JAPAN | Disaster-hit Miyagi town questions dependence on nuclear money

Posted on July 15, 2011


JAPAN | MAINICHI | 15 July 2011

Members of the Onagawa town assembly in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, hold a committee meeting in a classroom of a local elementary school on June 29, after the assembly chamber was damaged in the March 11 disaster. (Mainichi)

Members of the Onagawa town assembly in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, hold a committee meeting in a classroom of a local elementary school on June 29, after the assembly chamber was damaged in the March 11 disaster. (Mainichi)

ONAGAWA, Miyagi — Four months after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated the coastal town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, collapsed ferroconcrete buildings are still visible and the middle of town, once replete with rows of shops and houses, is filled with debris.

Facing the disaster’s aftermath, the Miyagi prefectural election committee announced July 7 that it would be difficult to hold a postponed prefectural assembly election by Sept. 22, as stipulated under a special law.

Onagawa itself put off a town assembly election originally scheduled for April in conjunction with many other local elections across the country. Five town election committee members have been busy dealing with the aftermath of the March 11 disaster and have had a hard time compiling a list of eligible voters.

Onagawa Mayor Nobutaka Azumi’s term of office will expire on Sept. 18 but there are no prospects for a mayoral election either.

During a public hearing on the town’s reconstruction plan at the prefectural Onagawa High School on May 27, some town residents asked why the town’s reconstruction scheme made no mention of the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant.

The nuclear power plant run by Tohoku Electric Power Co. came to a sudden halt due to the disaster. It is reachable from the heart of the town in about 30 minutes by car and is located in the middle of the Oshika Peninsula.

The nuclear power plant began commercial service in 1984 and created as many as 2,000 jobs. The town reaped huge benefits from the plant in fixed property tax and subsidies based on three electric power laws including the Electric Power Development Promotion Law.

Onagawa’s total revenue in fiscal 2009 came to about 6.4 billion yen. The so-called “nuclear power money” including the fixed property tax and subsidies based on the three laws accounted for 65 percent of the revenue — a national record.

The deep-pocketed town built a sports park, which is now being used as an evacuation center, various tourism spots, a hospital and other buildings.

The subsidies also helped to maintain and manage those facilities and pay salaries for nurses and nursery staff. “We could draw up a budget thanks to nuclear power money,” a senior town official said.

The March 11 disaster struck the town hard, with the fisheries industry, the town’s key industry, suffering catastrophic damage. The town is certain to face a big drop in revenue, and though risks associated with the Onagawa nuclear power plant have risen due to the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant the town is likely to rely more on nuclear power money.

But the Fukushima crisis is changing residents’ attitudes toward nuclear power.

“I can no longer say I wholeheartedly welcome the nuclear power plant,” said a 61-year-old housewife living along the coast near the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant.

Her son has worked at the Onagawa plant for more than 20 years instead of inheriting his family’s fishing business. Debate on a possible graduation from nuclear energy makes him uneasy.

Incumbent town assemblymen are noticing a change in public sentiment toward nuclear power.

“If we do not call for an end to nuclear power, when are we going to do it? We have to prepare a reconstruction plan for the town without the nuclear power plant,” town assemblyman Shigeru Abe, 46, says.

But a senior town official warned, “If there is debate on the pros and cons of the nuclear power plant, restoration and reconstruction may be delayed.”

Seiro Kimura, a 66-year-old, six-term assemblyman and speaker of the town assembly, commented, “I never talked about nuclear power during past election campaigns. But I honestly wonder if it is OK to build things that man cannot control.”

The 14-member town assembly is also scrambling to deal with the issue of nuclear money which has been the backbone of the town’s budget.

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