OHI, Japan — International inspectors are visiting a rugged Japanese bay region so thick with reactors it is dubbed "Nuclear Alley," where residents remain deeply conflicted as Japan moves to restart plants idled after the Fukushima disaster.
The local economy depends heavily on the industry, and the national government hopes that "stress tests" at idled plants — the first of which is being reviewed this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency — will show they are safe enough to switch back on.
But last year's tsunami crisis in northeastern Japan with meltdowns at three of the Fukushima reactors has fanned opposition to the plants here in western Fukui prefecture, a mountainous region surrounding Wakasa Bay that also relies on fishing and tourism and where the governor has come out strongly against nuclear power.
"We don't need another Fukushima, and we don't want to repeat the same mistake here," said Eiichi Inoue, a 63-year-old retiree in the coastal town of Obama. "I know they added stress tests, but what exactly are they doing?"
"I oppose restarting them," he said.
Other residents said that economic realities made the plants indispensable, including Chikako Shimamoto, a 38-year-old fitness instructor in Takahama, a town that hosts one of the region's nuclear plants.
"We all know that we better not restart them," Shimamoto said. "But we need jobs and we need business in this town.
"Our lives in this town depends on the nuclear power plant and we have no choice," she said.
On Thursday, an IAEA team visited a plant in the town of Ohi to check whether officials at operator Kansai Electric Power Co. had correctly done the tests at two reactors. The tests are designed to assess whether plants can withstand earthquakes, tsunamis, loss of power or other emergencies, and suggest changes to improve safety.
Their visit, at Japan's invitation, appeared aimed at reassuring a skeptical public that authorities are taking the necessary precautions before bringing nuclear plants back on line. After the visit, IAEA team leader James Lyons said its assessment would be released at the end of the month but deciding whether to restart the reactors was up to the Japanese goverment.
Some experts are critical of the stress tests, saying they are meaningless because they have no clear criteria, and view the IAEA as biased toward the nuclear industry.
"I don't view their evaluation as something that is trustworthy or carries any weight," said Hiromitsu Ino, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and member of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency's stress test panel.
The government idled of Japan's 54 reactors for mandatory tests and maintenance after the Fukushima disaster. The number still operating dropped from four to three Friday morning, when Chugoku Electric Power Co. suspended operations at the Shimane No. 2 reactor for scheduled tests.
If no idled plants get approval to restart, the country will be without an operating reactor by the end of April.
Before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima crisis, nuclear plants generated about 30 percent of the country's electricity. To make up for the shortfall, utilities are temporarily turning to conventional oil and coal-fired plants, and the government has required companies to reduce their electricity consumption.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has promised to reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear power over time, but it still needs some nuclear power until next-generation sources are developed.
In Fukui, 13 reactors at four complexes are clustered along a 55-kilometer (35-mile) stretch of coast with snow capped mountains facing the Sea of Japan. It's known as "Gempatsu Ginza," a phrase that roughly translates to "Nuclear Alley."
Only one of the 13 reactors is still running. The rest have been shut down for regular inspections required every 13 months. To start running again, they must pass the stress test.
Another hurdle will be gaining local support for the plants to restart. While local consent is not legally required for that to happen, authorities generally want to win local backing and make efforts to do so.
Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, however, says he will not allow a startup of any of the prefecture's commercial reactors.
And the city assembly in Obama — a town that briefly enjoyed international fame when it endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. presidential race— has submitted an appeal to the central Tokyo government to make Japan nuclear-free.
But officials in Mihama, another town that hosts a nuclear plant, have expressed support for the town's three reactors also operated by Kansai Electric, also called Kepco.
Fukui is a largely rural area, traditionally focused on fishing and farming, but it has a significant textile and machinery industry, and boasts of being a major producer of eyeglasses. Its nuclear power plants supply approximately half of all the electricity used in the greater Kansai region, which includes Osaka and Kyoto.
Several towns' fortunes are tied closely to the nuclear industry.
Community centers and roads are paid by the government subsidies for hosting the plants. Closing the plants not only means losing jobs for thousands of workers, but hardship for stores, restaurants and other service industries.
Many of those interviewed had family members, relatives or friends with jobs at the plants, and some refused to give their names due to fear of repercussions.
Noda has said the final decision on restarting nuclear plants would be political, suggesting that the government would override any local opposition if Japan's energy needs become dire.
Naozane Sakashita, a taxi and bus driver, said his salary had decreased "substantially" after the Ohi and other plants went offline.
"I think these idle plants should resume as soon as their safety is confirmed," he said. "Our jobs and daily life are more important than a disaster that occurs only once in a million years."
Still, he said he is concerned about the safety of the plants because his son works as a control room operator at the Takahama plant.
"If our economy prospers without compromising our safety, of course it would be best to live without nuclear energy," he said.