When all seven of its reactors are in operation, Kashiwazaki-kariwa generates 8.2m kilowatts of electricity – enough to power 16m households. Occupying 4.2 sq km of land along the Japan Sea coast, it is the biggest nuclear power plant in the world.
But today, the reactors at Kashiwazaki-kariwa are idle. The plant in Niigata prefecture, about 140 miles (225km) north-west of the capital, is the nuclear industry’s highest-profile casualty of the nationwide atomic shutdown that followed the March 2011 triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi.
The company at the centre of the disaster has encountered anger over its failure to prevent the catastrophe, its treatment of tens of thousands of evacuated residentsand its haphazard attempts to clean up its atomic mess.
Now, the same utility, Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco], is attempting to banish its Fukushima demons with a push to restart two reactors at Kashiwazaki-kariwa, one of its three nuclear plants. Only then, it says, can it generate the profits it needs to fund the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi and win back the public trust it lost in the wake of the meltdown.
‘This is no place for a nuclear power plant’
The public, however, is far from convinced. Last year, the people of Niigata prefecture registered their opposition to the utility’s plans by electing Ryuichi Yoneyama, an anti-nuclear candidate, as governor. Exit polls showed that 73% of voters opposed restarting the plant, with just 27% in favour.
Yoneyama has said that he won’t make a decision on the restarts, scheduled for spring 2019, until a newly formed committee has completed its report into the causes and consequences of the Fukushima disaster – a process that could take at least three years.
For many residents, the plant’s location renders expensive safety improvements irrelevant. “Geologically speaking, this is no place for a nuclear power plant,” says Kazuyuki Takemoto, a retired local councillor and a lifelong anti-nuclear activist.
Takemoto cites instability caused by the presence of underground oil and gas deposits in the area, and evidence that the ground on which Tepco’s seawall stands is prone to liquefaction in the event of a major earthquake.
But for Tepco, a return to nuclear power generation is a matter of financial necessity, with the utility standing to gain up to ¥200 billion in annual profits by restarting the two reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa.
Kiyoto Ishikawa, from the plant’s public relations department, insists Tepco has learned the lessons of Fukushima. “Before 3-11 we were arrogant and had stopped improving safety,” he said. “The earthquake was a wake-up call. We now know that improving safety is a continuous process.”
The firm’s assurances were dismissed by Yukiko Kondo, a Kariwa resident, who said the loss of state subsidies if the plant were to remain permanently idle was a sacrifice worth making if it meant giving local people peace of mind.
“Tepco caused the 2011 accident, so there is no way I would ever support restarting nuclear reactors here,” she said. “They kept telling us that Fukushima Daiichi was perfectly safe – and look what happened.”