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.
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.
The government and utilities spent an estimated $2 billion last year to promote nuclear power. And for first time in more than 13 years, subsidies were raised for areas where plants are located.
``If we can complete the nuclear cycle, then uranium can be our energy source 2,000 years from now,'' says Kazuhisa More, executive managing director of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., a body representing the industry.
``There will be no scrapping of the recycling project,'' he says flatly.
Indeed, electric utilities and Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are going all out to ensure that Kanazawa does not win and trigger a wide political trend. His candidacy has turned a simple governor's race into a virtual referendum on Japan's energy future.
Thousands of electric utility employees have been marshaled to canvas for pro-nuke votes. Every home has been called by telephone at least four to six times in recent weeks by the employees. More than 100 residents have been flown to France to see a nuclear recycling facility there.
The LDP's most-powerful politicians have come to Aomori in order to wield the party's immense pork-barrel power. Large institutions, such as farmers' cooperatives and construction firms, have been warned to have their employees vote for the incumbent governor, or risk losing government funding.
``A huge amount of money is being spent by utilities to help us win,'' says Yoshiaki Fukushi, secretary-general of the governor's campaign. The LDP also promises Aomori, which is Japan's second-poorest prefecture, that it will soon get a $36 million extension of the prestigious bullet-train. Thousands of jobs are promised in the nuclear facilities. The area around Rokkasho has been promised $280 million in public works projects.
Pro-nuclear billboards and signs have dotted Aomori farm fields. The election is so intense that infractions of campaign rules, including libelous letters against candidates, have increased ten-fold compared to the last governor's race.
ONE wild-card in the election is a third candidate, Tatsuo Yamazaki, who has represented Aomori for 23 years in Japan's upper house. His position is to ``freeze'' the nuclear project until a public consensus is reached about its safety.
``It's impossible to stop this project since so much has already been invested in it,'' says Nobuo Takezawa, a Yamazaki aide.
``People are asking why Aomori was chosen,'' he says. ``They say that if nuclear recycling is so safe, why not put it in the Emperor's palace in Tokyo?''
The campaign tactics by the LDP and electric utilities have divided the people of Rokkasho, whose mayor has switched his position to support the project.
Kingo Koizumi, an outspoken antinuclear activist, who lives a couple miles from the proposed site, has little hope that the project can be stopped.
Mr. Koizumi, a rice farmer, points to his former elementary school, which is now a fenced-off office building.
``The Federation of Electric Utilities has taken it over,'' he says. ``That's democracy in Japan.''