A strong earthquake shut down the world’s largest nuclear power plant here almost two years ago. The clock is now ticking for it to restart — but fears about a nearby seafloor faultline and a string of fires inside the dormant facility have deepened distrust in local communities.
National, regional and local authorities have in recent weeks approved the resumption of the 8,200-megawatt Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant that sprawls across more than 4km2.
All that’s needed now is the formal green light when all three authorities meet again, possibly as early as this month, officials said.
But many local residents, and several geology experts, still have mixed feelings about once more starting up the seven reactors at the facility 250km northwest of Tokyo.
“The government has already made a mistake once by underestimating the size of a possible earthquake,” said Masakazu Takahashi, a 56-year-old real estate broker who attended a recent town hall meeting in Kashiwazaki. “I want them to take time, however many years it may take, to discuss the safety before they resume operations.”
Hundreds of residents have turned out for the meetings in recent months, bombarding local officials with worried questions.
Kashiwazaki city and Kariwa village — home to 100,000 people and otherwise known for their fine beaches — are no strangers to disaster.
On July 16, 2007, the area was hit by a strong earthquake, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, which killed 15 people.
The tremor, which struck 60km offshore in the Sea of Japan, injured 2,346 people, mostly in Niigata prefecture, and damaged or destroyed more than 30,000 buildings.
Among the structures hit was the nuclear plant, one of Japan’s oldest, where the first reactor started generating electricity in 1985.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said an electric transformer caught fire and more than 400 barrels of contaminated waste toppled over, with at least 40 spilling their contents.
The operator caused even greater concern when it said water from a spent fuel-rod pool leaked through drainage pipes into the ocean. Authorities immediately froze operations at the plant.
Since then TEPCO has reported nine fires inside the dormant facility, most recently last weekend.
Industry Minister Toshihiro Nikai chastised the operators, saying: “Other countries have been paying attention to whether we’ll be able to restart our country’s biggest nuclear power plant.”
Japan — located on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” where continental plates meet and create a string of volcanoes and seismic hot spots — records 20 percent of the world’s major earthquakes.
As an industrial powerhouse nation poor in energy resources, Japan also draws about 30 percent of its total power from its 53 nuclear plants.
Since the 2007 quake hit the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, TEPCO says it has upgraded it to withstand a tremor of 7 on the Richter scale, a process that a government-appointed panel of 70 scientists has signed off on.
Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency spokesman Minoru Ohkota said: “We assumed that there might be unknown risks, so we’ve added leeway to the quake-resistance standard to ensure the safety of the plant.”
But Kobe University professor emeritus Katsuhiko Ishibashi said that the benchmark should be raised to resist a 7.5-magnitude quake, citing evidence of a major seafloor faultline near the plant.
The government denies the existence of the faultline, acknowledging only a 36km crack in the seafloor, which Ishibashi calls “a branched faultline of the main one.”
Ishibashi described the review as “illogical and unscientific and ignores residents’ safety.”
At least three of Japan’s 15 leading tectonics experts agree the larger fault exists, Toyo University professor Mitsuhisa Watanabe said.
“It’s impossible to prove the existence of the [main] fault, but we see circumstantial evidence,” Watanabe said.
“I’m not against nuclear power plants. But I say that the government’s calculation of active faults is wrong,” he said. “They should correct it, especially because it involves a nuclear plant.”
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