SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 30, 2011

Post-tsunami, some Japanese shelter in nuke plant

JAY ALABASTER
Associated Press

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.

The plant has heavily guarded entrances and strict security checkpoints. Operator Tohoku Electric Power Co. barred reporters from the grounds. Many of the details for this article were gathered from employees and evacuees as they passed through the front gate.

After the tsunami hit, residents made their way to a company public relations center on high ground just outside the main nuclear complex. But that facility was damaged and had no water or power, so they were moved to a meeting room inside the complex — and eventually to the employee gym, where they now stay, near the reactors.

With coastal roads impassable, the company flew in water and food by helicopter from Sendai city, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) south. The gym, the size of two basketball courts, housed 360 people at its peak, about a third of the number crammed into other buildings of that size in the area.

"It's pretty spread out. People are just kind of lying around and relaxing," said Tatsuya Abe, 29, who is staying at the plant with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. "There are a lot of aftershocks, but it's safe."

The Onagawa plant was built to withstand bigger tsunamis — 30 feet (9 meters) — than Fukushima's 18 feet (5.4 meters). It had only light damage, including a fire near a turbine and some water that splashed out of a fuel rods pool. A jump in radioactivity was attributed to leaks from Fukushima.

A billboard posted by a protest group near the entrance road to the plant reads: "Eliminate Nuclear Power! Will it stop because of an accident, or because we stop it together?"

But resource-poor Japan will struggle to find alternatives to nuclear energy, which it relies on for 30 percent of its electricity.

"If we get too sensitive, it'll bring us down," said Masuo Takahashi, 84, from a nearby shelter in Onagawa. "So we just have to trust that there won't be an accident like Fukushima here."