Cheers and jeers over Oi reactor shutdown

September 16, 2013


For the first time in 14 months, not a single nuclear reactor is operating in Japan. For anti-nuclear activists, it is the development they have been clamoring for.

But those who work in the nuclear industry are far from happy. And then there are entrepreneurs of renewable energy sources who have their own take on the situation.

The last time no nuclear reactors were operating was between May 5 and July 1, 2012.

The No. 4 reactor at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture was taken offline Sept. 15 for routine inspections. Until then, it was the only reactor that was up and running.

Jun Yokoyama braved heavy rains from a typhoon to distribute anti-nuclear fliers in the Nakanoshima district of Osaka on the day the reactor was switched off.

"Power demand was met this summer with only two nuclear reactors (at the Oi plant) online," the 29-year-old Kobe University graduate student said. "There is no need for 50 reactors across Japan."

Yokoyama is one of the organizers of monthly protest rallies that started in March 2012 outside Kansai Electric's head office in Osaka.

Initially, only five people turned up. But the number swelled to more than 2,000 by the time the previous administration, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, reactivated the two Oi nuclear reactors in July of last year.

"I believed back then that a surge in the number of protesters could stop nuclear power generation," Yokoyama said.

But that was before the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party regained power following a landslide win in the Lower House election last December. It again emerged victorious in July's Upper House election to cement its power.

The current administration led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says it will approve restarts of nuclear reactors that are confirmed safe by regulatory authorities.

Only 200 or so people now take part in the monthly protests.

"Chants of no-nukes won't change anything," Yokoyama said. "We need to share issues that nuclear proponents also have to face, such as what to do with spent fuel, and seek a gradual phase-out."

Yokoyama's native community in Mie Prefecture is blessed with stunning natural scenery, but is plagued by an exodus of inhabitants. Local opposition has thwarted plans to build a nuclear plant in a neighboring town.

Last month, he noted beautifully constructed roads in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, home to a nuclear plant.

"Cash flows into communities that host nuclear facilities, but then they are no longer able to make decisions on their own," Yokoyama said. "I disapprove of turning to nuclear plants as a way to revitalize local economies."

But in one community that hosts a nuclear power plant, the 47-year-old operator of a printing firm in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, offers a different point of view.

He said he has pinned his last hopes on Abe's promise to restart nuclear reactors once they have been confirmed to be safe.

For the past 30 years or so, his small company has been printing documents and other materials for Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant and its subcontractors.

Sales plummeted to about 60 percent of peak levels after the last of the seven nuclear reactors at the plant went offline in March 2012, obliging the firm to part with one of its three printing presses. The company has only eight employees.

It was the moment the printer realized he needed to find new clients outside of the nuclear community.

He made the rounds of potential customers, sometimes 20 or more a day, without an appointment in the hope of winning bulk orders as TEPCO used to place.

"That was the moment I faced reality," he said. "I realized the difficulty of living without the nuclear plant."

In Fukushima Prefecture, site of the nuclear disaster that was the catalyst for the continuing controversy over Japan's atomic energy policy, however, a group of entrepreneurs has embarked on energy self-sufficiency.

A solar power plant with 192 panels is located in a mountainous district of Iwaki, some 35 kilometers south of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The photovoltaic panels were installed by the Iwaki Otento SUN business association, which was set up in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster.

"We are keen to generate renewable energy precisely because we have experienced the nuclear disaster," said Morihiko Shimamura, the 55-year-old secretary-general of the association.

Shimamura, who runs a housing construction and sales company in Iwaki, said that prior to the nuclear accident he generally accepted there was a need for nuclear power plants, not least because his clients included TEPCO employees who worked at such facilities. But the disaster sharply changed his views.

"I was up to my neck in the myth that nuclear power was safe," Shimamura said. "But humans cannot coexist with nuclear power plants."

He deplored the loss of a post-disaster public eagerness to save energy in the nation's neon-lit cities.

"I wonder what the Japanese public learned from the nuclear accident," Shimamura said.

(Shintaro Egawa and Kohei Tomida contributed to this article.)

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Protesters voice their opposition to reactor restarts at the Oi plant, in Fukui Prefecture, and other nuclear facilities, during a rally in downtown Fukui on Sept. 15. (Tsuyoshi Shimoji)

Protesters voice their opposition to reactor restarts at the Oi plant, in Fukui Prefecture, and other nuclear facilities, during a rally in downtown Fukui on Sept. 15. (Tsuyoshi Shimoji)

  • Protesters voice their opposition to reactor restarts at the Oi plant, in Fukui Prefecture, and other nuclear facilities, during a rally in downtown Fukui on Sept. 15. (Tsuyoshi Shimoji)
  • Jun Yokoyama distributes anti-nuclear fliers in Osaka's Chuo Ward on Sept. 15. (Mari Endo)
  • Morihiko Shimamura examines solar panels in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. (Shintaro Egawa)

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