OMA, Japan — At the remote northwestern tip of a snowy peninsula, beyond a small road of fishing shacks and empty one-story homes, 600 construction workers and engineers are building a new nuclear plant for a country still recovering from the most severe atomic accident since Chernobyl.
The main reactor building is already at its full height, though draped in heavy fabric to protect it from the wind and freezing temperatures. A 500-foot crane swivels overhead. A completed power line stretches along a nearby ridge, where it might one day carry electricity down the peninsula and back toward the Japanese mainland — a place still fiercely divided over the long-term role of nuclear power.
In the aftermath of March 2011 meltdowns in Fukushima that contaminated 700 square miles with radiation and forced 150,000 to flee their homes, most never to return, Japan’s utility companies paused nearly all nuclear-related projects. The accident sparked a global debate about nuclear power, but it was especially fierce in Japan, where all 50 operable reactors were taken offline and work was halted on three new plants where building had been under way.
But two of the existing reactors are back in action, and the resumption of construction at the Oma Nuclear Power Plant here — a project that broke ground in 2008 and was halted by the operator, J-Power, after the accident — marks the clearest sign yet that the stalemate is breaking.
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The green light for the new plan was, at its root, a bet by the energy company that Japan will come to again support nuclear power, which provided some one-third of Japan’s electricity before the Fukushima crisis.
Analysts say that predicting the direction of Japan’s atomic future is difficult and that J-Power’s decision is a risky one — even with a pro-nuclear party back in power — because a majority here opposes long-term nuclear dependence.
Still, experts see modest evidence of nuclear power’s resiliency. Japan has traditionally built its nuclear plants in far-flung towns that depend on the facilities for the subsidies and tax dollars — as well as the jobs — they bring. Consumers and big businesses fear the long-term economic pain of a nuclear phaseout — increased dependence on imported fossil fuels, annual trade deficits, higher energy bills.
At the national level, Japan has cycled through three prime ministers since Fukushima — the first fiercely anti-nuclear, the next moderately anti-nuclear, the current one cautiously pro-nuclear. The previous ruling party tried last fall to plot a nuclear phaseout by the 2030s, but anti-nuclear advocates say the pledge was watered down to the point of being meaningless.
The new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, plans this month to convene the latest in a series of expert panels to help overwrite the phaseout plan, and its makeup suggests he prefers a role for nuclear power.
Japan’s anti-nuclear movement, which swelled after the Fukushima accident, could still play a role, but it is politically disorganized and has grown quieter. Individual activists cite the resumption at Oma as controversial but note that the move did not prompt mass-scale protests.
“Right now, the trend is not going in the right direction,” said Misao “Redwolf” Shinoto, a leader of the anti-nuclear movement.
By March 2011, construction at Oma was more than one-third complete, with a 2014 target date for commercial operation. But J-Power voluntarily halted the project after Fukushima. Contractors were sent home or told to find new work. Twenty-three cranes were disassembled and shipped out. Only a skeleton staff stayed behind in Oma.
And for the next 18 months, J-Power waited to see whether Japan’s central government would reconsider its long-term commitment to nuclear power.
Gradually the country’s 50 working reactors were shuttered, because of safety concerns or for routine maintenance checks. Two reactors in western Japan restarted in July, but others remain in limbo, requiring major reinforcement against earthquakes, tsunamis and other disasters.
For some anti-nuclear activists and politicians, the construction of a new reactor is particularly worrying because it gives Japan the potential to operate plants into the late 2050s, far beyond the 40-year life span of already completed reactors. Two other reactors were under construction at the time of the Fukushima accident, and at neither has building resumed.
“We should give up building new nuclear plants,” Naoto Kan, prime minister during the disaster, said during an interview in his office, a photo of a wind farm hanging on the wall. “If we cannot get rid of the risk [of an accident], the safest alternative would be a society without nuclear energy.”
J-Power’s decision came as polls showed growing support for the traditionally pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which claimed a landslide victory in December parliamentary elections and installed Abe as its prime minister. Abe on Feb. 28 said he would seek to restart existing reactors once the country fosters a “new culture of safety” with new measures enforced by a beefed-up regulatory agency.