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Niigata governor's election threatens restart

October 17, 2016

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.”

Upset in Niigata pushing LDP to review nuclear energy policy


October 17, 2016 at 14:45 JST




An opposition-backed candidate’s victory in the Niigata gubernatorial election threw the Abe administration into a state of shock over the possible consequences to its nuclear energy policy and its standing on the national level.

Niigata Governor-elect Ryuichi Yoneyama has taken a cautious stance on restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in the prefecture, the key issue in the gubernatorial election north of Tokyo.

The ruling coalition parties of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito thought they had a sure winner in Tamio Mori, a former Nagaoka mayor, before the official campaign period started.

But the voters’ rejection of the coalition-backed candidate means the Abe administration will have to review its energy policy.

“Our side lost in an election in which the opposition parties took an anti-nuclear stance,” a senior government official said. “That will naturally have an effect on the central government’s energy policy.”

The defeat of Mori, however, could have repercussions beyond just energy policy.

“There will be an effect on national politics in general, above and beyond nuclear energy policy, because this will give the opposition parties additional momentum,” a high-ranking LDP official said on Oct. 16.

The ruling coalition and proponents of nuclear power saw a great opportunity when Hirohiko Izumida, who had long opposed restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, announced he would not run for re-election.

After Yoneyama entered the race and said he would continue the cautious stance taken by Izumida, LDP executives went to Niigata to campaign on behalf of Mori.

After such efforts by the ruling party failed, one pro-nuclear energy LDP official said about restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, “We will have to take a wait-and-see approach for the time being.”

Yoneyama’s victory also throws a monkey wrench into plans of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to help Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, to return to a more stable corporate footing.

TEPCO has been hampered by the huge costs associated with cleaning up after the 2011 disaster at its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Economy ministry officials had preconditioned their TEPCO rehabilitation plan on a resumption of operations at some of the seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.

Although a prefectural governor does not have the legal authority to order utilities to start or suspend operations at a nuclear plant, the common practice until now has been for utilities to obtain the consent of the local government before resuming operations.

With Yoneyama having clearly stated his reluctance toward such a resumption, TEPCO faces a much higher hurdle in its attempt to reboot the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.

“We will persistently try to gain the understanding of the new governor, but it might be difficult to resume operations over the next four years,” a high-ranking economy ministry official said.

Nuclear foe Ryuichi Yoneyama elected Niigata governor, threatening Tepco reactor restarts



Kyodo, Reuters


An anti-nuclear candidate was elected governor of Niigata on Sunday, dealing a potential blow to Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s attempts to restart the world’s biggest nuclear power station.

The winner, Ryuichi Yoneyama, 49, is a doctor and lawyer who has never held office and was backed mostly by left-wing parties.

The campaign was dominated by concerns over the future of the massive Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power station and nuclear safety more than five years after the Fukushima crisis.

Yoneyama defeated former Nagaoka Mayor Tamio Mori, 67, who was backed by the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party.

Yoneyama gathered more than 528,000 votes, about 60,000 more than Mori. Voter turnout was 53.05 percent, up significantly from the 43.95 percent in the previous gubernatorial election in 2012.

“It’s really regrettable. We will take the judgment of voters very seriously,” said Keiji Furuya, a Lower House member who served as head of Mori’s campaign office.

Yoneyama promised to continue the policy of the departing governor, who had long thwarted Tepco’s ambitions to restart the plant.

Reviving the seven-reactor giant, with capacity of 8 gigawatts, is key to saving the utility, which was battered by the Fukushima catastrophe of March 2011 and then the repeated admissions of coverups and safety lapses.

Tepco is vital to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s energy policy, which relies on rebooting more of the reactors that once provided about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity needs.


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