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Niigata election a setback for restarting Japan’s biggest nuclear power plant

Reuters, Kyodo, Bloomberg

Sunday’s victory by an anti-nuclear activist in the Niigata gubernatorial election is a setback for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s energy policy.

Ryuichi Yoneyama, 49, defeated the candidate endorsed by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. Former construction ministry bureaucrat Tamio Mori, 67, was expected until the last moment to cruise to victory.

Yoneyama, a doctor and lawyer, has never held office.

The campaign was dominated by concerns over the future of the world’s biggest nuclear power station, the seven-reactor Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex in Niigata Prefecture.

Currently, only two reactors across Japan are operating in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and Abe has pushed hard for restarts.

“Under current circumstances where we can’t protect the lives and the way of life of citizens in the prefecture, I can’t approve a restart,” Yoneyama told reporters Monday.

Supported by the Japanese Communist Party and two other small parties, Yoneyama secured close to 530,000 votes. Mori trailed with 465,000.

The focus will now be how Yoneyama will be able to cooperate with municipalities and the central government in creating evacuation plans for nuclear disasters. These will be key before restarts can take place.

Abe, meanwhile, told a Diet committee that he will respect the choice of Niigata and that he will cooperate with the new governor.

Shares in Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., which operates the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, fell 8 percent Monday.

The complex has a capacity of 8 gigawatts. Its revival is key to saving Tepco, which was brought low by the Fukushima crisis and then repeated admissions of cover-ups and safety lapses.

“Senior managers at Tepco have made it clear that restarting the Kashiwazaki reactors is fundamentally important to restoring their finances,” Tom O’Sullivan, founder of Tokyo-based consultant Mathyos, said by email. “There now has to be significant uncertainty over restarting those reactors.”

Yoneyama’s victory came after Tepco President Naomi Hirose highlighted the utility’s financial vulnerability this month. He said it may face insolvency if it were to recognize the cost of decommissioning the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Tepco has said that resuming operations for just one of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors would boost its profit by about ¥10 billion a month.

This was Yoneyama’s fifth attempt at public office, and the first time he was successful.

During the campaign he promised to continue the policy of the outgoing governor, who had long thwarted the ambitions of Tepco to restart the plant. Tepco supplies about a third of Japan’s electricity.

When the race tightened, the election became a litmus test for nuclear safety and put Abe’s energy policy and Tepco’s handling of Fukushima back under the spotlight.

“The talk was of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, but I think the result will affect nuclear restarts across the country,” said Shigeaki Koga, a former trade and industry ministry official who is a critic of nuclear restarts and the Abe administration.

Koga said it will be important for Yoneyama to join forces with another newly elected governor skeptical of nuclear restarts, Satoshi Mitazono of Kagoshima Prefecture.

“Without strong support from others, it won’t be easy to take on Tepco,” he said.

The government wants to restart nuclear plants that pass safety checks while also promoting renewables and burning more coal and natural gas.

All of Japan’s reactors were eventually taken offline after Fukushima, but the Niigata plant’s troubles go back further.

Several reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa have been out of action since an earthquake in 2007 caused radiation leaks and fires in a disaster that prefigured the Fukushima calamity and Tepco’s bungled response.

Yoneyama, who has worked as a radiological researcher, said on the campaign trail that Tepco lacks the means to prevent Niigata children from getting thyroid cancer in a nuclear accident, as he said happened in Fukushima. He said the company did not have a solid evacuation plan.

The LDP’s Mori, meanwhile, was forced to tone down his support for restarting the plant as the race tightened, insisting safety was the top priority for Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, while promoting the use of natural gas and solar power in Niigata.

People affected by the Fukushima crisis welcomed the election result, while operators of nuclear power-related businesses expressed concern.

Some evacuees of the 2011 crisis, including a 57-year-old man living in temporary housing in the city of Fukushima, said they hope the voices of the anti-nuclear camp will be reflected in Yoneyama’s policies.

“I don’t want another nuclear plant accident ,” he said. “No nuclear plant should be restarted.”

Kotaro Nagai, 67, who operates a guest house in Kagoshima Prefecture, home to the Sendai nuclear plant, however, said the financial boon for hosting reactors is the key factor behind his support for restarts.

“There are many people who have benefited financially from nuclear power plants,” Nagai said. “A restart is a matter of life and death for us.”