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Japan islanders oppose proposed nuclear plant, year after year

For decades, residents of Iwaishima have taken an aggressive stand, turning their backs on negotiation. Graying residents, mostly in their 70s, have allied with young antinuclear activists.

May 05, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • A line of security guards and Chugoku Electric Power Co. employees patrol the beach in front of the nuclear plant construction site in March. For three decades there has been a running battle between the company and protesters. The guards patrol the beach every two to three hours.
A line of security guards and Chugoku Electric Power Co. employees patrol… (Tom Miyagawa Coulton )

Reporting from Iwaishima, Japan — For centuries, Yoshiaki Hashibe's ancestors have chiseled out a natural, no-nonsense existence on this tiny island where farmers and fishermen ride to their labors by bicycle.

Tradition matters here. At 69, veteran fisherman Hashibe does things just like his great-great-grandfather once did, each day venturing out to sea to haul in seaweed, octopus and red snapper.

He barters his extra catch for vegetables from a farmer who lives so close in their town of meandering back alleys that Hashibe can smell his nightly dinner. Villagers are proud of their tightknit camaraderie and historical harmony with nature.

But a utility company plans to build a nuclear power plant just across the bay, at the tip of the Kaminoseki peninsula. After receiving compensation, several nearby communities have hesitantly embraced the project.

Not Iwaishima. Many residents are convinced that the twin reactors will threaten not just their way of life but the long-term survival of the Inland Sea, a national park known as Japan's Galapagos for its range of sea life.

The utility insists that the project is safe, but residents worry about radiation leaks caused by human error. They say the plant's warm water discharge will raise sea temperatures, altering the ecosystem.

So for three decades, since the Chugoku Electric Power Co. unveiled its plans in 1982, islanders have taken an unusually aggressive stand, turning their backs on efforts at negotiation. Graying residents, mostly in their 70s, have in recent years formed an alliance with young antinuclear activists.

Together, they have staged hunger strikes, picketing and sit-ins, using a flotilla of fishing boats and kayaks to block company construction cranes from reaching the site.

As he carved up a fish on the deck of his 40-foot boat, Hashibe said he would continue the fight until he dies.

"There's a graveyard up on the mountain where I'm planning to finish up," he said. "But I won't be able to sleep gently if they build that power plant."

Not everyone is opposed to the plant. About 50 of the island's 500 residents say the plant will bring money and jobs. So much tension has risen between the two camps that many residents here no longer speak to each other.

Then on March 11, a mammoth magnitude 9 earthquake triggered a tsunami that damaged the cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant along Japan's northeast coast, spilling dangerous radioactive isotopes into the air, soil and sea.

The disaster accomplished what activists couldn't. The utility temporarily suspended plant construction after local officials expressed safety concerns.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has suggested a possible nationwide freeze on Japan's plans to build 14 or more nuclear power stations by 2030. The nation already has 54 nuclear plants, which supply 30% of its energy.

It remains unclear what effect the Fukushima incident will have on Japan's nuclear future, but other communities — stunned by the continuing nuclear fallout from Fukushima — are looking to the Iwaishima battle as a possible indicator.

"Without our protests, that plant would already be running," said Masue Hayashi, 59, who began her opposition to the project when she was 30. "Those people near Fukushima could have been us."

No nuclear plant project in Japan has ever been stopped outside the voting booth, solely by community activism and protest. This one, Hayashi says, could be the first.

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Japan has traditionally shown two faces on atomic power.

A nation with few oil and coal resources, its nuclear appetite is the result of a 50-year search for alternative energy. Proponents insist that Japan has little alternative but to fully embrace nuclear power.

But there have always been doubters, whose fears are often dismissed as "Hiroshima syndrome," after the site of one of the U.S. atomic bomb attacks that helped end World War II.

A poll taken in late March found the nation split evenly on nuclear energy, with 47% opposing power plants and the same number supporting them.

As more government leaders urge a rethinking of energy policies, many people here say that any shift in priorities would face fierce resistance from Japan's powerful nuclear power industry. Germany's utility companies may have announced plans for a "swift and complete" abolishment of atomic energy since the Fukushima debacle, but a similar stand seems unlikely in Japan.

"The nuclear power industry is a strong political force here," said Masae Yuasa, a professor of international studies at Hiroshima City University. "Their solution will be not to abandon nuclear technology; they won't allow it politically. They'll advocate spending even more money on nuclear power to perfect the science."

The industry conducts detailed studies to find communities where resistance will be minimal. It pays millions of dollars a year to towns that agree to host a nuclear plant, building roads and hiring residents for well-paying jobs.

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