Plebicites first step in pulling nuclear plug


Staff Writer

Last June more than 90 percent of Italian voters said no to nuclear power in a referendum, while Germany and Switzerland voted to phase out atomic energy in the coming years.

In France, which faces a presidential election this spring, the Socialists and Greens pledged to close 24 reactors by 2025 as public opinion in what was once Europe’s strongest supporter of nuclear plants begins to falter.

In Japan, efforts to collect signatures in support of a national vote on the future of nuclear power began just after the Fukushima disaster struck. But there are also separate attempts to introduce specific plebiscites in Tokyo and in the city of Osaka.

What are the Tokyo and Osaka plebiscite drives calling for?

The Tokyo and Osaka plebiscite drives want both governments to ensure citizens’ voices are heard on the question of whether Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Kansai Electric Power Co. should be allowed to run nuclear plants.

They also seek to ensure that both metropolitan areas promote local production, consumption and more democratic management of renewable energy sources over the middle to long term.

Does that mean they’re not demanding all nuclear power plants be shut down now?

No. The aim is to gradually move away from nuclear power and into renewable energy. However, it’s true that most of those pushing for the plebiscites are against returning to pre-March 11 levels of atomic power production or increasing its usage in the future.

How does the nationwide signature drive differ from those in Tokyo and Osaka?

The national plebiscite campaign against atomic power is more like a general campaign to pressure the central government to change its energy policy.

The drive entails fewer legal restrictions on how, when and where signatures can be collected, and from whom.

Anyone, regardless of citizenship, is allowed to sign the petition, even over the Internet, and there is no legally mandated time period for the campaign.

The goal of the national petition drive is to pressure the Diet into eventually approving a national referendum.

The Tokyo and Osaka signature drives are aiming for plebiscites involving their own registered voters. Such drives have deadlines and any poll would have a legally set date, assuming enough signatures were amassed to compel the local assembly to approve a plebiscite on the future of nuclear power.

The local-level drives are thus far stricter because they involve specific municipalities operating under set local government regulations.

Only the signatures of local voters qualify for the petitions. By law, one-fiftieth of each municipality’s eligible voters must provide their signatures by the deadline.

What does this mean in practice?

The Tokyo and Osaka signature drives began Dec. 10. By law, the Osaka campaign had to finish by Jan. 9, while the Tokyo drive must be concluded by Feb. 9 to avoid invalidating the results.

In Osaka, the number of signatures needed to formally demand a municipal assembly vote on whether to hold a plebiscite is around 42,000.

In Tokyo the required number of signatures is around 214,000.

How hard is it to get the required number of signatures?

The regulations are tough, and the process is quite bureaucratic. Signatures must be gathered directly, not electronically.

Only a local registered voter with official approval is allowed to approach people to collect signatures. To receive approval, the voter must provide name, address, date of birth and telephone number to the municipal election commission, which checks to verify eligibility.

Can an officially approved signature collector go anywhere to solicit names?

Technically, yes, but a collector, who is presumably a resident of a given municipal ward, would only be allowed to collect signatures from voters registered in the same ward, although such voters can be approached outside of the ward.

Voters from a different ward who happen to sign such a petition would not be counted.

Can signature gatherers present voters with just a blank paper or copy of a petition form for signing?

No. Only official forms provided by the plebiscite organizers to the approved solicitor can be used, and the forms must bear the organizer’s “hanko” seal. No printouts or fax copies are allowed.

The forms are sent to the signature gatherers by the organization in charge of the plebiscite.

Osaka’s signature drive is over. What happens next?

Osaka collected 61,000 signatures, more than enough to ask Mayor Toru Hashimoto to introduce a plebiscite proposal to the municipal assembly. The signatures were delivered to the city election commission on Jan. 16. The commission has 20 days to verify the signatures.

If the requisite number is verified, the group seeking a plebiscite will formally ask Hashimoto to propose to the assembly that the poll be held. A simple majority vote by the assembly will decide if a plebiscite is held.

What about Tokyo?

Tokyo’s signature drive as of Saturday had around 147,000 of the nearly 214,000 signatures needed by the Feb. 9 deadline.

Organizers cite numerous reasons for the slow progress, including the strict rules on signature gathering.

But at a mid-January Yokohama conference against nuclear power and for renewable energy, signature collectors admitted there is a sense of apathy or opposition in Tokyo to a plebiscite because some residents are no longer as concerned as they were last year about the radiation threat, while others worry that phasing out nuclear power would negatively impact their lifestyles and the Tokyo economy as a whole.

Have plebiscites on nuclear power ever succeeded?

Since 1982, there have been more than two dozen attempts, mostly in small towns and villages, to force assemblies to hold plebiscites on nuclear materials or power plants.

To date only three have been held, in the villages of Maki and Kariwa in Niigata Prefecture, and in Miyama, Mie Prefecture. In all three polls, voters said no to nuclear power.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp