National

2017 gubernatorial elections may pose snag to Abe's reactor restart quest

by Stephen Stapczynski

Bloomberg

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ambition to restart the country’s fleet of nuclear reactors may face further challenges from regional elections.

The victory of an anti-nuclear gubernatorial candidate in Niigata on Sunday, following a similar win in Kagoshima earlier this year, is complicating the efforts of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to revive Japan’s reactors. There will be at least three such elections next year in areas where utilities are vying to restart reactors.

“Even as the Abe administration remains committed to including nuclear power as part of Japan’s energy mix, implementing this vision will require overcoming ever-more-dogged resistance from local communities and their representatives,” Tobias Harris, a vice president with Teneo Intelligence in the District of Columbia, said in a note Monday. “The restart process will continue to proceed unevenly at best.”

Almost all the country’s reactors remain shut down because of new safety regulations and public opposition following the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns. Only two of Japan’s 42 operable reactors were producing power commercially as of Oct. 6, when Kyushu Electric Power Co. shut its Sendai reactor No. 1 for maintenance.

The Sendai reactor’s return to service may be delayed due to the recently elected Kagoshima governor’s strong opposition to its operation. Local government approval — including endorsement from the governor — is traditionally sought by Japanese utilities before returning nuclear plants to service.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. shares fell the most in almost four months on Monday after Ryuichi Yoneyama was elected governor of Niigata over the weekend. Yoneyama will not support restarting the prefecture’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant without a deeper review of the Fukushima meltdowns and Niigata’s current evacuation measures.

Elections will be watched closely as the support of regional governments is crucial to getting more nuclear reactors back online, according to Syusaku Nishikawa, an analyst at Daiwa Securities Co. About 57 percent of the public oppose restarts, according to an Asahi newspaper poll earlier this month. Lawsuits have also threatened reactor operations.

Public opposition and the slow pace of restarting reactors will be a challenge to Abe’s goal of having nuclear power provide at least 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030, Harris said.

Gubernatorial races are held within about 30 days of when the current term ends, which will happen in 2017 in Shizuoka, Miyagi and Ibaraki prefectures, according to the local-government websites and data compiled by Bloomberg.

Shizuoka Prefecture hosts the Hamaoka nuclear plant, Chubu Electric Power Co.’s only nuclear power plant, where two reactors are under review by the nation’s regulator. The current governor, Heita Kawakatsu, said Monday the issue of reactor restarts should be thoroughly debated during the election, according to the Chunichi newspaper. He said in May the prefecture should hold a public referendum on whether the reactors can be restarted, the Mainichi newspaper reported.

While an exact date for the election hasn’t been decided, it will likely occur as early as June, according to the prefecture’s administrative office. Chubu Electric declined comment on next year’s gubernatorial race and the current governor’s stance. The governor’s office wasn’t immediately available to comment.

In Miyagi Prefecture, Tohoku Electric Power Co. asked the national nuclear regulator to review the safety of reactor No. 2 at its Onagawa nuclear plant in 2013. Yoshihiro Murai, governor of the prefecture since 2005 and not affiliated with any party, will not take a position on the restart until after the review, according to an official from the prefecture’s nuclear safety policy division. Tohoku Electric declined comment.

Ibaraki Prefecture is in a similar position as Miyagi.

Japan Atomic Power Co. asked for a federal safety review in 2014 of its Tokai reactor No. 2. Politically independent Masaru Hashimoto, governor since 1993, said in an NHK interview earlier this year that he will make a decision on the restart after the review is complete. Japan Atomic Power declined comment. The governor’s office wasn’t immediately available to comment.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5