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The World

March 30, 2011

Post-tsunami, some Japanese shelter in nuke plant

ONAGAWA, Japan — As a massive tsunami ravaged this Japanese fishing town, hundreds of residents fled for the safest place they knew: the local nuclear power plant.

More than two weeks later, 240 remain, watching TV or playing ball games with their children next to three atomic reactors. It's a startling contrast to the damaged nuclear plant 75 miles (120 kilometers) southeast, where radiation leaks have forced an evacuation of area residents and terrified the nation.

The town of Onagawa's embrace of its plant reflects the mindset in much of Japan, at least before the current crisis. Nuclear power was accepted as a trade-off: clean and reliable energy versus the tiny but real risk of catastrophe — one that now may be unfolding at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

It's unclear how strongly the country will back nuclear energy in the future. But in Onagawa, as in much of the country, there may be few realistic alternatives.

"I'm very happy here, everyone is grateful to the power company," said Mitsuko Saito, 63, whose house was leveled in the tsunami. "It's very clean inside. We have electricity and nice toilets."

Those sheltering at the plant live in relative luxury compared to many other survivors. Most of Onagawa is still covered in a thick layer of dust. There is no running water or cell phone service, and only a few neighborhoods have electricity. Nearly 1,100 of the 10,000 residents are dead or missing, and 5,500 more have moved into schools and civic centers.

Within the nuclear plant, facilities are pristine, electricity flows directly from Japan's national grid, and evacuees can use its dedicated phone network to make calls.

"The general public isn't normally allowed inside, but in this case we felt it was the right thing to do," company spokesman Yoshitake Kanda said.

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