Atsuko Ogasawara’s family rejected offers of more than $2 million for their property on Japan’s northern coast during a two-decade bid to prevent construction of a nuclear plant. The result: Their fenced-in house is little more than a stone’s throw from a facility that opens in 2014.
The family’s protest illustrates the challenges facing opponents when they go up against Japan’s nuclear industry, a pillar of the nation’s energy policy since the late 1960s. Ogasawara says her mother faced harassment that included letters from local authorities and neighbors pressuring her to sell, unidentified men following her and anonymous phone calls that included a threat to sabotage the family’s fishing boat.
“The calls were so frequent my mother hated answering the phone,” Ogasawara said in an interview earlier this month in her living room, where a photo of her mother with a freshly caught tuna hangs on the wall. Her mother died in 2006. “She came from a generation that knew of the dangers of radiation because of Hiroshima. She didn’t care about the money.”
Ogasawara says she’s now the last holdout among 176 families that owned land where Electric Power Development Co. is building its first atomic plant in Oma, a windswept town of 6,300 on the tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu. The other residents agreed to the plant in exchange for government subsidies that have totaled almost 11 billion yen ($136 million) over 29 years since the plant was proposed, official data show.
While the utility known as J-Power offered to buy the land, it didn’t pressure Ogasawara’s mother to sell, Masato Honda, a spokesman for the company, said in a phone interview. Honda declined to say how much the company offered.
The family’s log bungalow, now surrounded by J-Power’s land, is a focal point for Japan’s antinuclear movement, attracting letters and visits from supporters across Japan. A supporter stopped by with a journalist on June 1 after driving nine hours from Tokyo. Ogasawara says the bungalow forced the company to move the reactor 250 meters (270 yards) away.
J-Power says the distance is about 300 meters to comply with government radiation guidelines.
Ogasawara’s protest is part of the grassroots opposition faced by the nuclear industry in the only country to be hit by atomic weapons, when the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
Opposition to nuclear power, in recent years mostly confined to legal battles in courtrooms, has moved to the streets since the March earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns of three reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, about 460 kilometers south of Oma. According to Japanese nuclear companies’ plans, Oma will be the first new station to come online since the Fukushima accident, which is ranked the same as Chernobyl on a global severity scale for nuclear accidents.
Antinuclear protests were held across Japan on June 11, three months after the Fukushima plant began spewing radiation. More than 60,000 people marched in demonstrations in cities including Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukushima, local media said.
About 74 percent of Japanese support the “gradual abolition” of nuclear power, which supplied a third of Japan’s energy before Fukushima, the Asahi newspaper said on June 14, citing its own poll. A survey two weeks earlier found 48 percent of Aomori prefecture residents want the Oma station scrapped.
The Fukushima crisis is giving Ogasawara’s protest a second wind, even as the cranes visible through her window indicate the 1,383-megawatt nuclear plant is near completion.
Outside, a guard sits in a box at the end of the new private road leading to her house, monitoring all visitors.
“This is a great chance to think about a way of life and power generation not dependent on nuclear,” Ogasawara said. “What happened in Fukushima was a man-made disaster.”
A drive through Oma shows it fits the bill as the usual economically deprived rural area chosen by the atomic power industry to host a nuclear plant. Oma also had a decreasing and aging population, town officials said.
What sets the town apart is Japan’s most iconic fishery, where Pacific bluefin tuna weighing as much as 555 kilograms (1,200 pounds) are still caught using a rod and line. In January, an Oma bluefin fetched 32.5 million yen at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.
The importance of fishing made the nuclear plant a tough sell to residents, Hirofumi Hamahata, 69, the head of Oma’s fisheries co-operative, said in his office decorated with pictures of some of the bluefin he’s caught in a career that began at the age of six. The 770-member co-operative was divided at first. About 99 percent of members supported the plant after receiving compensation of about 10 million yen each, he said.
“Of course we’re worried about the plant,” said Hamahata. “If people say they’re not concerned, they’d be lying. No one ever dreamed of an accident like Fukushima happening.”
He will be the last of three generations fishing for bluefin after his son took a job in the power industry.
“Without the nuclear plant, there’d be nothing here,” Yoshifumi Matsuyama, the 66-year-old head of the Oma Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview at the chamber’s offices, a few buildings up the street from where Matsuyama does his main job as the town’s butcher. “If the plant had come sooner, we would be better off. The young people have already left.”
Matsuyama’s comments resonate in rural towns throughout Japan as the government stepped up its promotion of nuclear power to meet shortages after the 1973 oil shock sent the economy into recession.
This fueled the growth of Japan’s anti-nuclear power movement, which became absorbed by left-wing groups invoking the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The city of Obama west of Tokyo in Fukui prefecture turned down a station in 1972, forcing Kansai Electric Power Co. to build a 4,700-megawatt plant in nearby Ohi. Fukui has the highest concentration of nuclear plants in the world.
About 34 towns and cities in Japan have rejected nuclear plants since 1961, leaving them based in 15 areas, according to the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a Tokyo-based group. Other towns were more willing to take the money.
“I call it nuclear money fascism,” said Tetsuen Nakajima, a priest at the 811-year-old Myotsu-ji temple in Obama who opposed Kansai Electric’s plant. “Subsidies have always been used to sweeten nuclear deals.”
In Oma, Ogasawara still has many of the business cards and letters sent to her mother by the mayor, lawmakers and local business leaders as they tried to persuade her to sell the land. One letter from then Mayor Tsuneyoshi Asami in 2001, seen by Bloomberg News, says the nuclear power station was needed to finance the town’s projects.
Asami acknowledged sending the letter and trying to persuade Ogasawara’s mother to sell the land in a phone interview from Oma this month.
“The money helped the area because it was used to build an old people’s home and to rebuild the hospital,” Asami said.
In Oma and other Aomori towns, the grants helped offset declining revenues that threatened the survival of rural communities, officials said. In Mutsu, a city of 60,000 about 35 kilometers southeast of Oma, grants from hosting a Japan Atomic Energy Agency nuclear waste facility paid for a $78 million sports dome, where residents can use a gym, pool, baseball fields and tennis courts for 300 yen.
Aomori prefecture, which this year received 3.9 billion yen from the government for hosting nuclear facilities, hasn’t done a study to measure the economic impact of the industry, Hiromi Arazeki, head of the prefecture’s nuclear affairs division, said in an interview.
“Subsidies mean a lot to us as we try to restore fiscal health,” he said. “The industry has provided jobs to people who would have otherwise left the prefecture.”
When Tepco’s Fukushima plant was hit by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, officials in towns throughout Aomori began to worry. Nuclear subsidies make up 20 percent of Oma’s budget, said Kenichi Ito, an official in the town’s planning division.
Before Fukushima, Japan had planned to build at least 14 more reactors by 2030. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has ordered a review of policy and forced the halt of one plant until tsunami defenses are improved. Construction of Oma's was also suspended. J-Power says it still plans to open the plant in 2014.
“I’m not against nuclear power, even after Fukushima,” said Matsuyama at Oma’s Chamber of Commerce. “I just want them to go ahead with the plans quickly.”
Ogasawara, who’ll be the first person affected if the new plant suffers a meltdown, isn’t convinced.
She’s equipped her house with solar panels so that she won’t need power from the plant. She noted the irony that after the quake, family and friends came to her house to charge mobile phones because electricity to the town was cut.
“If nuclear plants are safe for people to live near, they should build one in the middle of Tokyo,” she said, pointing to the construction site. “If the residents there are OK with that, I’ll be OK to continue to live here.”