A Japanese governor who supports the restart of a nuclear plant in southern Kagoshima prefecture won a new term by a landslide on Sunday in a closely watched election following Japan’s resumption of operations at its first – and so far only – reactors after a two-month period without nuclear power.
The gubernatorial race – the first since last month’s decision to restart a pair of reactors in another prefecture – became a de facto referendum on nuclear power, which has split much of the country into two camps. Those in favour want to maintain electricity generation, fearing economically painful cuts in the hot summer months. Opponents cite lingering questions about the prevailing pre-Fukushima safety standards.
The Sunday vote shows how, despite deep opposition to nuclear energy nationally, the mostly rural prefectures hosting the reactors are hesitant to pull the plug as they depend on them for jobs and subsidies – and worry other power-starved businesses may flee.
Japan faces a series of other political contests in the coming months where the nuclear issue will take central stage, likely dividing voters even more than a contentious tax increase currently moving through Parliament. In Yamaguchi prefecture, a staunch antinuclear activist is drawing support from activists around the country in his campaign to replace a retiring governor later this month, and his victory could kill off a nuclear-power plant under construction.
Two other prefectures hosting nuclear-power plants will hold elections this year, and four more next year. Aides to prime minister Yoshihiko Noda are braced for an antinuclear challenge from within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan when he runs for a new term as party head in September. A group of party defectors, who quit the DPJ last week over the tax bill, say they will also make opposition to nuclear energy a key part of their new party’s platform. They are all encouraged by the thousands of protesters who have been surrounding the prime minister’s office every Friday night in recent weeks in opposition to his decision last month to restart a nuclear plant in Fukui prefecture, the first of Japan’s 50 reactors to go back online after two months without nuclear power in Japan. Between the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident and May of this year, all of Japan’s working reactors had been shut for routine maintenance, and none had come back online until this month.
The strong opposition to that move has led to questions about whether – and how soon – other reactors will follow suit.
But those favouring restarts took heart in the victory Sunday in Kagoshima of Gov. Yuichiro Ito, a staunchly pro-restart two-term incumbent. The nuclear debate took centre stage, with Ito championing the importance of the local Sendai nuclear power plant to the southwestern Japanese prefecture’s economy and his opponent, Yoshitaka Mukohara, a local publisher and head of a local antinuclear group, calling for its closure.
Ito took 68 percent of the vote to Mukohara’s 32%, according to preliminary totals from the prefecture. Ito did nearly as well as his last re-election campaign in 2008, which wasn’t nearly as hotly contested, when he took 71 percent of votes cast. Turnout at the polls rose to 44%, slightly above the 39 percent for Kagoshima’s last gubernatorial race in 2008.
Pre-election polls here showed voter opposition to nuclear power. A survey of registered voters in Kagoshima published last week in the Asahi newspaper, a Japanese daily, found that 37 percent of respondents opposed restarting the local reactors while 30 percent approved resuming operations at the plant.
But Gov. Ito successfully made the case that the reactors were central to the area’s economy. He called for the restart of the Sendai plant – once Tokyo affirms its safety – and rebuffed any suggestion the prefecture should set up its own advisory board on nuclear safety. His campaign focused on his pledge to uphold “security and stability” – a slogan emblazed on bright yellow banners held up by his campaign members at many street corners in downtown Kagoshima. The slogan didn’t specifically refer to nuclear reactors, but the message was clear.
“Even if the national government eventually phases out nuclear power, the Sendai plants are an important part of the energy equation today,” said Hiromi Imaya, a deputy campaign manager for Gov. Ito.
And in an apparent nod to the strong antinuclear sentiments of his constituents, Gov. Ito was circumspect in his public remarks two days before the election. Exiting from a sound truck emblazed with his name and outfitted with loud speakers, he appeared for about 10 minutes before a couple dozen supporters at a supermarket in Kagoshima City. His campaign literature conspicuously left out any mention of the Sendai nuclear plant, instead focusing on pledges to achieve fiscal reform while expanding social-welfare programmes targeting youth and the elderly and revitalising Kagoshima’s agriculture-based economy.
For his part, Mukohara, the challenger, tried to tap into the unease surrounding moves by Tokyo and regional electricity monopolies to resume output at nuclear plants idled in the wake of the reactor meltdowns in Fukushima. At a 30-minute campaign rally Friday in Satsuma-Sendai, a rural town which hosts twin reactors operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co., 9508.TO -0.33 percent he called on voters to send a message to Tokyo by rejecting nuclear power.
“We can start to change the policies promoting nuclear energy by getting rid of the Sendai plant. Let’s make Kagoshima the starting place for a chain reaction that leads to a nationwide rejection of nuclear power,” Mukohara said, standing outside a home and garden centre along a major road and speaking in front of about 100 supporters carrying green placards reading “Sayonara, Nuclear Plants.”
Kyushu Electric, which gets 40 percent of its electricity from the Sendai reactors and two others at a plant in Saga prefecture, says it has taken steps to bolster its facilities’ natural-disaster defenses. The company has installed a pair of backup generators, prepared extra cooling pumps and strengthened the outer walls of the reactor building, said Ryoji Nakamuta, a Kagoshima-based spokesman for Kyushu Electric.
But unlike most other Japanese nuclear plants, Sendai’s reactors, which sit along the coast of the East China Sea, aren’t protected by a sea wall and don’t have an on-site quake-proof emergency response centre in case of a Fukushima-sized earthquake or tsunami. “We believe we can cope without such a facility by adequately controlling the reactor pressure levels,” said Nakamuta.
The town of Satsuma-Sendai must approve any plan to restart the plant, and local officials are broadly supportive of it – and the rich subsidies they receive from the central government for hosting it. But some surrounding communities are less enthusiastic about their lack of a say in its operation.
The mayor of the neighbouring Kagoshima town of Ichiki-Kushikino, parts of which are just 5.5 kilometers from the Sendai plant, has petitioned the government for equal treatment from the plant operator and regulatory authorities. “The current system makes no sense since we’re effectively facing the same risk as the host town,” said Seiichi Tabata, Ichiki-Kushiko’s mayor. “With 98 percent of our population within a 20-kilometer radius of the plant, we’re at the mercy of the wind direction,” he said, adding the town wants Kyushu Electric to be required to seek approval for restarts, along with proving regular status reports on plant operations.
Tabata declined to say which candidate he was supporting. -By Chester Dawson