An Atomic Shadow: Life Inside a Japanese Nuclear Village

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Tomari Nuclear Power Station in Hokkaido, Japan.

Earlier this week, I was on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Hokkaido is home to some of the best dairy you will find anywhere in the world. It’s home to the capital’s eponymous beer, Sapporo, to world-famous “champagne powder” ski slopes and to Japan’s beloved winter ice festival. Lesser known is the fact that the island hosts three of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors. Perched on the southwest coast, the Tomari Nuclear Power Station, run by Hokkaido Electric, has attracted its share of unwelcome attention during Japan’s history as a nuclear-powered nation. The plant’s first two reactors, Tomari 1 and 2, went online in 1989, just three years after the Chernobyl disaster sparked a widespread antinuclear movement throughout Japan. A quarter of a century later, the plant’s third reactor was the first in Japan to resume commercial operations after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was crippled in the earthquake and tsunami on March 11 of last year.

The town of Tomari itself – a slow three-hour drive in heavy snow from Sapporo – is a peculiar place. Above all else, it is starkly beautiful, tucked into a cove facing the blustery Sea of Japan and surrounded by dark, snow-dusted cliffs. It is more of a village than a town, really, home to fewer than 2,000 people these days. You drive past the power station on the way into town, though you wouldn’t know it: a small gated building and a tunnel are the only indications that there is anything on the other side of the high cliff.

The reactors may be invisible in Tomari, but their influence is not. In town, an oversize glass-domed hall invites visitors to learn about the benefits of nuclear power. A sprawling, modern junior high school, attended by several dozen students, and an equally well-proportioned city hall are a stark contrast to the older parts of town, where small, boxy homes hunker down together, dried fish hanging from their weathered wooden eaves. Children and seniors there get free health care courtesy of money from the plant, and every household gets a free computer and annual packets of free tickets to the local hot springs. “I think people are getting spoiled,” says Mitsuhiro Miura, a town assembly member. “There is a mood – whether you are for or against the plant – that you take [the perks]. Declining is not acceptable.”

Miura, who has run twice for mayor and lost, says he is not opposed to the power station per se. Such a declaration would be futile. “I have never fought against the plant. You can’t,” he explains. What Miura does oppose is the way that the city uses the large host subsidy it receives annually from the central government and the tax-based revenue it receives from Hokkaido Electric. These handouts may win people’s cooperation, but they are “not sustainable,” he says. At turns a fishing and coal-mining town, Tomari now has almost no industry left besides the plant itself. Without investing in new businesses, Miura argues, the city’s income will continue to decline and the tax that it gets from that income will decline right along with it. “This village has become very wealthy. But the city is just throwing the money around.”

Mayor Hiroomi Makino, naturally, disagrees, as do plenty of others who live there and make a living from the plant. Makino was re-elected in January without any contest to his run. He says 95% of the town’s budget comes from the support money from the government and electric company. He sees the money as liberating Tomari from the same economic doom that so many other small, shrinking towns in Hokkaido are facing. “Our town was in debt,” Makino says. “We had to borrow money for welfare.” Because of nuclear power, he says, Tomari is the only town in Hokkaido that does not receive federal subsidies – apart from the subsidy for hosting the plant. “I’m happy we can cover all the costs to rebuild our town,” says Makino. “And we didn’t have to borrow any money to do it.”

Indeed, opponents to the plant have grown almost silent since it opened despite their efforts in 1989. Almost silent – but not quite. In Iwanai, the village next door to Tomari, which also receives support money, Takaichi Saito has been staging his own small protest every day for the past 35 years. Each evening around 6, the slender kindergarten teacher makes his way out to a stone jetty in the town’s harbor to measure the temperature of the water. When the plant opened, Hokkaido Electric estimated that the wastewater it would emit would remain in a contained area of 1.6 sq km. But according to Saito’s data, the temperature of the water more than 4 km away from the plant has increased about 2 degrees since the plant started operating. He attributes about 60% of that increase to global warming and 30% of it to the wastewater from the plant. All in all, Saito thinks the temperature jump has helped destroy what little was left of Iwanai’s fishing grounds.

Hokkaido Electric has dismissed Saito’s data as amateur and irrelevant, but Saito is undeterred. “It’s natural,” he says. And so he carries on. On a stormy day in late January, Saito tramps through the snow to the jetty, carrying his small plastic bucket and thermometer. Wearing a bright red balaclava and black snow pants, Saito hoists himself onto the jetty, which is covered in several inches of snow and ice, and steadies himself against the vertical wind and snow until he reaches his usual spot. He plants himself down into the snow and throws the bucket over the edge of the jetty into the winter waves.

For years, Saito says, he has been subject to murahachibu — shunning and isolation — by people in town for this personal project. Neighbors have accused him of trying to get attention from the local papers; their disapproval even pressured him into resigning from his government teaching job. But nobody has ever paid him as much attention as they do now. Since March 11, Saito has been asked to travel all over Hokkaido to talk to people about his decades-long experiment. And even people in town – though they may not be ready to speak about their fears of the plant themselves – privately cheer him on when they see him in the street. “I don’t even want to walk around in town anymore,” Saito says, laughing. “People won’t leave me alone.”

Krista Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.