Upper house

In the home of the world’s largest nuclear power plant, one vote could shape Japan’s atomic future

KASHIWAZAKI, Japan, May 27 (Reuters) – Three days before a vote to choose their region’s next governor, a handful of residents of Kashiwazaki, a sleepy coastal town in northern Japan, stood near a road to hear the longtime competitor’s warning. of the dangers of nuclear energy.

Four years ago, Naomi Katagiri, who is challenging the incumbent president in an election on Sunday for governor of Niigata prefecture, might have drawn a larger and more attentive crowd.

At the time, when they last chose their governor, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster was fresh in voters’ minds and politics over what was an important source of energy for Japan was at the fore. foreground in a city that houses the world. the largest nuclear power plant, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant, operated by Fukushima Daiichi owner, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco).

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Today, voters have other concerns.

Economic pain caused by soaring energy costs and the COVID-19 pandemic took center stage, and nuclear power ranked only fifth among issues important to voters, according to a recent survey by the Niigata Nippo newspaper.

In the 2018 race, that was the main problem.

As war in Ukraine and a weaker yen hit households, the vote in Niigata will be watched closely as an indicator of Japanese voters’ readiness to re-embrace nuclear power.

Dozens of Japanese reactors were shut down after the Fukushima disaster, triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami. Only 10 are operational today, compared to 54 before the Fukushima disaster.

Supporters of restarting factories as soon as possible in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) say a clear victory by incumbent Governor Hideyo Hanazumi, whom they support, could speed things up.

Polls point to an easy win for Hanazumi.

Resource-poor Japan imports almost all of its fuel, and the ban on Russian oil and coal as part of the sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine has encouraged pro-nuclear lawmakers to make their case.

“We want to use his win as an opportunity to accelerate nationwide restarts,” a senior LDP official told Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Political sources said efforts to get nuclear plants back online were likely to begin in earnest after an Upper House election in July.

The government plans to increase the contribution of nuclear in its energy mix to 20-22% by 2030. Aware of safety concerns and repeated compliance failures by Tepco since the 2011 disaster, Kishida said the reboots would only occur after proper security clearance and with the public. approval.

CITY IN DECLINE

The Kashiwazaki plant sent electricity to the Tokyo area, 265 km (165 miles) to the south, and the impact of its idling is evident.

In the main shopping street of the city, many businesses are closed. “For Rent” signs are common.

A few years ago, the major supermarket chain Ito-Yokado pulled out after decades, dealing the city what locals said was a blow. Three multi-storey hotels face the main train station but their rooms are mostly empty.

The city’s population has decreased by 12% since the shutdown of the nuclear power plant to less than 80,000 inhabitants. The city says its economy contracted by 11% between 2012 and 2019.

People on both sides of the nuclear debate say votes cannot ignore economic malaise.

“The voters’ priority must be economic policy now, not nuclear power,” Shigeo Makino, who heads Niigata’s largest labor organization, Rengo Niigata, told Reuters this week.

The union backs Hanazumi after backing his anti-nuclear opponent in 2018, citing his record on the job.

Yet resentment against nuclear utility Tepco runs deep. Last year, nuclear regulators opposed a Tepco plan to restart Kashiwazaki-Kariwa after identifying inadequate security measures, including the misuse of ID cards.

Hanazumi himself tried to avoid the nuclear issue and, when asked about it, echoed the government’s position that security is the priority.

Even anti-nuclear campaigners admit that their favorite candidate’s warnings about the dangers of nuclear power plants have largely fallen on deaf ears.

“A lot of people thought nuclear power was dangerous,” said Takashi Miyazaki, a former Kashiwazaki city councilor from the Japanese Anti-Nuclear Communist Party.

“But a desperate desire to do something about this city’s economic decline may have helped spread the sentiment that perhaps nuclear restarts are the quick answer.”

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Reporting by Kantaro Komiya and Yoshifumi Takemoto; Additional reporting by Kentaro Sugiyama and Nobuhiro Kubo; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim, Robert Birsel

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