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Nation's Reactors Suddenly Are Triggering Safety Concerns, Protests Japan's 'Nuclear Ginza' Is Losing Its Luster

November 20, 1988|KARL SCHOENBERGER | Times Staff Writer

KYOTO, Japan — Due north of here is a stretch of coastline noted for its fine scenery as well as for a somewhat more ambivalent distinction: having one of the highest concentrations of nuclear power plants in the world.

They call it the "Nuclear Ginza," after Tokyo's glittering shopping district, but the shore along Wakasa Bay on the Sea of Japan is beginning to lose some of its luster for the residents of nearby Kyoto.

Local residents are suddenly realizing that a third of all the nuclear reactors in Japan--12 out of 35--are located within about 40 miles of this city of 1.5 million. And anxious talk of radiation poisoning and contaminated food is replacing the silence that has surrounded the construction and operation of these facilities over the past 20 years.

Similarly, all across the country, anti-nuclear protests are moving from the isolated seaside communities where the reactors are built and taking root in the cities, where ordinary citizens now question their long-held belief that nuclear energy is clean and safe.

A grass-roots movement with few precedents in postwar Japan began two years ago, after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union sparked a controversy over imports of food contaminated by radioactive fallout. The protests rapidly gained momentum earlier this year, drawing 20,000 people, many of them housewives, to a Tokyo rally in April on the second anniversary of the Chernobyl accident.

Power industry officials have reacted with alarm.

"We're extremely worried as we watch this happening," said Takeo Tamai, a spokesman for the Federation of Electric Power Companies. "It doesn't look like we can go ahead with projects as we have in the past. This is a new era for atomic energy in Japan."

Resource-poor and enamored of technology, Japan is one of the few countries outside the East Bloc that still builds nuclear power plants, and it intends to continue doing so to cut its reliance on imported oil. As many as 18 new reactors are planned or under construction.

But if public protest continues unabated, the government may be forced to rethink its nuclear policy and possibly scrap its goal of increasing nuclear power from the present share of about 30% of total electrical generation to 40% by the end of the century.

Strong financial resources, combined with government-set rate structures that guarantee a "fair return" of 7.2% on capital investment, largely insulate the nine major power companies from the economic woes that have bogged down nuclear plant construction in the United States.

Still, declining oil prices, a surplus in domestic energy supply and rising consumer discontent over high electrical rates could contribute to a change in the economic formula behind nuclear power, critics say.

Moreover, it will become increasingly difficult for power companies to buy coastal land and negotiate with fishing cooperatives for compensation now that scattered local protests have the backing of urban activists.

"There's a mental revolution going on in Japan," said Takashi Hirose, a best-selling author and anti-nuclear activist. "We're beginning to wake up after having our minds warped by deceptions and omissions in the mass media."

Although they are subject to scientific dispute, Hirose's outspoken views on the potential for serious nuclear accidents in Japan have galvanized the protest movement.

His book, "A Dangerous Story: Chernobyl and the Fate of Japan," has sold more than 300,000 copies since it came out last year. He travels constantly, giving as many as 50 three-hour lectures a month to an array of citizens' groups A local association of pharmacists in Kyoto, for example, recently sponsored one of his lectures.

Hirose maintains that numerous minor accidents and operational problems over the past several years have gone largely unreported in the mainstream news media. Though shutdowns are rare, he believes these incidents belie the industry's safety claims and foreshadow an eventual disaster on the scale of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania.

Tamai, the industry federation official, rejects such criticism. Japanese nuclear plants have the best safety record in the world, he contends, with fewer than one-tenth the number of shutdowns of other countries and an enviable 76% average rate of operation.

To correct "distortions" advanced by Hirose and others, the federation has spent more than $5.6 million on newspaper advertising since this year's Chernobyl anniversary in April, trying to reassure people that Japan's water-cooled nuclear reactors are far safer than the graphite reactor in Chernobyl.

"We admit that our efforts at working for public acceptance have been insufficient," Tamai said. "Now that the problem has spread to the cities, we are going to have to reach out and explain things to ordinary citizens."

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