Onagawa, Japan (AFP) March 30, 2011
The nightmare of Japan's unfolding nuclear emergency is sending fear through the community that lives in the shadow of another coastal reactor.
The Onagawa nuclear power plant has been shut down since the huge tsunami of March 11 crashed into the northeast coast, wiping out entire towns and setting off an atomic crisis in Fukushima.
The plant, which sits in a cove on the Ojika peninsula, 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of the stricken Fukushima reactors, escaped with only minor damage when the wave hit.
Operator Tohoku Electric Power said that despite a small fire at the site, its three reactors are safe, with low core temperatures, and radiation levels "fairly low".
But assurances from the company are not enough for some. Spooked by the developing situation in Fukushima, and only just beginning to deal with the wider impact of the natural disaster, residents are voting with their feet and readying to leave their hometown.
"My grandma is missing. Our house has vanished," said Kouki Onosaki, an 18-year-old high school student who was in a neighbouring town when the 15-metre (45-feet) wave roared through Onagawa, crushing homes and tossing trains from their tracks.
"We will leave this town as we have nothing left to keep us here," Onosaki said. "If something happens to the nuclear plant, there will be no place to hide.
"I guess more people will leave than will stay."
The unease is heightened by the lack of independent nuclear measurement in the town.
Local authorities are not getting any information from their own radiation gauges, with four of them knocked out by the tsunami and the other three hit by the power blackouts that are crippling the area.
Tohoku Electric Power, however, says its monitoring equipment is working and insists there is no danger to people living nearby.
Keiko Abe, 70, says she will stay in Onagawa despite the dreadful memory of the surging waters that she thought would kill her.
"I will hang on here as I like the town and the people," said Abe, who has led a group of volunteers bringing provisions to survivors at evacuation centres.
"I'm also determined to live with the plant," she said.
"All we can do is to pray for safety and raise our voices to say: 'Please do not let another Fukushima happen here'."
Around 200 people whose homes in the town were swept away are sheltering inside the Onagawa plant. Some reportedly said they had nowhere else to go, while others insist the facility is safe.
AFP was not permitted inside the plant to speak to these people.
Before the tsunami struck, Japan operated more than 50 nuclear reactors -- all of them built on the coast -- with plans to construct a further 14 by 2030, as part of a drive to increase energy security in the resource-poor nation.
Tokyo had also hoped nuclear energy would help it to meet pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels within the next decade.
But long before the crisis at Fukushima, nuclear power was a divisive topic, with supporters insisting Japan had few other options and that nuclear plants brought local subsidies and the promise of much-needed employment.
Opponents argue the risks -- massively highlighted by the events of the last few weeks -- are too great.
Local anti-nuclear activists have seized on the emergency at Fukushima as evidence that the technology is not safe.
Leaking radiation from the plant has affected drinking water and made its way into the food chain, with produce from a large area pulled from shelves throughout Japan and in several other countries.
"This has proved that nuclear power is not a clean source of energy," said campaigner Kouetsu Sugawara.
"It's time to consider new energy sources in the process of restoration of the region."
Onagawa town officials say they have urged the plant operator to reinforce tsunami defences and be as open as possible about the situation at the power station in a bid to avoid causing public panic.
"At the moment we are concentrating on searching for missing people and supporting survivors," said Onagawa town spokesman Toshiaki Yaginuma.
"Once we finish that stage, we will move on to discussion of safety measures at the plant."
Tomoya Shibayama, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Waseda University in Tokyo, has called for a full review of tsunami defences at nuclear power plants nationwide.
"In the past, people were reluctant to take action as they did not believe that such a massive tsunami would occur, but now we have a lesson to learn," said Shibayama, who visited Onagawa to measure the strength and height of the tsunami.
"We have to review our assumptions now that we know things beyond our expectations can happen," he said.
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Japan on 'maximum alert' over nuclear plant
Sendai, Japan (AFP) March 29, 2011
Japan said Tuesday it was on "maximum alert" over a crippled nuclear plant where radioactive water has halted repair work and plutonium has been found in the soil. The earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan's northeast coast and left about 28,000 dead or missing also knocked out reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima plant, which has leaked radiation into the air and sea. Prime Mini ... read more
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