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Residents near Sendai nuclear plant agonize over future power supplies

Kenta Yamashita sits on a stone wall built by islanders at a fishing port on Kamikoshiki-jima island in Satumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture. (Mainichi)

SATSUMASENDAI, Kagoshima -- Residents here are agonizing over whether they will be able to do away with nuclear power and shift to renewable energy.

The No. 1 and 2 reactors at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in this Kagoshima Prefecture city of Satsumasendai were put back online in the summer of 2015.

There had been a common view that the suspension of operations at the Sendai nuclear power complex in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster was having a grave impact on the local economy. But there were unexpected responses to a questionnaire survey of local businesses conducted by the city's chamber of commerce and industry in 2014. On a question about the impact of the suspension of nuclear reactors, 50.3 percent of the 358 companies that responded to the survey said that there was "no" impact, surpassing 48.9 percent of the companies that said "yes."

Hiroshi Tanaka, 58-year-old president of local electronics parts manufacturer Okano Electronics Co., said, "There was no impact." At the request of the municipal government two years ago, he played a mediator role in ensuring cooperation among 18 local companies to put street lights using solar power to practical use. The city is currently making a strong effort to introduce renewable energy such as solar and wind power. The municipal government withheld approval of a plan to build a third reactor at the Sendai nuclear power station after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011. The total output of renewable energy in the city stood at 250 kilowatts generated by only one windmill before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but it rose to a total of 134,000 kilowatts as of the end of March 2016, enough to cover the needs of all 46,000 households in the city.

Satsumasendai Mayor Hideo Iwakiri has been saying, "The No. 1 and 2 reactors will eventually be decommissioned. We want to gear up for the next generation of energy." Tanaka also said, "We will take the next step while the reactors are running." Obviously, it is difficult for the renewable energy industry to create the same amount of jobs as the nuclear power industry. The city is planning to build a major conference hall by using government subsidies of 2.5 billion yen it is to receive for allowing the two reactors to resume operations. The city government, therefore, has been criticized for its policy focusing on the construction of public structures. But there are still calls within the construction industry to build another reactor at the Sendai nuclear power station.

Still, there are signs of the city becoming keen to fully break away from nuclear power. A 71-year-old former head of a neighborhood community association in the city's Takae district, about 6 kilometers from the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant, said, "We cannot relieve our anxiety because of the accident in Fukushima. We want the existing reactors to keep running until they are decommissioned, but we want new ones to be installed somewhere else. I think that's what everyone thinks."

The central government is planning to have nuclear power make up 20 to 22 percent of the nation's electric power needs in the future. The city is not able to do away with nuclear power so easily, so it is agonizing over the future of its energy program while putting up a two-front strategy -- nuclear power and renewable energy.

I got on a boat to visit an islander, hoping to hear his real opinion. The Koshikijima Islands, about 30 kilometers west of the Sendai nuclear plant, merged into the city of Satsumasendai in 2004. Single-seat electric vehicles for tourists are lined up at a harbor on Kamikoshiki-jima island, the central part of islanders' activities. In the yard of an shutdown school, a private-public project was under way to conduct a demonstration experiment on a power storage system that combines solar panels and used batteries for electric vehicles.

Kyushu Electric Power Co. built the country's first commercial wind power plant on the island in 1989. After the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the city called the Koshikijima Islands "Eco Islands."

The man I went to see is Kenta Yamashita, 30, who runs a company called "Higashishinakai no Chiisanashima Burando" (Small Island Brand in East China Sea). He studied architecture at a Kyoto university and worked for a while after graduating from college. He returned to his home six years ago to start his own business. His company, which has 13 employees, is engaged in projects to show the attractive points of the island such as "minshuku" (private homes that provide lodgings for travelers) and tour guides.

The Fukushima nuclear accident occurred one year after he returned to the island. No matter how much he is proud of the island's beautiful nature, he can see the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant far away on a sunny day.

I sat face to face with him in his office that was converted from a house that was more than 100 years old, and asked him unashamedly about what he thinks of nuclear power. He lowered his eyes and thought for a while before saying with a stern face, "There is no electricity generated by nuclear power not even one kilowatt on this island. I don't care about whether the reactors are running or not."

Yamashita told me about a fishing port that has a breakwater, a stone wall built by islanders. So, I asked him to take me there. It was a place where fishermen sat on the stone wall and repaired fishing nets over small talk. Yamashita said, "This is an affluent island if you live idyllically. I think the distinct character of this island is the landscapes that cannot be measured by economics." He said that he had an incisive memory of the stone wall.

This was from around a time when Yamashita moved away from the island to go to high school on the Japanese mainland. When he came back to the island on holidays, his father, who was working for a construction company, was destroying part of the stone wall at the fishing port as part of work to widen a road. He thought, "Who needs such construction work? What is the point of construction work to destroy a place that everyone has been caring about?" On that night, he rebuked his father in anger. His father replied, "It was for the sake of you."

It requires money to go to school on the mainland. Yamashita was plagued by the irrational fact that he was able to live by having someone destroy the landscape that he had been familiar with since his infancy. He could not say anything to respond to what his father said.

"If you think about the economy alone, this is the worst island," Yamashita said. He went on to say, "I want to do my best to create work which I can proudly tell the generation of our children 'this is for the sake of you'. I believe that is the role for me to play."

Yamashita then told me, "It is true that there are many people who rely on the nuclear power plant for their living. I can't flatly say this and that." He feels that nuclear power is equal to a public works project to destroy the stone wall. "It is better not to have nuclear reactors. But once they start moving, they will move closer to decommissioning. I even think that it was good to restart the reactors."

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