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By Risa Maeda

ONAGAWA, Japan (Reuters) - When the 13-meter (40-foot) tsunami that wrecked Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant hit Onagawa to the northeast, hundreds of residents found refuge at the local nuclear plant, rather than run the other way.

It was the right call.

At Fukushima, the tsunami knocked out power supply and its cooling system, triggering reactor meltdowns and forcing 80,000 to evacuate in the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years. The Onagawa plant, in contrast, shut down safely and its gym served for three months as a shelter for those made homeless.

"At that time, there was no better place than the nuclear plant," said Hisashi Kimura, 57, who lost his home in Tsukahama, a small community on the outskirts of Onagawa just one km from the plant, and now lives in a temporary housing.

Onagawa may now serve as a trump card for the nuclear lobby -- an example that it is possible for nuclear facilities to withstand even the greatest shocks and to retain public trust.

Newer design, the plant's location on an elevated embankment nearly 14 meters above sea level, a bit of luck and management in touch with the local community made a big difference.

The earthquake knocked out four of the five external power lines, but the remaining line helped send its three reactors into cold shutdown within 10 hours.

Most importantly, the Onagawa plant stayed out of the tsunami's reach thanks to the foresight of a past executive at operator, Tohoku Power Electric Co, who insisted on building the plant on an embankment much higher than was thought necessary.

Not only did the plant survive the impact of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the resulting tsunami, its operator appears to have avoided the sort of public backlash that has dogged Fukushima plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co..

Japan's electricity is supplied mainly by 10 regional utilities, nine of which operate nuclear reactors.

PUBLIC TRUST

The debate over the future of nuclear power in the quake-prone country has centered on what went wrong -- and a lot did -- putting advocates of nuclear power on the defensive.

Nuclear safety experts from Tokyo are due in Onagawa this week to study its experience to improve the national atomic watchdog's safety guidelines.

Like many communities around Japan, Onagawa has lived with nuclear power for decades, benefiting from subsidies, jobs, roads and other infrastructure built to serve the plant.

But unlike many other areas, where the mishaps at Fukushima radically changed public opinion on safety and risks and kept 44 of Japan's 54 reactors off-line, Tohoku Electric seems to have preserved much of its pre-disaster goodwill.

Events of March 11 and its immediate aftermath may go a long way to explaining it.

When the tsunami hit, many residents sought refuge in a shrine on a hill, watching their loved ones and houses wiped away. With roads blocked by rubble, they then escaped through the woods to a community center about 20 meters above sea level.

That is where officials from the plant found them -- freezing -- on the morning of March 12 and offered to put up the elderly and families with children in the plant gymnasium, where electricity, food and water were available.

"The risk of radiation was our sole concern. I thought only if it had color that we could see," Kimura said, recalling how more than 300 evacuees at the gym at the one point watched on TV explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant -- 120 km away.

And yet, when Tohoku Electric officials said that the gym was safe from radiation, evacuees believed them.

"A bus from our power company came to pick us up on March 13," said Tadashi Ohtomo, 70, who had initially stayed in an elementary school gym on a hill near the plant.

"They kindly made the offer and said: 'Please', so we thought we would be safe there."

A housewife from the same area, Katsumi Watanabe, 66, continued: "They wouldn't let us in if there were something wrong inside the plant."

For Tohoku Electric taking in evacuees could have backfired if there had been a radiation leak or people felt unsafe.

"A person in charge could have thought of the risk of rumors damaging the plant's reputation," said Shoki Abe, 62, the head of the fish farming group in Tsukahama.

But they took the risk and provided shelter and more.

Ohtomo's wife, Kazuko, recounts how the plant operator prepared blankets and underwear and hired a helicopter ferrying relief supplies to fly Watanabe's pregnant daughter back to the region's biggest city, Sendai, where she gave birth.

The goodwill may pay off when it comes to deciding whether to restart the reactors.

Abe says he is aware of the sort of blow a Fukushima-type crisis would deal to Onagawa's fishing business of 5 billion yen

($65 million) a year and yet he lobbies for reactor restarts.

"I'm telling people that Tohoku Electric is a guardian to the region's economy," he said, noting that electricity was critical for warehouses and processed food factories. Developing wind and solar power as alternatives, he said, would be too expensive.

The operator has yet to decide if it will first build a 3-meter wall on top of the embankment as an extra tsunami defense before seeking permission to restart the reactors.

Many residents would like to wait for that extra protection, but some -- concerned about the impact of a prolonged shutdown on the local economy -- say the restart should not wait.

"I think it's better for the plant to run while building the tsunami wall," said Ohtomo. "If and when there is a crisis, we can overcome it with all of our might. We don't have to worry beforehand."

Still, Fukushima did change public perceptions here too, at least in one aspect: the fate of nuclear waste after the crisis highlighted how safely storing spent fuel poses a great safety and environmental challenge.

Yutaka Abe, an Onagawa official in charge of nuclear power public relations, said residents wanted to know what would happen to the spent fuel.

"That's the question I don't know how to answer," said Abe, 40, who survived the tsunami near the town center.

"The government has tried not to talk about a final repository site or the nuclear fuel recycling. I hope they stop postponing a decision on this issue."

($1 = 76.755 Japanese yen)

(Writing by Risa Maeda and Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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