuclear energy/ development of our hometown/ an affluent future."
Like other communities that host nuclear power facilities, Futaba ended up being overly dependent on subsidies from the central government while failing to develop other industries.
"All regions at first want to develop their communities by using the nuclear plants as a catalyst," said Shuji Shimizu, vice president of Fukushima University and an expert in public finance. "However, the amount of nuclear plant money that flows toward an isolated region that has little industry to begin with was huge. As a result, those communities were forced to become a distorted economy that was heavily dependent on that money."
Futaba, co-host of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, followed this pattern of a town in desperate need of cash.
Idogawa, now, 65, said he had little time to celebrate his first election victory, a narrow win over another newcomer candidate.
When Idogawa arrived at the Futaba town government office for the first time as mayor on Dec. 8, 2005, the head of the general affairs department told him, "We cannot compile a budget for the next fiscal year."
Idogawa knew the town had a mountain of debt. He ran for mayor promising to use his managerial experience as the president of a housing equipment company to rebuild the town. Voters believed his words.
"But I never imagined the situation was as bad as it was," Idogawa said.
Futaba is part of an area that local residents dub the Ginza strip of nuclear plants. Instead of the bright lights and posh stores in the fashionable area of central Tokyo, the area around Futaba has 10 reactors operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.
The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is located in the towns of Futaba and Okuma. The Fukushima No. 2 plant is situated in the towns of Tomioka and Naraha.
The No. 5 and No. 6 reactors in Futaba began operating from 1978 and 1979, respectively. Around that time, the town had a population of about 8,000, and the town treasury was flooded with "nuclear plant money" in the form of subsidies from three separate laws designed to promote the hosting of nuclear plants.
In addition, TEPCO paid huge property taxes on the plants. In fiscal 1983, property taxes from the nuclear plant alone came to about 1.8 billion yen ($21.9 million), the peak figure. That represented 54 percent of the town's total revenues of 3.3 billion yen.
Futaba used the money to install a sewage system and build roads and public facilities.
The three other towns had similar experiences.
Kazumi Kuroki, 75, a former official with the Okuma town government, said, "Our lives became better and better."
The town went ahead with a major farmland development project that other towns of its size might hesitate to undertake because of the huge burden.
"We enjoyed a huge pile of sweets from the nuclear plant," Kuroki said.
But the bubble economy created by the nuclear plants did not last long for Futaba.
Property tax revenues plummeted as plant facilities declined in value over the years. The subsidies also had their time limits.
But Futaba had difficulty tightening its fiscal belt, which was all but thrown away when the money freely flowed in.
The town piled up debt to build a health and welfare facility with a heated pool. Eventually, Futaba was unable to compile a budget.
Futaba found itself in the worst fiscal condition of any of the four towns in the prefecture that host a nuclear plant.
The ratio of the amount of debt repayments to total annual income in fiscal 2007 was 3.9 percent for Okuma, 11 percent for Naraha, 17.9 percent for Tomioka--and 30.1 percent for Futaba.
The town exceeded by far the 25-percent line that requires a municipal government to put together a plan to return to a sound fiscal condition.
Idogawa did try. He reviewed large public works projects and worked for free as mayor.
He warned residents that Futaba was in danger of becoming a second Yubari, the municipality in Hokkaido that went bankrupt.
Various subsidies were cut, but expenditure reductions only went so far. Futaba had to return to accepting nuclear plant money.
In 1991, under Idogawa's predecessor, the Futaba town assembly passed a resolution requesting that additional reactors be constructed. That resolution was placed on hold after TEPCO was found to have covered up problems at its plants.
But in June 2007, Idogawa told the town assembly that he was of the opinion that TEPCO's problems had been solved. The next day, the town assembly passed a resolution in favor of building more reactors.
One assembly member who voted for the resolution said, "Approving additional construction was the key to rebuilding the town's fiscal condition."
The result was that 3.92 billion yen in subsidies was paid to Futaba over a four-year period as an initial measure for constructing the No. 7 and No. 8 reactors in the town.
When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, the first thing that flashed through Idogawa's mind was the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
His fears became reality. Now, the town lies at the center of the no-entry zone around the crippled plant.
Former Fukushima Governor Eisaku Sato, 71, said local governments dependent on nuclear plant money that repeatedly approved the building of reactors were "like drug addicts."
Sato first realized the extent of the problem when the Futaba town assembly passed the resolution in 1991 asking that more reactors be built.
Under Sato's instructions, a study group looking into energy policy for Fukushima Prefecture compiled a publication in 2002 that raised questions about Fukushima and its hosting of nuclear plants.
"There has been no accumulation of industries besides nuclear plants," the document said. "As the number of operating years increases, there has been a large decrease in subsidies and property tax revenues."
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