In an upset, Ryuichi Yoneyama, a rookie candidate backed by the opposition Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, was elected governor of Niigata Prefecture on Oct. 16.
Yoneyama presented a tough stance toward the proposed restart of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in the prefecture, which was the main election issue.
He emerged victorious in a virtual one-on-one contest against Tamio Mori, a former mayor of Nagaoka in the prefecture, who was backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, Komeito.
The outcome could be called a manifestation of the public will that wants to halt the headlong way the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to have Japan’s idled nuclear reactors brought back online.
The election highlighted the strong anxiety that Niigata Prefecture residents have concerning nuclear power.
Yoneyama said in his campaign pledge that he would not discuss the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant unless the causes of the 2011 disaster at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, its impact and the challenges it highlighted are scrutinized.
He has the responsibility to follow through on his promise and confront the central government and TEPCO, which are seeking to have the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa’s nuclear reactors brought back online, with a resolute attitude.
Hirohiko Izumida, the incumbent governor who has consistently taken a cautious stance toward a nuclear restart, did not seek re-election.
Attention was focused during the gubernatorial race on whether Izumida’s policy line would be succeeded. It was initially thought that Mori, a former head of the Japan Association of City Mayors who emphasized the connections he has with the central government, had an overwhelming advantage.
But Yoneyama, who announced his candidacy immediately before official campaigning started and asserted he would follow Izumida’s stance over the nuclear restart issue, turned out to have more pull.
An Asahi Shimbun survey of eligible voters in Niigata Prefecture found that, while only about 20 percent of the respondents said they approved the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, more than 60 percent opposed it. Yoneyama was elected by that public opinion.
Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, where seven nuclear reactors are concentrated, is one of the world’s largest nuclear plants. A serious cover-up of technical problems there came to light in 2002. The Niigata Chuetsu-oki Earthquake of 2007 resulted in a fire and the leakage of a small amount of radioactive substances there. It stands to reason that many feel anxious about plant operations.
Izumida told the central government that plans for evacuating local residents in the event of a nuclear plant disaster are not covered by the screenings by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, and called for the central government’s Nuclear Emergency Response Guideline to be improved. He also used an expert panel of the prefectural government to pursue an independent investigation into the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The governor also questioned TEPCO’s delay in announcing that core meltdowns had occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. That led to TEPCO’s acknowledgment this year of a cover-up.
One can say that Izumida has demonstrated that a prefectural governor can play various roles without leaving the safety of a nuclear plant up to the central government. The election results have shown that many residents of Niigata Prefecture want their governor to continue that stance.
The Abe administration, which defines nuclear energy as an important mainstay power source, is hoping to restart nuclear reactors that have passed NRA screenings. It also defines the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant as an indispensable step for rehabilitating the embattled TEPCO, which has virtually become a government-owned entity.
The administration, however, should sincerely face up to the public will in Niigata Prefecture.
In Kagoshima Prefecture as well, the winner in a gubernatorial election this summer was a candidate who called for a nuclear plant in the southern prefecture to be taken temporarily offline.
It is the duty of top officials responsible for national politics to listen to the voices of the public.