Nuclear power plant in Oi is reactivated despite protests

From the Japan Times

The Oi plant is the first in the country to be reactivated after inspection since last year’s Fukushima nuclear crisis. All the nation’s commercial reactors have been offline since early May.

Kansai Electric Power Co. said it began extracting the control rods from the core of the No. 3 reactor at 9 p.m. Sunday. The utility aims to achieve criticality — or a sustained fission chain reaction — early Monday and to begin transmitting power on Wednesday. Full operation will likely be possible by July 8.

The area around Wakasa Hongo, Oi’s main train station, was quiet Sunday. Many residents, though resigned to the restart, are worried about how to escape in the event of an accident at the plant, which is on the coast of the Sea of Japan.

On Sunday afternoon, several hundred protesters blocked the main access road from Oi to the reactors. About 650 had gathered near the plant Saturday night, but the heavy afternoon rains had reduced their numbers somewhat, said Uiko Hasegawa, a Kyoto resident who joined the protest.

“At the moment, the road is blocked by between 200 and 300 protesters. People from all over Japan, but mostly Kansai, are here demonstrating, although I haven’t seen Oi residents,” she said.

Although protesters have been blocking the road since Saturday to prevent workers from reaching the plant, Kansai Electric said Sunday it already had enough on hand for the restart.

When it finally reaches full capacity, the 1.18-million-kw reactor is expected to help cut the utility’s projected power shortfall to 9.2 percent from 14.9 percent this summer. Following government approval June 16, Kepco began preparing to restart the No. 4 reactor, aiming for full service later this month.

For Oi residents, the months of constant media coverage have strained relations with other parts of Kansai. On Sunday, few were out in the streets — and not simply because the heavy rains had disrupted train services. Nearly 60 percent of Oi’s budget for fiscal 2012 comes from nuclear power-related subsidies.

Businesses, especially in the service industry, such as taxi companies and hotels, rely heavily on the workers and officials the reactors bring in.

“Such customers are important to many taxi drivers in Oi, but that doesn’t mean everyone in Oi’s service industry is pronuclear,” said Takanori Hirono, a local taxi driver. “Many people, even those making lots of money from the influx of nuclear power workers, are concerned about an accident.”

For other residents, the real concern is not the finer points of the plant itself, but what to do if an evacuation becomes necessary. Based on a simulation it ran last week of what would happen if people panicked and fled by car, Fukui Prefecture estimates it could take over eight hours to reach major cities like Tsuruga.

In a series of public service videos on Oi’s website, produced in cooperation with Kansai Electric, an official asks that residents go to evacuation centers instead of flocking to the roads. Oi officials explain there are evacuation plans for those living within a 3-km radius of the plants. The plans assume the wind is blowing to the east when the accident occurs, and that those who live up to 7 km due east of the reactors will remain indoors.

Oi’s reactors sit on the tip of a peninsula that juts into Wakasa Bay. One train line runs along the coast between Wakasa Hongo and Tsuruga, to the northeast, and Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, to the west. Trains are infrequent and are often canceled due to heavy rains, high winds or blizzard conditions. Normally, it’s about 30 minutes to Higashi Maizuru Station, where there are express trains to Kyoto and Osaka, and about an hour and 20 minutes to Tsuruga, where evacuees can take express trains to Kyoto or Nagoya, or board a ship.

If the trains stop, or panic ensues, people will take to the roads. Route 27, the road closest to the Oi reactors, runs along the coast and is mostly two-lane, with frequent traffic lights.

A few kilometers to the south of Route 27 is the Maizuru Wakasa Expressway, which goes down south to near Kobe. Construction of a 39-km section linking Obama, a few kilometers to the east of Oi, to Tsuruga, where there are good train and road connections to Osaka, Nagoya and elsewhere, will not be completed for another two years.

Kyoto could bear the brunt of a mass exodus from the Oi area by rail and road. Routes 367 and 162, from the Oi and Obama areas, go to Kyoto. Those fleeing Tsuruga or towns east of the Oi reactors by car might travel south on the Hokuriku Expressway until they hit Maibara, on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa.

From there, the choice is to head east to Nagoya and Tokyo by road, or train, or make a run south through Kyoto and try to reach the airports and ports of Osaka. The other main option is Route 161, from Tsuruga, down the western shore of Lake Biwa, to Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, and then to Kyoto and Osaka.

But Oi residents told Tokyo officials in April that even those who managed to make it to Kyoto or Osaka would likely be shunned, due to fear of radiation contamination. What is needed, they said, is a comprehensive evacuation policy that ensures not only that Oi residents can get out in time, but that they will have someplace to go once they escape.

Until then, they say, regardless of whether the Oi reactors are safe to restart, there will always be the kinds of risks that may not be the top priority of those from outside the town protesting the restart, but are of vital concern to their own well-being.

Information from Kyodo added

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