Three days before the vote to elect their region’s next governor, a handful of residents of Kashiwazaki, a sleepy coastal town in northern Japan, stood by a road to hear the race’s contender warn of the dangers of nuclear power.
Four years ago, Naomi Katagiri, who is challenging the sitting Sunday in Niigata Prefecture Governor elections, might have drawn a larger, more observant crowd.
Back then, when they last elected their governor, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster was still fresh in voters’ minds and policy towards what was a major source of power for Japan was central to a city that was home to is the world’s largest nuclear power plant, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, which is operated by Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), owner of Fukushima Daiichi.
Today, voters have other concerns.
According to a recent survey by the newspaper Niigata Nippo, the economic pain from rising energy costs and the COVID-19 pandemic is at the center of attention, and nuclear power ranks only fifth among key issues for voters.
In the 2018 race, this was the main problem.
As the war in Ukraine and a weaker yen hit households, the vote in Niigata will be closely monitored as a gauge of the willingness of Japanese voters to embrace nuclear power again.
Dozens of reactors in Japan were shut down after the Fukushima disaster, caused by a huge earthquake and tsunami. Only 10 are now operational, compared to 54 before the Fukushima disaster.
Proponents of restarting factories in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as soon as possible say a clear victory for the incumbent governor, Hideyo Hanazumi, whom they support could speed things up.
Polls point to an easy win for Hanazumi.
Poor Japan imports nearly all of its fuel, and a ban on Russian oil and coal as part of sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine has encouraged pro-nuclear lawmakers to push through their case.
“We want to use his win as an opportunity to accelerate the restart across the country,” a senior LDP lawmaker told Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.
Political sources said efforts to get nuclear power plants back to work are likely to get underway in earnest after a July senate election.
The government plans to increase the nuclear contribution in its energy mix to 20-22% by 2030. Aware of security and Tepco’s repeated violations of compliance since the 2011 disaster, Kishida said restarts would only take place after proper security clearance and with public approval.
City in decline
The Kashiwazaki plant supplied power to the Tokyo area 265 km (165 miles) to the south, and the impact of the idling is clearly visible.
Many businesses are closed on the city’s main shopping street. ‘For rent’ signs are common.
A few years ago, major supermarket chain Ito-Yokado withdrew after decades and dealt a major blow to the city, according to residents. Three multi-storey hotels overlook the central station, but their rooms are mostly empty.
The city’s population has shrunk by 12% since the nuclear power plant was shut down to less than 80,000. The city says its economy contracted by 11% between 2012 and 2019.
People on both sides of the nuclear debate say voices cannot ignore the economic slump.
“The voters’ priority should now be economic policy, not nuclear energy,” Shigeo Makino, head of Niigata’s largest labor organization, Rengo Niigata, told Reuters this week.
The union backs Hanazumi after supporting his anti-nuclear opponent in 2018, citing his track record on the labor front.
Yet the resentment against core company Tepco runs deep. Nuclear regulators objected to a Tepco plan to restart Kashiwazaki-Kariwa last year after finding insufficient security measures in place, including the misuse of identity cards.
Hanazumi himself has tried to avoid the nuclear issue and when asked about it, he reiterated the government’s statement that safety is the priority.
Even anti-nuclear activists admit that their favorite candidate’s warnings about the dangers of nuclear power plants have largely fallen on deaf ears.
“A lot of people used to think nuclear energy was dangerous,” said Takashi Miyazaki, a former Kashiwazaki councilor with the anti-nuclear Japanese Communist Party.
“But a desperate desire to do something about this city’s economic decline may have helped spread the feeling that nuclear restart might be the quick answer.”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by DailyExpertNews staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)