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Friday, April 11, 2003

GUBERNATORIAL ELECTION '03

PRO, CON OR PLEBISCITE

Fukui race boils down to reactor factor


Last in a series Staff writer TAKAHAMA, Fukui Pref. -- Like many of her fellow shopkeepers in this small town along the Sea of Japan coast, Tomoko Kurahashi is ambivalent about the candidates for Fukui governor.

News photo
A candidate running for governor of Fukui campaigns door-to-door in the city of Takahama. A key issue in the race is the future of nuclear power in the prefecture.

"They all tell us that the safety of the nuclear power industry is of paramount importance, even though they have different views on whether or not the plants are necessary," said the 62-year-old at her dry goods store in national Takahama. "But none of them has said what they would do to get the local economy moving again -- with, or without, nuclear power plants."

Home to 15 of the nation's 51 nuclear plants, the future of atomic power in the prefecture is the main theme of the April 13 election. Observers ponder how Fukui's policy toward nuclear energy might change with the retirement of Gov. Yukio Kurita, who basically supported nuclear power but came to harbor serious safety concerns after various accidents and scandals.

His successor will have to deal not only with local residents either outright opposed to or at least extremely wary of nuclear power, but also pressure from both the national government and Kansai Electric Power Co. to continue to support Japan's nuclear energy program.

The Monju fast-breeder reactor, located in the town of Tsuruga, may be one of the most symbolic fixtures in the debate over nuclear power in Fukui.

The prototype reactor, designed to burn plutonium fuel, has been shut down since 1995 after a sodium leak, an ensuing fire and attempted damage coverup.

The three men running for governor -- Vice Gov. Issei Nishikawa, Bundo Takagi, a former Foreign Ministry diplomat, and Tomoichiro Yamakawa, a local businessman -- each have different views regarding nuclear power.

Although all are officially running as independents, Nishikawa has many backers at the Liberal Democratic Party's national headquarters, as well as the party's local chapter. Takagi for his part enjoys the support of nonaligned voters and Yamakawa is receiving some volunteer support from members of the Japanese Communist Party.

Nishikawa supports nuclear power in principle but says he does not want to see any more reactors built. He also says that in the case of Monju, the prefecture should make judgments independently of the national government regarding safety matters.

"The prefecture will judge for itself whether Monju is safe after taking into account both the national government's policy of support for Monju, as well as the recent Nagoya High Court ruling that the plant's safety checks were not conducted properly," he said.

He is also promising that the prefecture will respond to requests by Kepco to burn mixed plutonium-uranium (MOX) fuel in its Fukui reactors only after public trust in the safety of the so-called pluthermal power program has been assured.

That trust was greatly damaged after a shipment of MOX fuel from Britain was sent back last year after it was learned in 1999 that quality control data related to the fuel had been falsified by the British manufacturer.

Midway into the race, Nishikawa was considered by local media to be the front-runner. His main opponent is Takagi, who is campaigning on a reform platform. Takagi said that as far as nuclear power goes, plebiscites should be held.

"I do not approve of plans to build more reactors, while I believe the issue of whether to restart Monju should be decided by a plebiscite," he said. "As for the pluthermal project, I think we should hold a plebiscite within the next two years, and submit its results to the national government."

Yamakawa is the candidate most vocally opposed to nuclear power.

"It's nearly impossible to guarantee Monju's safety, so I would oppose attempts to restart it," he said. "In addition, the pluthermal program itself is flawed and should be stopped."

Yet the question asked by shopkeeper Kurahashi and other voters remains: How can the local economy be revived, regardless of whether nuclear plants are present?

The prefectural government estimates that more than 11,000 people are directly employed at the 15 nuclear plants, either as workers or as maintenance and support staff. This does not include those who work in the services sector and rely on the nuclear power industry for much of their income.

"Although no official figures are available, perhaps 25 percent of workers in Tsuruga owe their living directly or indirectly to the nuclear power industry," said Katsuji Noto, a campaign official for Yamakawa. Besides Fugen and Monju, Tsuruga is home to two other reactors that burn uranium.

Nishikawa believes overall economic growth and revitalization, including attracting outside investment, can be achieved with the nuclear power industry present.

On the other hand, Yamakawa argues that the presence of so many nuclear plants is the reason why the prefecture has problems attracting both domestic and foreign investment.

Takagi opposes long-term reliance on nuclear power, saying Fukui's economic future lies in reducing its dependence on the nuclear power industry. He is pledging to create an international research center in Fukui within four years to explore nonnuclear alternative energy sources.

Fukui voters are thus heading to the polls unsure of both the physical safety of having nuclear reactors in their midst and their economic security without them.

But as Kurihara notes, voters' proximity to nuclear plants may determine the election's outcome.

"Most nuclear power plants are located in the southern part of the prefecture, so people there are more concerned about nuclear power," she observed.

"People in the northern part of the prefecture, especially in the city of Fukui, are less inclined to think about what it means to have a nuclear power plant in their backyard. This is likely to be reflected in which cities and towns vote for which candidates."



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