When residents of this quiet rice-farming area on Japan's west coast watch news of the unfolding nuclear disaster in Fukushima, they do so with an added level of fear that comes from living in the shadow of an even bigger nuclear plant, one that sits directly on a fault line.
The images of smoke rising from a nuclear reactor are chillingly familiar to the tens of thousands of people who live a short drive from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, the world's largest in terms of output. A fire broke out in an electricity transformer following a 2007 earthquake here, sending black smoke billowing into the sky and sowing panic among residents who had to wait hours to hear any kind of explanation of what was going on.
Tokyo Electric Power Company, better known as TEPCO, operates both Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and the Fukushima Daiichi facilities damaged in the earthquake and tsunami on March 11. The company's already battered reputation took another hit Sunday when it announced it had detected radiation levels 10 million times normal in the water inside Reactor No. 2 at Fukushima, only to sheepishly declare later in the day that the reading was "not credible" and that another measurement was required.
In the interim, the workers battling to bring Fukushima's four damaged reactors under control were evacuated. It was not clear when they might be able to resume their daunting assignment.
Many of Kariwa's 5,000 residents worry the fate that has befallen those who live around Fukushima - living in evacuation centres as radiation pollutes the region's water and food - could easily be theirs. "We feel lucky that this reactor happened to cool down in 2007. Looking at Fukushima, we're seeing what would have happened to us if it didn't," said Eiko Tamura, a 68-year-old retired high-school teacher who lives just 2.5 kilometres from Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, well within the 20-kilometre radius that has been evacuated around Fukushima.
All seven reactors at the plant were shut down following the 2007 quake and only four have since been allowed to resume operation. The quake caused a small amount of radioactive material from the spent-fuel storage pools in one of the reactors to leak into the sea.
Relief that the worst didn't happen is heavily outweighed by fear of what might occur next time. In the aftermath of the 2007 quake, the Japan Meteorological Agency determined that Kashiwazaki-Kariwa sits directly on the fault that caused the quake.
TEPCO's explanation for what is happening at Fukushima is the same one it offered four years ago: the earthquake was much larger than could have been anticipated. The tremor in July, 2007, that struck nine kilometres offshore in the Sea of Japan was a magnitude 6.8 (compared to the 9.0 quake that hit the northeast coast on March 11) and there was no subsequent tsunami. Kashiwazaki-Kariwa was built to safely withstand a quake of up to 6.5 magnitude, though its safety measures have since been upgraded.
"We would like to express our sincere apology to those who live near Fukushima plant [and]all the people who are concerned about radiation," TEPCO spokesman Kiyoto Ishikawa wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "We will try our best to provide the necessary information as quickly as possible working closely with the government, so that the citizens will be able to live with sense of security."
The Fukushima disaster has raised the volume of a decades-old debate over whether Japan, a country crisscrossed and surrounded by some 2,000 major and minor fault lines, should have 55 nuclear plants on its soil. Some 300 Japanese demonstrators - some of them wearing gas masks - marched past TEPCO's Tokyo headquarters on Sunday chanting "We don't need nuclear plants!"
The truth, however, is that Japan does need them, at least until a substitute is found to replace the 30 per cent of the country's power supply produced by nuclear plants. The facilities are also knit into the economic fabric of the communities they're in, accounting directly or indirectly for about 65 per cent of the local government's revenues in Kariwa and 20 per cent of those in the nearby city of Kashiwazaki, which has a population of 92,000.
The plant also employs 7,600 people, with about half of those workers hired from the surrounding communities. "The truth is we need [the nuclear plant.]We can't live without it," said Akio Nakagawa, a 69-year-old taxi driver in the regional capital of Niigata.
In an effort to pacify its critics, TEPCO held a simulated earthquake drill in January at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, the first time it had done so at any of its plants. But while TEPCO said the plant passed the test, which was based on a 7.0 tremor, it did little to mollify local residents.
"The information comes only from TEPCO. They never allowed a third party to conduct any tests, so we don't know what to believe. … We feel that the reason they didn't test for a 7.5 or 8.0 magnitude quake is because the plant couldn't stand it," said Chie Takakiwo, a 65-year-old retired high-school teacher. She spent her Saturday afternoon attending an information session held by an anti-nuclear activist who visited the Fukushima region last week, taking photographs of the evacuated villages, as well as radiation measurements with a Geiger counter
Though activists hope that the Fukushima disaster will force Japan to move away from its reliance on nuclear power, some in Kariwa say that won't happen quickly enough for them to feel safe. Lung-cancer rates among women are 40 per cent higher in the village than the national average. The stomach-cancer rate among men is 83 per cent higher.
"I want to sell my home and move somewhere else. Japan is an earthquake-prone country, so a quake could happen at any time and cause a nuclear disaster," said Fumiko Toyama, a 62-year-old whose home was flattened in the 2007 earthquake. She rebuilt in the same spot, about seven kilometres from Kashiwazaki-Karima, but only because her elderly mother refused to live anywhere else.
Though she hasn't been able to convince her mother yet, Ms. Toyama says she's contemplating a move inland to the mountainous Nagano area, which she believes is the point in Japan farthest from the fault lines, tsunamis and nuclear plants that haunt her imagination.
"We've been trying to tell TEPCO that [something like the Fukushima disaster]was going to happen, but they never listened to us," said Yukio Kondo, a 57-year-old Kariwa resident who helped found a women's group opposed to the nuclear plant. "We strongly believe that what's happening in Fukushima could happen here."