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Japan's Hamaoka Nuclear Plant Sees Tsunami Defense in (Very Big) Wall

In the teeth of a howling Pacific gale, a giant yellow backhoe grinds its way along the top of a massive new earthen barrier above a rocky beach. But whether the coastal earthworks will be able to protect the future of the nuclear power plant it is designed to defend is by no means certain.

A man looks at Chubu Electric Power Co.'s Hamaoka nuclear power station in Omaezaki city, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan.
Bloomberg | Getty Images
A man looks at Chubu Electric Power Co.'s Hamaoka nuclear power station in Omaezaki city, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan.

Since a tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant a year ago, leading to meltdown in three of its reactors, all eyes in Japan have been on the Hamaoka plant, 300 miles down the coast and similarly located right on the seashore. It has been branded the most dangerous nuclear power station in the world by some seismologists.

Its operator, Chubu Electric, is determined to reopen the plant as soon as its workers have finished building a six-ft.-thick anti-tsunami wall that will stand 54 feet above sea level and stretch a mile; the manmade hills now being constructed are a first step in the yearlong project.

But many local residents are not so sure.

“I was always a little worried before last March,” says Fumio Takahashi, a real estate agent who lives in the town of Omaezaki, hard by the Hamaoka plant. “Now I realize that it is dangerous to have a nuclear plant near your home. I absolutely do not want it to reopen.”

Hamaoka is particularly dangerous, explains Yoshika Shiratori, because it is built on a seismic fault line where Japanese government experts have estimated that there is an 87 percent chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake within the next 30 years.

“I am not reassured by the wall they are building,” says Mr. Shiratori, who led an unsuccessful 10-year legal battle to shut Hamaoka down. “The critical issue is the danger of an earthquake, not a tsunami.”

It was that issue that former Prime Minister Naoto Kan took into account last May, when he asked Chubu Electric to shut down three of Hamaoka’s five reactors immediately, citing “special circumstances.” The other two had been closed permanently in 2009, following earlier seismic activity.

Chubu complied, but it has not given up. The Hamaoka nuclear plant visitor center still sings the praises of nuclear power, and now features a special exhibit promising that the new wall will ward off a Fukushima-type disaster.

The utility company has a strong card up its sleeve: It has created thousands of jobs in Omaezeki and surrounding towns and paid hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies and taxes to the Omaezaki municipality over the past 30 years; that money makes up 40 percent of the town’s budget. The plant’s presence has also brought economic development to this rural, tea-growing region about 150 miles southwest of Tokyo.

“Before the plant, people around here just grew potatoes and vegetables,” recalls Katsuhiro Shimizu, who runs a restaurant in the shadow of Hamaoka. “If that’s the sort of lifestyle they want to go back to.”

The economics of the situation certainly weigh heavily on many local people.

“I’m a district nurse,” explains Rie Suzuki as she heads into the local mall for her Saturday shopping with her young daughter. “When I see what happened in Fukushima I realize that Hamaoka should not reopen. But when I think of the city budget I can’t completely agree with keeping it shut, either. My salary depends on it. It’s a very complicated situation.”

The neighboring town of Makinohara is not so beholden to the plant.

Indeed, the municipal council voted last December never to approve a restart at Hamaoka because it sees the plant as an economic threat as well as a potential environmental danger.

Makinohara earns seven times more from the taxes that a local Suzuki car factory pays than it gets in subsidies from the nuclear plant, explains town councilor Kazuo Oishi.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Suzuki began dropping hints that unless Hamaoka was permanently closed, the company might eliminate the risk of losing its factory to a new disaster by moving it elsewhere.

“Other local firms began wondering whether they should follow that example,” Mr. Oishi recalls. “If that happened, our budget would collapse.”

Under the terms of a “safety contract” that Chubu Electric has signed with the governor of Shizuoka Prefecture, where Hamaoka is situated, the governor has the power to veto any reopening of the plant. “His decision will depend heavily on local decisions” taken by towns near the power station, says Oishi. “It would be very difficult for him to ignore our will.”

With so many jobs and so much money at stake for local communities, the future of the plant will be controversial. But in the wake of last year’s disaster in Fukushima, even many of those who depend on Hamaoka for their livelihood are now ambivalent.

Oishi has campaigned against Hamaoka for nearly 30 years, he says. He is not happy that it took a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima to give his case resonance among his constituents, but it has had that effect.

“Before Fukushima happened, I was an outsider in the shadows,” he says. “Nobody listened to me. Now Fukushima is part of local people's everyday lives.”

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