By Yoko Kubota
OHI, Japan (Reuters) - Japan's nuclear disaster has eroded trust in utilities and shown residents of the rural, mountainous region of Fukui the risk of radiation, but a dependence on atomic plants for jobs and funds means speaking out against them is taboo.
Nestled on the Wakasa Bay in central Japan, the town of Ohi -- lashed this week by a snowstorm that has blanketed much of northern Japan -- hosts four of the nuclear reactors that dot the coast of Fukui prefecture, known as the "Atomic Arcade" because it has more reactors than any other area in Japan.
The farming and fishing town's 8,850 residents depend heavily on the nuclear plant for budget revenue and employment, and many of them are loath to speak out against nuclear power despite their worries.
A March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima nuclear plant in northeast Japan, triggering meltdowns and radiation leaks that led to mass evacuations and widespread contamination.
The Fukushima plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, was vilified for mismanagement and trying to play down the extent of the disaster.
Residents of Ohi now wonder if the operator of their plant can be trusted. But few are willing to voice such doubt.
"Considering Tokyo Electric's tendency to hide information, I think that Kansai Electric may also be a company that cannot be trusted," said a politician in the area who supports the nuclear industry, referring to the Ohi plant operator.
"But we have reasons why we must."
"We recruited the plant somewhat knowing the risks, but the degree of dependence on it has grown, both financially and in terms of employment," said the politician, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"It's a society where we can't easily speak up."
Fifty of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors have been taken off-line since the Fukushima disaster and public fear about safety has kept reactors that underwent checks from restarting.
That includes all four reactors at Ohi which brought the town about 2.5 billion yen ($32 million) in subsidies in the financial year to March 2010.
The government, worried about a power crunch, is pushing for reactors to resume operations, even as it reviews the role of nuclear power in the resource-poor country's energy mix in a new mid- to long-term program to be decided in coming months.
While Japan has abandoned its plan to boost nuclear power to more than half of its electricity supply by 2030, proponents argue that atomic power is vital to prevent more Japanese companies from moving abroad in search of cheaper power, and to provide a stable power supply.
Officials are now reviewing stress tests on whether reactors can withstand extreme events like the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima plant.
Experts from the U.N. atomic watchdog visited the Ohi plant on Thursday after Japan's nuclear safety agency said last week that tests on two Ohi reactors showed they were capable of withstanding a severe shock. A panel of Japanese experts is set to review the tests.
Local governments must also approve reactor restarts before cabinet ministers give a final go-ahead.
Ohi mayor Shantou Tokioka told Reuters last week that the government needed to come up with a comprehensive set of safety standards and measures based on information from the Fukushima accident. The governor of Fukui prefecture has also said that new safety standards are needed.
MONEY LIKE A DRUG
Tetsuen Nakajima, a Buddhist monk in a neighboring city who has been opposing nuclear power plants for more than four decades, said that for the region to reduce reliance on atomic power, it needed to come up with economic alternatives.
"I have a sense of crisis that the promoters of nuclear power and Japanese public won't be able to repent unless a second Fukushima takes place and I absolutely want to prevent that," said Nakajima at his hillside temple in Obama city, half of whose population of 30,000 people live within 10 km (six miles) radius of the Ohi plant.
"You can't just convince people that this situation is dangerous. While that is certainly the case, in a region where its economy is up to its neck in nuclear power plants, we need a convincing vision for creating local employment," the 69-year-old monk told Reuters.
Nakajima suggested that the Wakasa area, home to 13 commercial reactors, should keep getting government subsidies while it tries to reduce its reliance on the nuclear plants and come up with solutions.
"After having received money related to the nuclear power plant like a form of drugs, this region's capability to nurture its economy independently and actively has declined," he said.
The Ohi politician, a promoter of nuclear power, agreed.
"Many people do not have an aggressive spirit ... It would be good to come up with a picture of a town that does not rely only on Kansai Electric. But not a single person is thinking about that."
With a budget flush with nuclear subsidies, Ohi has built expensive facilities such as culture and recreation halls.
In nearby Obama city -- which shares the risks but reaps fewer of the benefits -- the local assembly last year submitted a statement to then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan urging Japan to reduce its reliance on nuclear power.
It was a rare critical voice from a region so dependent on nuclear plants but most residents of Obama, which also gets some subsidies because it borders the Ohi plant, are reluctant to break the taboo of speaking out.
"I can't really talk about it because so many people's employment is related to the plant," said a chef at a restaurant, who declined to give his name.
Some people say things could have been different.
"So much money came into the town that we are heading in the wrong direction. People have changed a great deal," the Ohi politician said.
"Happiness is not about money. There might have been a different way to live."
(Editing by Linda Sieg and Robert Birsel)