The man blocking the world’s largest nuclear plant says he grew opposed to atomic energy the same way some people fall in love.
Previously an advocate for nuclear power in Japan, Ryuichi Yoneyama campaigned against the restart of the facility as part of his successful gubernatorial race last year in Niigata. He attributes his political U-turn to the “unresolved” 2011 Fukushima Dai-Ichi disaster and the lack of preparedness at the larger facility in his own prefecture, both owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc.
“Changing my opinion wasn’t an instant realization,” Yoneyama said in an interview. “It was gradual. As people say, you don’t know the exact moment you’ve fallen in love.”
Yoneyama won’t support the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata until an investigation is complete into the chain of events that resulted in the triple meltdown at Fukushima, which he plans to visit Wednesday.
While utilities don’t need approval of local authorities to restart plants, Japanese power companies are tradition-bound not to move ahead until they get their consent.
Yoneyama, a 49-year-old doctor and native of Niigata, is one of the highest-profile local opponents pitted against a political establishment led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which sees nuclear power as crucial for the country’s long-term energy security and environmental goals. Regulations and public opinion are keeping nearly all of Japan’s atomic stations shut almost six years after the accident at Fukushima, where the search has barely begun for fuel that burned through to the bottom of the reactors.
“If the local governor remains firmly opposed to the restart, it will be very difficult for the reactors to come back online,” said James Taverner, an analyst at IHS Markit Ltd. “In addition to the local government, building the support and trust of local residents is key.”
A Kyodo News poll on the day of Yoneyama’s October election showed about 64 percent of Niigata voters opposed the restart of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, known popularly as KK.