Voters Send Anti-Nuclear Message in Japan

Voters Send Anti-Nuclear Message in Japan
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Niigata's gubernatorial election result on Sunday shows the public is still wary of restarting idled nuclear power plants.

The victory of an anti-nuclear power candidate in the Niigata gubernatorial race last Sunday is yet another indication that popular sentiment remains wary about restarting reactors that were idled in the wake of the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant. The Abe administration, which pushes nuclear power as a key source of the nation’s energy supply, should not dismiss the outcome of the Niigata election as a mere local setback, but instead take seriously the public’s misgivings about the safety of nuclear power behind the vote.

The win by Ryuichi Yoneyama, a 49-year-old doctor who had the organized backing of the opposition Japanese Communist Party, Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party, over Tamio Mori, a former mayor of the Niigata Prefecture city of Nagaoka endorsed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito, comes on the heels of the victory by another nuclear power foe in the Kagoshima gubernatorial race in July. In that race, going down to defeat was an incumbent who had given the go-ahead last year to restarting two reactors at Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai power plant.

Niigata Prefecture hosts Tepco’s seven-reactor Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant — the world’s largest in terms of power generation capacity. All of its reactors remain offline after they were shut down for regular maintenance following the Fukushima disaster. Tepco views restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant as crucial to reviving its finances, which have been battered by the Fukushima disaster. But that is likely to remain elusive with the election of Yoneyama, who reiterated after winning the race that he would not consent to reactivating the plant under current conditions. The Abe administration has been pushing for rebooting idled reactors once they have cleared the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s revamped post-Fukushima standards, but power companies need the consent of host prefectures and municipalities before bringing their reactors back online.

Sunday’s race was held after departing Gov. Hirohiko Izumida, who refused to discuss reopening the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant before the 2011 Fukushima crisis has been fully examined, suddenly gave up seeking a fourth term. Mori, the ruling coalition-backed candidate, also received the endorsement of the Niigata chapter of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), normally a key supporter of the top opposition Democratic Party. Before the 2011 nuclear disaster, defeat of a gubernatorial candidate endorsed by the ruling parties, Tepco, various business groups plus the local Rengo — where the influence of the Tepco labor union is strong — would have been unthinkable.

Yoneyama, who had no previous experience in public office, entered the race only six days before the campaign officially opened in late September. He ran on a promise of carrying over Izumida’s caution against restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant — an issue that apparently proved decisive in the final outcome. A Kyodo News exit poll of the Niigata electorate showed that 64 percent opposed reactivating the plant, and about 70 percent of them voted for Yoneyama. Niigata’s voter sentiment on nuclear power echoes the outcome in many media opinion polls that quote a majority of respondents opposing the Abe administration’s push for reactivating idled nuclear plants.

Niigata was the second prefecture that hosts nuclear plants to see an opponent of nuclear power score an upset win in the gubernatorial election this year. In July, former TV commentator Satoshi Mitazono defeated incumbent Yuichiro Ito, who was seeking a fourth term as Kagoshima governor. Last year, Kyushu Electric’s Sendai plant became the first plant to be restarted under the NRA’s post-Fukushima plant safety regulations after Ito gave the go-ahead. Mitazono, who called for a phaseout of nuclear power, campaigned on a promise of seeking to get Kyushu Electric to halt the Sendai plant reactors to assess their safety following the Kumamoto earthquakes in April.

Kyushu Electric has snubbed the new governor’s call, instead taking the No. 1 reactor at the Sendai plant offline for a regularly mandated checkup earlier this month. But Tepco, which has sought the NRA’s nod for restarting two of the reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, will not be able to get them online without the consent of the new Niigata governor. The utility’s post-Fukushima business reconstruction plan relies heavily on restarting the plant, estimating that its annual profits will improve by ¥200 billion if the two reactors can get back online.

So far, governors of three prefectures hosting nuclear plants have given their consent to reactivating their reactors following NRA approval — Kagoshima for the Sendai plant, Fukui for two reactors at Kansai Electric Power’s Takahama plant (although they were later withdrawn from operation thanks to a court injunction) and Ehime for the No. 3 reactor at Shikoku Electric Power’s Ikata plant. Municipalities where the nuclear plants are located rely heavily on related revenue and business, including hefty grants from the national government. Local businesses as well as labor unions team up with political forces that promote nuclear power during gubernatorial elections. The outcome of the Niigata race, along with the result of the Kagoshima election in July, may point to changes in the political structure that has promoted nuclear energy.

The Abe administration and the power industry should stop and think about whether their push for restarting nuclear power plants properly addresses public concerns about the safety of nuclear power.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Edward White