For much of the last eight months, the world has been riveted by the valiant efforts of Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees to save the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. But what most people don’t realize is that the nearby Onagawa nuclear energy facility, located 120 kilometers northwest of Fukushima Daiichi in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture, successfully weathered the massive tsunami and earthquake that crippled the other plant.
The Onagawa plant, whose three reactors can generate more than 2,000 megawatts-electric, enough to power 800,000 homes, is an example of a nuclear energy facility that was prepared for nature’s worst.
As a Reuters article recently noted, not only did the plant withstand the impact of the tsunami’s 13 meter (40 foot) waves and achieve a cold shutdown within 11 hours, it also provided a vital lifeline to the surrounding community, offering shelter for hundreds of tsunami victims who sought refuge at the plant for three months.
“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 kilometer from the plant, and now lives in temporary housing.
The Onagawa facility, located on an elevated embankment nearly 14 meters above sea level, housed more than 300 evacuees in its gymnasium, where electricity, telephones, food and water were available. Radiation exposure was a concern, but local residents such as Katsumi Watanabe, who took refuge at the facility, insisted that “they wouldn’t let us in if there were something wrong inside the plant.”
Tohoku Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator, went beyond providing shelter to the victims housed in its plant’s gymnasium. Reuters also reported that Tohoku sent buses to local schools and community centers where victims had gathered immediately following the tsunami. Tohoku employees prepared blankets and undergarments for victims, and even hired a helicopter to evacuate a pregnant woman to a hospital in the nearby city of Sendai to give birth.
Meanwhile, the city of Onagawa remained covered in a thick layer of dust for weeks. Locals had little to no access to running water or cell phone service and only a few neighborhoods had electricity.
Onagawa’s gym, the size of two basketball courts, continued to provide shelter for residents until June 6, and evacuees were unanimous in their expression of gratitude for the hospitality they received. Sixty-three-year-old Mitsuko Saito, who lost her home in the tsunami, told the Guardian on March 30, “I’m very happy here, everyone is grateful to the power company.”