NIIGATA, Japan, Oct. 17, Kyodo — Ryuichi Yoneyama, a candidate backed by anti-nuclear opposition parties, won the gubernatorial election Sunday in Niigata Prefecture, home to the world’s largest nuclear power plant.
The election was closely watched as incumbent Gov. Hirohiko Izumida, who has expressed a cautious view on the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex on the Sea of Japan coast, decided not to seek re-election.
Yoneyama, a 49-year-old doctor supported by the Japanese Communist Party and two other small parties, has been seen as an heir to Izumida, who has served three terms since 2004. His victory could deal a blow to pro-nuclear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.
“I cannot accept the restart of the plant under the current circumstances where I cannot protect people’s lives and their living as I have promised,” Yoneyama said Monday before reporters.
But Yoneyama also said he believes he can hold a “reasonable and rational discussion” with the state government over the restart.
Abe told a Diet committee his government will work with the new governor to move the issue forward.
The defeat of a candidate supported by Abe’s ruling coalition was “very regrettable, but we will sincerely accept the prefectural residents’ choice,” the premier said.
“Now that the election results are before us, it is a matter of course for the central government to cooperate with the new governor,” Abe said.
Lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by Abe voiced concerns over the election outcome and its potential impact on national politics.
“This is a heavy blow. Unless we properly analyze the reason for the loss, we will suffer in the future,” said a senior LDP official.
Tamio Mori, 67, who has served as mayor of Nagaoka in the prefecture since 1999, failed to garner much public support as he has not clarified his stance about the restart of the nuclear facility. Mori was backed by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito.
Yoneyama won 528,455 votes while Mori gained 465,044 votes, according to the local election committee. The voter turnout was 53.05 percent, compared to 43.95 percent in the previous election in 2012.
As requested by the three opposition parties and civic groups, Yoneyama, a then member of the main opposition Democratic Party, announced he would run for Niigata governor a week before the election campaign started on Sept. 29.
He left the Democratic Party, but Renho, the head of the party, which has not formally supported Yoneyama, made a speech for the candidate Friday.
Since only three members are with the parties that officially backed Yoneyama in the prefectural assembly of 53 seats, Yoneyama must build a constructive relationship with major parties that backed rivaling candidates in the election campaign.
Industry minister Hiroshige Seko said he would consider how to go about resuming the plant operation while listening to the new governor’s views.
During the campaign, Yoneyama argued he “cannot” start discussions about the restart of the nuclear plant unless studies on several matters, such as the cause of the accident involving the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011, are sufficiently carried out.
Mori said that if problems are likely to arise following the possible restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex, he may “say no” to the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., the operator of the nuclear facility.
The former mayor, however, has kept mum about whether he is in favor of the restart, as media polls showed a majority of voters opposed to the restart of the nuclear complex, but he was backed by Abe’s LDP that has promoted the use of nuclear energy.
The Nos. 6 and 7 units at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant are boiling water reactors, the same type as the ones that suffered core meltdowns at the Fukushima complex also operated by TEPCO, raising fears about the safety of the facility in Niigata Prefecture.
If all of its seven units are in operation, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant is the world’s largest nuclear power complex with a combined output capacity of around 8.2 million kilowatts.
People affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis welcomed the election outcome, while operators of businesses related to nuclear power plants in Japan expressed concern.
A 57-year-old man living in temporary housing for the evacuees of the Fukushima crisis said he hoped Yoneyama would reflect the voices of the people on administration.
“I don’t want another nuclear plant accident. No nuclear plant should be restarted,” he said.
Kotaro Nagai, a 67-year-old operator of a guest house in a city in Kagoshima Prefecture hosting the Sendai nuclear power plant, said, “There are many people who have benefited financially from nuclear power plants. A restart is a matter of life and death for us.”
In recent years, the issue of whether to restart nuclear facilities has often dominated gubernatorial elections across Japan.
In July, former TV commentator Satoshi Mitazono, who has pledged to halt nuclear reactors from operating, won the Kagoshima gubernatorial election, beating the then incumbent governor who agreed to the restart of the Sendai complex’s Nos. 1 and 2 units in the southwestern prefecture.
Yoneyama graduated from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Tokyo in 1992. He has also worked as a lawyer. He ran in national elections four times but lost in all of them.