Iwanai, Japan (dpa) – As he stands on a nearly empty pier in the once prosperous fishing town of Iwanai, Takeichi Saito warily eyes the three nuclear reactors perched on the other side of the bay.
“This place used to be bustling with cars, people and fish. It’s dead now,” says Saito, a 63-year-old cram school teacher, “The nuclear power plant has decimated the fishing industry here.”
Four kilometres across the water is the village of Tomari, home to one of Japan’s many nuclear plants idled soon after the 2011 disaster in Fukushima.
The plant once brought prosperity to the Hokkaido region, but Saito, who has been monitoring its impact on the area since it started operating in 1989, says it has also devastated the nearby marine ecosystem.
The operator now wants to reactivate it but locals feel themselves left in a bind.
On one hand, Saito says, many depend on it for their livelihoods. On the other hand, they are terrified of what happened in Fukushima being repeated in Hokkaido, the most northern of Japan’s main islands.
“Like many Japanese, they don’t talk about their real feelings,” he says, using the Japanese word “honne,” which reflects a person’s private thoughts, rather than what they express publicly.
Saito is one of the few who has been vocal in his opposition, and he says that has left him ostracized from what is a small, closely-bound community.
He has some support from activists in the regional capital Sapporo though, who fear its renowned fish and dairy products industries would be irreparably destroyed by a nuclear meltdown in Tomari.
“Once you have a nuclear accident, you would lose everything,” says healthcare worker Takako Shishido, who moved to Sapporo shortly after the Fukushima disaster.
Places like Tomari and Iwanai thrived on coal and herring from the mid-19th century onwards, and their fishing industry later benefited from abundant supplies of walleye pollack and pollack roe.
But the coal mine was closed in 1964, prompting a plunge in Tomari’s population from 10,000 at its peak to 4,900 in 1965 (that figure had sunk still further to 1,700 in 2015).
The village authorities then started to campaign for a nuclear power plant, and Tokyo designated it a proposed site in 1969.
The plant brought jobs, government subsidies and tax revenues from operator Hokkaido Electric to the region, says Tomari mayor Hiroomi Makino, who is keen to restart the reactors.
But Saito, who has been measuring sea temperatures in Iwanai for 38 years, argues that the plant’s reopening would see it resume dumping heated wastewater into the sea.
According to his data, temperatures had already risen by 0.9 degrees in the year after the plant started operating, three years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine.
“Even a slight change in sea temperatures made fish flee the area,” says Saito.
As more people have given up fishing, the number of local fisheries cooperative members has dwindled to 60 from 600 in 1981, he adds. Some of the fishermen have since set up an inn catering for nuclear plant workers.
Hokkaido Electric Power and the local government have denied that the plant has had any impact on the surrounding area.
Spokesman Yoshinobu Endo said they “regularly conduct an environmental survey around the plant and no abnormalities have been detected.”
When the plant’s third reactor was shut down in 2012 – the first two having been suspended in 2011 – it was the first time since 1970 that none of Japan’s nuclear reactors was in operation.
Until the Fukushima disaster, which caused the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and left the operator battling to contain huge amounts of radioactive waste, nuclear power constituted about a third of the country’s electricity supply.
“The suspension made some locals finally start to think they should stop relying on the nuclear plant,” Saito recalled. But, that didn’t last long.
After Fukushima, plant operators were required to improve safety measures – that brought around 1,000 workers to Tomari, in addition to 500 employees already there from Hokkaido Electric, Endo said.
More workers meant a further boost to the area’s economy. “Do you know why even a very small noodle shop can survive in Iwanai?” asks Saito. “They are also making bento for nuclear plant workers.”
Saito says Hokkaido Electric has been under enormous pressure to reactivate as it borrowed a lot of money to step up the plant’s safety features.
And Mayor Makino says a new road in case of an emergency evacuation – the region experiences wintry conditions for half the year making it a priority – is under construction now, but it will be another six years before it’s completed.
“Should a nuclear accident like one at Fukushima occur, we might be in big trouble,” the 70-year-old mayor admits. “It’s hard to evacuate in winter.”
Saito says the mayor’s comments are disingenuous. “It’s 100 per cent impossible to evacuate because of very strong crosswinds,” he says emphatically.