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SNA (Tokyo) — The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) may have breathed a sigh of relief when its fierce critic, Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida, abruptly announced last August that he would withdraw his bid for a fourth term in office. Governor Izumida had for several years frustrated TEPCO’s efforts to restart the massive Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant. Now, however, newly-elected Governor Ryuichi Yoneyama has simply replaced Izumida as TEPCO’s Niigata nemesis.

Meeting with TEPCO President Naomi Hirose and Chairman Fumio Sudo at the Niigata Prefectural Office yesterday, Governor Yoneyama declared that, he expects “it will take several years” before he would be prepared to authorize the restart of any nuclear reactors at the plant; and that he furthermore wanted to see comprehensive studies about the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster as well as evacuation plans for residents in the event of future trouble at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa.

This was certainly not the message that the TEPCO executives had wanted to hear. They have been paying the salaries of more than 6,000 workers to run the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, even as it produces no energy and thus no income for the utility. With no less than seven reactors, it is the world’s largest nuclear power complex.

But Kashiwazaki-Kariwa has faced a series of difficulties over the past decade. First, in July 2007, the Niigata Earthquake led to an accident that forced the plant to suspend its energy production for about 21 months. Then, two years after it finally resumed operations, the nation was hit by the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The reactors have been idle since that time.

There is some political support within Niigata Prefecture to resume operations of the plant. In a pattern seen in other parts of Japan, the local communities in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear facility tend to advocate a restart, while those municipalities somewhat more distant (which cannot expect generous subsidies and lucrative employment opportunities) tend to be opposed.

Thus the anti-nuclear Ryuichi Yoneyama won October’s Niigata gubernatorial race, while a pro-nuclear candidate, Masahiro Sakurai, won the Kashiwazaki mayoral race one month later.

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