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Minamata group says safety takes back seat again

November 9, 2014

Minamata disease group opposes restart of Sendai nuclear plant



By YASUSHI SAITO/ Staff Writer

MINAMATA, Kumamoto Prefecture--Minamata disease victims and supporters have joined the protest against the restart of nuclear reactors in Kumamoto Prefecture, saying safety again is taking a back seat in the drive for economic growth.

“If they miss the danger of nuclear plants because of economic priorities, they have not learned the lessons from Minamata disease,” said Koichiro Matsunaga, who heads the group “Stop restarting nuclear plants Minamata.”

Formed in September by eight members, including three Minamata disease patients, the group plans to collaborate with local organizations to oppose the resumption of operations at the Sendai nuclear power plant in Satsuma-Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture.

Kagoshima Governor Yuichiro Ito on Nov. 7 approved the plant’s restart, the first such green light under stricter safety standards that were established following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011.

The city of Minamata is about 40 kilometers from the plant at the shortest distance.

Minamata disease, a sometimes fatal neurological disorder that causes numbness and vision problems, was officially recognized as a health hazard 58 years ago. Caused by consumption of marine products contaminated by mercury discharged into the sea by a chemical factory, the disease remains a negative symbol of Japan’s period of high economic growth.

Matsunaga said he sees similarities between the Sendai plant’s restart and Minamata disease.

“While human lives should take priority, the priority has been placed on corporate profits,” Matsunaga said. “(The government) has not learned lessons from Minamata and Fukushima.

Matsunaga, 51, visited Iitate in Fukushima Prefecture in February 2013. Many residents of the mountain village, whose center is about 40 km from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, remain in evacuation because of the high levels of radiation around their homes.

Matsunaga said that when he saw the Iitate village office, the vacant houses in the central area and temporary housing, he thought: “Residents cannot return home even if they wanted to.

“The Fukushima nuclear power plant has been tormenting people who were born and brought up in this village. There is no guarantee that Minamata can avoid the same fate.”

He cited two problems with restarting the reactors at the Sendai plant: inadequate evacuation plans in the event of a disaster and a lack of trust in the government.

Matsunaga noted that the central government said it would take responsibility for the resumption of operations at the nuclear plant.

“But it did not take responsibility for Minamata disease, either,” Matsunaga said.

The mayor of Satsuma-Sendai and the city assembly approved the reactor restarts earlier, on Oct. 28.

Matsunaga’s group urged the Minamata assembly to adopt a written statement opposing the reactor restarts, but the assembly rejected it.

“Despite Minamata disease, a public hazard, economic priorities always come first,” said Kenji Nagamoto, a 55-year-old Minamata disease patient. “I am disappointed we were not understood.”

Minamata city plans to accept 6,645 evacuees from Izumi, Kagoshima Prefecture, if a serious accident occurs at the Sendai nuclear plant.

“With evacuation plans insufficient, to what extent can the central government assure the people’s security?” Matsunaga asked.

Minamata Mayor Hiroshi Nishida on Nov. 8 also expressed concerns about the aftermath of a potential nuclear accident.

“We hope the central government will give a sufficient explanation to eliminate the anxieties of Minamata citizens who will accept evacuees, as well as resolve the problem responsibly and with sincerity,” Nishida said in a statement.

Another Minamata-based group involved in possible evacuation procedures asked the Kagoshima governor in May to oppose the resumption of the plant. The group’s view was not reflected in his decision.

“If a serious accident occurs, Minamata will also be subjected to evacuation,” said Takafumi Nagano, head of the group. “I feel angry that Kagoshima Prefecture made the judgment (to resume operations) alone.”

Nagano also said the central government’s assurances cannot be trusted.

“Industry minister Yoichi Miyazawa said he will stand at the forefront to assume responsibility. But I cannot believe what he said when containment of the Fukushima plant accident is still not evident,” Nagano said. “They only seem to be rushing to restart operations of the (Sendai) plant.”

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