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Vote Tests Japan's Nuclear Policy

Political newcomer vows to halt plans to construct an unpopular nuclear plant

By Clayton JonesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 1991


A PIVOTAL local election on Feb. 3 will boost or bury the high hopes of the Japanese government for a heavier reliance on nuclear energy. It will also affect a remote one-stoplight village, Rokkasho, where mossy thatch still covers many rooftops and split wood still heats many houses.

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This poor seaside hamlet of about 8,000 people in northern Japan is a focus of the election because it has been chosen as the site for recycling all the spent uranium fuel and for storing all the toxic wastes from Japan's nuclear power plants. The ambitious project would complete a nuclear energy system and end Japan's dependency on imported uranium, mainly from the United States.

Opponents, however, hope to bury the scheme by electing an antinuclear candidate, a lawyer named Shigeru Kanazawa, as governor of Aomori, the prefecture that includes Rokkasho.

``This is our last chance to stop these projects,'' says an antinuclear activist during the spirited campaign in Aomori.

Polls show a majority of Aomori's 1.1 million voters opposed to the facilities, although these voters are not guaranteed to vote for Mr. Kanazawa, a political unknown. Rather, Masaya Kitamura, the incumbent and pro-nuclear governor, appears to be ahead, after trailing early on.

If Kanazawa does win, however, he plans to halt Japan's largest public works project by pulling the prefecture out of a pact with the Federation of Electric Power Companies.

The recycling project, which is slated to start next year and to open in 1995, still awaits government approval. Construction of the waste storage facility was approved last November. A uranium enrichment plant is already operating in Rokkasho.

``Who will buy our apples and scallops, knowing that Aomori is a nuclear dump site?'' candidate Kanazawa warns farmers and fishermen in this mainly food-producing area.

Stopping the project would hinder plans for nuclear power to generate 43 percent of Japan's electricity by the year 2010, up from the present 27 percent. And limiting nuclear power would not help lessen Japan's dependency on oil imports, which are mainly from the Middle East.

Resource-poor Japan puts such a large stake on achieving nuclear self-sufficiency that it is one of only a few nations since the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy to be still actively planning and building new plants, despite a serious erosion of public support.

A government opinion poll in December revealed that more than 90 percent of Japanese are worried about nuclear safety, with less than half favoring an increase in reliance on nuclear power. Only a little over 10 percent believe government statements on nuclear issues.

``Since Chernobyl,'' says Hideaki Tsuzuku, deputy director of policy research in the Atomic Energy Commission, ``people who were once indifferent now have strong feelings.''

The increasing opposition to nuclear power has helped to triple the average time to complete a plant to 27 years. Despite that, 12 plants are under construction, three are in planning, with 40 already in operation.