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"Sea change for Onuma"

December 5, 2013
Man who saw the future in nuclear energy converts to solar power




By KOSUKE SO/ Staff Writer

A huge banner hanging at the entrance of a shopping area in the evacuated town of Futaba, co-host to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, still reads “Nuclear energy is the energy of a bright future.”

Yuji Onuma created this slogan while in elementary school and won the best prize at a contest organized by the town government in 1987.

Today, Onuma, 37, sees a bright future in a life built around solar power, 1,000 days after being forced to leave his home and his business following the nuclear accident that unfolded on March 11, 2011.

The conversion marks a sea change for Onuma, as nuclear power had dominated large parts of his life as the economic lifeline of Futaba.

The nuclear disaster came after he had long believed in a “bright future” with nuclear energy, just like everyone else in Futaba. But now his hometown may have been lost, perhaps forever, after a triple meltdown at the plant.

“I realized that I was wrong (about a future with nuclear energy) after the nuclear disaster took my hometown away,” said Onuma, who fled Futaba with his expectant wife, Serina, after the accident. “I will probably never be able to go home.”

Futaba, with a population of about 7,000 before the crisis, has been designated an area where residents will not be allowed to return to live until at least 2017 due to annual radiation exposure levels of 50 millisieverts or more.

He has started to rebuild his family's life at its new home in neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture with the resolve never to return to a life relying on nuclear power. He's also embarking on a solo campaign to drive home the dangers of atomic energy.

On Nov. 28, Onuma left for Koga, Ibaraki Prefecture, to settle in his new residence with his wife, their 2-year-old son and their 6-month-old son. Until then, he and his family had evacuated to Anjo, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan, where his relatives lived.

Onuma is intent on generating electricity via renewable sources.

“I want to rid Japan of nuclear power plants some day by promoting the use of renewables,” he said.

His new home, a two-story wooden structure, comes with 54 solar panels capable of supplying enough electricity for his family's needs.

He is also preparing to install solar panels on land encompassing 1,700 square meters in Ishioka, Ibaraki Prefecture, and Sakura, Tochigi Prefecture, to sell power.

His new life is a far cry from the one he led back in Futaba.

After the two reactors located in the town went into service in the late 1970s, he saw many of his neighbors, relatives and classmates landing jobs with Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator, and its affiliates.

He harbored some doubts about nuclear energy after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, but it was taboo for townspeople to express anxieties about nuclear energy, not to mention criticizing it.

“I came to think that it would be a wise approach to live with the nuclear power plant,” Onuma recalled.

He even took advantage of the fact that Futaba was thriving with money flowing into the town thanks to TEPCO.

While working for a real estate company, he had two apartment buildings built near his home in 2005 and 2008 to rent out.

One of the buildings housed all-electric apartments, a first in the town. He set their rent higher than that for other apartments in the neighborhood. Of the six all-electric apartments, four were rented to TEPCO employees.

About a year after the nuclear crisis, he began pondering how to rebuild his life and decided to make a fresh start for his family in Koga, where his mother was hospitalized, by buying a new home there.

During his housing search, he learned from an official with a home builder about the feed-in-tariff system the government introduced in 2012 to promote renewable energy.

Under the arrangement, electric utilities are obliged to purchase electricity generated from renewable sources by companies and individuals at fixed rates. He decided to pursue solar power generation for additional income, after subsisting on compensation from TEPCO and unemployment payments.

Driven to action, Onuma thought it important for the public to see the enormous risks involved in nuclear power generation after the Fukushima disaster. He participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations outside the prime minister's office in Tokyo and in rallies in Nagoya.

In December 2012, he was alarmed by the Liberal Democratic Party’s return to power after the Lower House election.

The LDP has pushed for nuclear power generation for decades, and the party’s landslide victory appeared to him that the public’s focus has shifted from the nuclear crisis to economic growth.

The changing political landscape spurred him to continue raising his voice against nuclear power even if it meant acting alone. In January, Onuma, clad in protective clothing against radioactive materials, protested in front of the TEPCO main office in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, holding up a sign declaring “No Nukes.”

Although he knows that he will not be able to live in Futaba again, he and his wife continue with their monthly visits lasting only several hours each time to their former home in the town.

Onuma said he is dreaming of paying a pilgrimage to the graves of their ancestors with his two children one day.

“I want to tell my children and future generations about my hometown,” he said.




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