MATSUE, Japan (Reuters) - For decades, local politician Tomoaki Tanaka campaigned on a platform promoting nuclear power as a safe form of energy and a welcome economic boon to his hometown of Kashima, nestled between mountains and the sea in southwestern Japan.
Like many politicians in the rural backwaters that host Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants, Tanaka was a small player in a nexus linking local interest groups with powerful forces in Tokyo promoting atomic power and, critics say, ignoring the risk of disaster in this earthquake-prone land.
Now, after watching the world’s second-worst nuclear accident unfold at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant far to the north following a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, Tanaka is having second thoughts.
“I used to say that nuclear power was safe, that nothing was safer,” said the 67-year-old, now an assembly member of Matsue City, which merged with the town of Kashima in 2006.
“After the Fukushima accident, I thought - can this really be safe? Now I feel responsible for what I myself have promoted,” he said in an interview at city hall in this drab provincial city, just 9 km (5.6 miles) from Chugoku Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) Shimane nuclear plant.
Workers are still battling to control damaged reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (9501.T) Fukushima Daiichi complex, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, more than two months after the disaster struck, and nearly 80,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes, most of them from a 20-km (12-mile) radius around the plant.
The Fukushima crisis has prompted Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose Democratic Party of Japan swept to power for the first time in 2009, to call for a complete review of a national energy policy under which nuclear power would have provided 50 percent of electricity by 2030, up from 30 percent now.
But the substance of the policy shift is vague and questions remain how much really can change.
The fate of the Shimane plant could provide clues to whether a serious shift in energy policy is in store or whether powerful interests backing nuclear power will stage a comeback.
The Shimane plant’s 37-year-old No.1 reactor, one of Japan’s oldest, has been closed for a planned inspection since last November.
Its No.2 reactor is operating normally but comes up for inspection next year. Chugoku Electric has said the start of a third reactor may be delayed beyond a March 2012 target date because its engineers are busy helping out at Fukushima.
“I suspect the sheer practicalities will expose the prime minister’s rhetoric for what it is,” said Paul Scalise, a non-resident fellow at Temple University’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies in Tokyo.
Kashima appears much like other rural Japanese communities, except for the mammoth nuclear plant by the sea.
Fishing boats jostle in a marina adjacent to a cluster of small processing plants. Rice paddies dot the spaces between roads and clusters of old-fashioned tile-roofed homes.
Plans to build a nuclear plant in Kashima surfaced in 1966 in a pattern repeated around Japan over decades.
Shimane-born Yoshio Sakurauchi was a member of parliament from the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) whose constituency included Kashima. His brother, Kimio, was an executive at Chugoku Electric.
“Chugoku Electric was urged by the government as part of national policy and they were responding to that,” Matsue City Mayor Masataka Matsuura told Reuters.
“I think there were worries about the future of the fishing industry in Kashima. If a nuclear plant was built, they would get a fiscal boost and be able to carry out projects they couldn’t do before, such as building roads and various facilities.”
Shimane’s No.1 reactor came on-line in 1974 - the same year that Japan, stunned by soaring oil prices, enacted three laws enabling the central government to provide even bigger subsidies to communities willing to host nuclear plants.
Such subsidies became even more crucial after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States fanned previously muted local concerns about safety.
Yasue Ashihara, then a mother of two small children, joined the anti-nuclear power movement around 1980, but the activists gained little traction even after Chernobyl in 1986.
Ashihara and other critics say political and economic dynamics also prompted the nuclear industry to turn a blind eye to the potential risk of damage from earthquakes, although Japan accounts for one-fifth of the world’s tremors of magnitude 6.0 or more.
In 1999, activists filed a lawsuit seeking the plant’s closure after researchers discovered an active seismic fault near the facility despite Chugoku Electric’s long-standing assertions that none existed.
Over the next decade, the utility acknowledged data indicating the existence of a fault more than 20 km (12 miles) long, but a district court ruled last year that the plant was nonetheless safe.
“Their premise was that if the government had approved the safety, then it was safe,” Ashihara said.
The Fukushima crisis has struck a nerve in Matsue.
Matsue City Mayor Matsuura confessed that the city had not previously drafted a disaster response plan to cope with the possible long-term evacuation of all its inhabitants.
“I drew a circle with a 20 km radius on a map and almost all of Matsue City was inside. We have a population of nearly 200,000 and to evacuate all of them smoothly would be a huge enterprise.”
Local scepticism over official assurances of safety has grown, though concerns persist about what its closure would mean economically.
“If I think about my child, I think it would be better to close down the plant,” said Takafumi Hasegawa, 32, as his year-old son played at the Shimane nuclear plant visitor centre.
“But Shimane doesn’t have much other industry and without the plant, there might be a power shortage. It’s hard to say one way or the other.”
Matsuura, first elected mayor in 2000 with the backing of the LDP, is taking a cautious stance toward whether it’s safe for the No.1 Shimane reactor to restart.
Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the crippled Fukushima plant, on Tuesday reiterated its view that the tsunami, not the quake, had knocked out power to the plant’s cooling system.
“Most people think it isn’t clear whether it was just the tsunami or whether there were other reasons,” Matsuura said before just days before TEPCO’s report. “So they should promptly analyse the cause of the Fukushima accident.”
Nor was Matsuura willing to say whether the No.3 reactor should start operations as planned.
”We have approved it once, but there is a new situation since March 11. So unless they clear that, we cannot give an okay ... It has leading edge technology so it ought to be safer.
But I can only go so far as to say that ‘ought’ to be true.”
Immediate safety concerns aside, Matsue doubts Japan can quickly wean itself from reliance on nuclear power and would prefer to see the nuclear plant remain open because of the economic boost he says it provides locally.
Toru Adachi, 42, a taxi driver in Kashima, agrees - but a note of doubt creeps in as he makes his point.
“The problem in Fukushima was the tsunami but that’s not an issue on the Sea of Japan side of the country. Even if there were a big earthquake, the plant would be okay,” Adachi said.
“But I guess people in Fukushima thought exactly the same thing.”
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and John Chalmers