National / Politics

Will resignation of key governor weaken Japan's anti-nuclear movement?

by Stephen Stapczynski

Bloomberg

A governor who has been blocking the restart of the world’s biggest nuclear power plant in his prefecture has resigned, but it remains to be seen whether the move will create an opening for the nation’s pro-nuclear forces.

Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama, who campaigned on his opposition to restarting Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holding Inc.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, said Wednesday he would resign over allegations he paid women for sex.

The governor was one of a few high-profile opponents to nuclear power, which the public has viewed with skepticism since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. He was also the biggest roadblock for Tepco’s effort to run reactors in his prefecture, two of which have been given the all-clear by regulators. Although the country has imposed stronger safety regulations since 2011, only five of its 39 operable reactors are online.

“Yoneyama was not a leader, but certainly an important figure in a position to influence the fate of reactors,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus. “Not many of those, so he will be missed.”

Yoneyama repeatedly said he wouldn’t support a restart until a panel of experts appointed by the prefecture investigate the Fukushima disaster and study evacuation plans in case of an emergency at Tepco’s Niigata plant. He said in January that the process would take at least three years.

When is the next election?

A vote is likely to be held around the beginning of June, according to an official at the prefecture’s election commission. The assembly president will officially inform the commission of Yoneyama’s resignation in the coming days, which will then trigger a gubernatorial election within 50 days.

Would the next governor also oppose restarts?

Probably. The last two governors were against restarting the reactors and 64 percent of voters in the last election opposed the move, according an exit poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun.

“It is likely that the next governor will continue an anti-restart policy,” wrote Daniel Aldrich, a professor at Northeastern University, in an email. “Anti-nuclear sentiment is still high across the country.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party supports the restarts, while most of the opposition parties don’t. Both sides will likely field candidates.

High-ranking officials from the Constitutional Democratic Party, the nation’s largest opposition party, which is also against nuclear restarts, and the Democratic Party told the Sankei Shimbun Wednesday that opposition parties should band together behind one candidate.

Tamio Mori, who was backed by the LDP in the 2016 Niigata election, could be a potential contender for Abe. Mori is the former mayor of Nagaoka City, and was seen as the more pro-nuclear candidate in the 2016 election when he captured 46 percent of the vote. He didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

What about the review panel?

This timeline for its work might speed up if the new governor is pro-restart, according to Miho Kurosaki, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“I don’t think the panel review will be removed fully,” said Kurosaki, highlighting lingering safety concerns in the community over a 2007 earthquake that temporarily shut the facility.

Does Tepco even need local approval?

While the local governor’s approval is traditionally sought by utilities before they resume operations at a reactor, it’s not required by law. Kyushu Electric Power Co. continued operating reactors at its Sendai facility despite opposition from a newly elected anti-nuclear governor in 2016.

“The ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that has provided some unwritten capacity to nuclear host community decision makers is in fact quite weak,” Aldrich said. “Even if another anti-nuclear governor is elected within Niigata, I believe that the economic and political pressure on utilities will push them to restart reactors.”

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