Whether the powers that be liked it or not, nuclear power took center stage in a debate involving four major candidates for the Tokyo gubernatorial election that was streamed live on the Internet Saturday.

Three of the candidates came out firmly against atomic power.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has done its best to keep the issue out of voters’ minds ahead of Sunday’s race, framing it as a national, rather than local, concern.

Packed with Abe allies, public broadcaster NHK appears to be downplaying the matter. A noted economics professor resigned last week as a commentator after being told not to discuss the nuclear issue until after the election on Sunday “to ensure fairness.”

But the debate, hosted by seven online firms including Dwango Co., Ustream Asia Inc. and Yahoo Japan Corp., has shown that nuclear power is very much an issue inside the mainstream.

“We have to break away from the system that depends on nuclear energy in the long run, considering the dismal state (caused by the Fukushima crisis),” former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe, 65, said during the 90-minute debate, which, according to the organizers, was seen by some 170,000 people.

Previously noncommittal on the issue, Masuzoe said new energy sources, including shale gas and renewables, could be developed to reduce Japan’s dependence on atomic power.

Former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, running on an anti-nuclear platform, stressed that the issue is relevant to Tokyo residents.

“The principal duty of the Tokyo governor is to protect the lives of its citizens. . . . The nuclear issue would directly affect the people’s lives,” Hosokawa, 76, said.

If elected, Hosokawa said the metropolitan government would ask Tokyo Electric Power Co. to start using more renewable energy sources to replace nuclear power.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is the fourth-largest shareholder in the utility, with a stake of 1.20 percent.

Another opponent is Kenji Utsunomiya, former chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

“Nuclear power generation is not suitable in Japan, which has been hit by many earthquakes and tsunami,” the 67-year-old said. “We should not restart the idled reactors.”

Utsunomiya warned of the possibility of huge expenditures being needed to compensate nuclear accident victims and the high cost of decommissioning any reactors involved in a nuclear power plant accident.

Taking the opposite view, Toshio Tamogami, a former chief of the Air Self-Defense Force, said that nuclear power has been made sufficiently safe and was vital to Japan from an economic perspective.

The higher electricity rates stemming from the cost of importing fuel for the traditional power plants being used to offset the absence of atomic power is weighting heavily on small and midsize firms, the 65-year-old Tamogami said.

“I think many of those firms would go bankrupt” if the reactors are kept offline, Tamogami argued. “We could provide enough energy with the use of nuclear power plants and it could contribute to growth of the nation’s gross domestic product.”

Another issue the candidates debated was the proposal to legalize casinos. Some lawmakers want to build casino resorts in time for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

Hosokawa and Utsunomiya are firmly against the idea, citing the detrimental influence they would have on young people and the threat of gambling addiction.

Tamogami, on the other hand, said casinos would attract wealthy tourists from around the world.

Masuzoe hedged, saying only that the matter needs further study and debate.

Turning to the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, Masuzoe said he would like the Olympics and Paralympics to be the best and most hospitable ever and urged all citizens to cooperate.

“I’d like participating countries to hold training camps in the Tama area (west of the 23 wards). . . . I also urge citizens to learn English so that all can be a guide (to visiting athletes and guests),” he said.

Tamogami said by holding a “lavish” Olympics he would like to hear foreign athletes and guests say they want to return to Tokyo.

“Japan has been suffering from deflation, and spending on public works projects could contribute to the economic recovery. I’d like to hold the best-ever Olympics in history by investing heavily (in key facilities),” he said.

Hosokawa said he would like to hold a “sustainable” Olympics, indicating plans to review the extravagant facilities being planned, and bring about a successful Olympics that makes use of renewable energy instead of nuclear power.

Hosokawa also said he would like to share the benefits from the Olympics and Paralympics with the people of Tohoku.

Lawyer Utsunomiya said he sees the need to make the Olympics simple and environmentally friendly without spending large amounts of money and by refurbishing existing facilities.

Utsunomiya also pointed to the need to make the city easier for the disabled to live in to have a successful Paralympics. Efforts should be made to make the city more barrier-free, he said.

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