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Crisis brings angst, no answers to Japan's Atomic Arcade

A man on vacation backflips as he dives into the sea in Tsuruga, Fukui prefecture
A man on vacation backflips as he dives into the sea in Tsuruga, Fukui prefecture

By Linda Sieg

TSURUGA, Japan (Reuters) - Japanese housewife Kayako Hayashi used to think nuclear power was a risk worth taking. Now she just doesn't know.

Nearly four months after a tsunami-triggered crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant on the other side of Japan, Hayashi -- who grew up with reactors in her hometown and married a nuclear engineer -- has deep doubts, but no answers.

"I never thought it was completely safe. Nothing made by man is perfect. But it supported us," Hayashi said, speaking quietly in a cafe in Tsuruga city, host to three of 14 reactors that dot the coast of the Fukui region -- nicknamed the "Atomic Arcade" because it has more reactors than any other region in Japan.

"I think it would be good to abandon nuclear power, but what would we have to do to achieve that?" said the 59-year-old Hayashi. Her son and nephew also work in the industry and a niece fled her home about 50 km (30 miles) from the Fukushima plant after the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years.

"We've become used to this modern lifestyle, so is it really possible?" asked a clearly distressed Hayashi.

Japan has no easy options to replace nuclear power, which before the crisis supplied about 30 percent of its electricity, one reason the government is rushing to persuade communities to restart halted reactors to meet summer demand.

Promoting renewable sources will take years and burning more fossil fuel use is costly and contributes to global warming.

For towns and cities such as Tsuruga, where Japan's first commercial reactor came on line in 1970, the dilemma is a more personal one after decades during which the government promoted nuclear power as clean, cheap and safe while locating reactors in rural backwaters eager for economic windfalls.

"They talked about the firm bedrock, but the reason they picked regions like this was because there are fewer people to die," said coffee shop operator Kazuya Ueyama, noting that power generated in Fukui supplied western Japanese urban centers.

Ueyama said he was increasingly unable to watch news about Fukushima because it made him depressed. "My heart aches."

CAN'T SPEAK OUT

But with local jobs heavily reliant on nuclear plants and town finances addicted to nuclear subsidies and tax revenues, not many in host towns are willing to speak out.

A Tsuruga city assembly panel in late June adopted a statement urging the promotion of renewable energy but withdrew it within days after the resolution was characterized in media as anti-nuclear. "This is a town that cannot speak out," said assembly member Harumi Kondaiji.

"People try not to pay too much attention to what is happening at Fukushima. It is as if they are looking through a kind of filter trying to think, 'that can't happen here'."

Nearby communities that share the risk but not the rewards, however, have fewer compunctions.

The legislature in Eichizen city, half of which lies within a 20 km (12 mile) radius of the Tsuruga plant, adopted a resolution last week urging that plans for two more Tsuruga reactors should be scrapped and seeking the gradual abolition of nuclear plants.

Most of Tsuruga's 70,000 residents would have to evacuate if an accident forced the creation of a 20-km "no-go zone" like that around the Fukushima plant, a contingency with which Mayor Kazuharu Kawase admits the city isn't prepared to cope.

Yet he is keen for operator Japan Atomic Power Co to proceed with plans for two new reactors, construction of which was part of a national energy policy to boost nuclear power's share of the electricity supply to more than 50 percent by 2030.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is reviewing that plan and has said he aims to more than double renewable energy's share to more than 20 percent by the mid 2020's. Kawase thinks nuclear power's share will fall, but not quickly.

"I think that newer reactors will be safer and considering the long time frame needed for a shift (away from nuclear power), this would be one plan that would support nuclear power," he said. "So I definitely want these built."

SAFETY MYTH CRUMBLED

Unflagging support for nuclear power from politicians, however, is running into growing anxiety in host towns, complicating efforts to restart closed plants.

Only 19 of Japan's 54 commercial reactors are running and others will be closed for regular checks in coming months, so if none resumes operations, all will be offline by next April, threatening power crunches that could hurt corporate Japan.

"Fukushima was a shock," said taxi driver Tadashi Kubota, waiting for passengers at the train station in Mihama, a town of about 10,000 residents that hosts three Kansai Electric Power Co reactors, including 40-year-old Mihama No.1. "Now the myth of safety has been destroyed. But almost everyone's job is related to Kansai electric, so hardly anyone can speak out."

Mihama Mayor Jitaro Yamaguchi said as much as 70 percent of local government revenues depended on nuclear business in the former fishing town, whose name means "Beautiful Beach."

An informal survey of Mihama households by the utility after the Fukushima accident, though, showed half were uneasy, and for the first time, about a dozen wanted the reactors shut.

Yamaguchi, 68, whose long-term faith in nuclear power appears unshaken, is leaning toward approving the restart of Mihama No.1 unit once final safety assurances are given.

Whether Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa, whose approval is also needed, will do likewise remains unclear.

Nishikawa has said he wants the central government to draft post-Fukushima safety standards before he gives the green light.

Activists say the governor will come under growing pressure to give in as months go by, especially if other reactors stay off-line. Cynics say he may even bargain approval for reactor restarts in return for the long-sought extension of a high-speed "bullet train" line to Tsuruga.

"People used only to see the economic benefits," said 75-year-old activist Miwako Ogiso, who has waged an often lonely anti-nuclear battle in Fukui for more than three decades.

"But now the number of people worried about their lives is increasing."

(Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)

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