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Japan split over restart of first nuclear reactor since Fukushima disaster via The Guardian

Rising costs from gas and oil are sited by supporters of a programme to bring reactors back on line, but ageing plant and risks raise widespread concern

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Just over four years since Fukushima Daiichi had a triple meltdown, triggering the world’s worst nuclear crisis for 25 years, Japan remains deeply divided over its future energy mix.

The 2011 disaster forced the evacuation of 160,000 people and the closure of all the country’s 48 working reactors for safety checks.

Opinions among the 100,000 residents of Satsumasendai range from anxiety to relief.

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A survey by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that only two of 85 medical institutes and 15 of 159 nursing and other care facilities within a 30 km radius of the Sendai plant had proper evacuation plans.

About 220,000 people live within a 30km radius – the size of the Fukushima no-go zone – of the Sendai plant; a 50km radius would draw in Kagoshima city and raise the number of affected people to 900,000. “I can’t begin to imagine how chaotic that would be,” Mukohara said.

Massive earthquakes of the kind that sparked the Fukushima meltdown are not the only potential hazard. The Sendai facility is surrounded by a group of five calderas, and Sakurajima, one of Japan’s most active volcanoes, is just 50km away, leaving the plant exposed to volcanic ash fallout, and, in the most extreme scenario, lava flows.

There are doubts, too, about the reliability of an ageing reactor that has not been used since it was shut down for safety checks in 2011. “You wouldn’t have much faith in a car that’s been on the road for more than 30 years,” said Mukohara. “So why are we so willing to trust a nuclear reactor?”

Shaun Burnie, a nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany, accused Japan’s government and nuclear industry of cutting corners in its desperation to put reactors back online.

“They are disregarding fundamental principles of nuclear safety and public health protection,” Burnie said. “The same players in the ‘nuclear village’ that delivered Japan the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy in 2011 are attempting to kick-start nuclear power again.”

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With national polls showing that most Japanese oppose nuclear restarts, the town’s council is reluctant to gauge local opinion, said Ryoko Torihara, a Satsumasendai resident who is campaigning to the keep the reactors idle.

“They won’t conduct a poll of local people because they’re scared of the result,” she said. “They’re aware that Japan has fared perfectly well without nuclear power for almost two years.”

A nationwide Kyodo News poll last October found that 60% of respondents opposed an immediate return to nuclear energy, while 31% were in favour. But supporters of the restarts say the long hiatus in nuclear energy production has taken its toll on Satsumasendai’s population.

When in operation, the plant contributes up to 3bn yen (£16m) a year to the local economy, according to the local chamber of industry and commerce, much of it via 3,000 workers who descend on the town twice a year to conduct lengthy safety checks.

Satsumasendai continues to receive more than 1bn yen in annual government subsidies for hosting the reactors, but some residents complain keeping the plant shuttered for so long has sucked the life out of local commerce, with hotels, restaurants and other service industries reporting a dramatic drop in trade.

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At a tent village set up on a windswept beach just along the coast, anti-nuclear activists refuse to accept that Japan’s imminent nuclear reboot is inevitable.

“We will do all we can to stop it,” said Yoshiharu Ogawa, who has travelled from his home near Tokyo. “The local authorities may have approved the restart, but they are completely out of touch with public opinion.”

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