Japan Says It Needs Nuclear Power. Can Host Towns Ever Trust It Again?

“I was honestly very afraid,” she said.

Business leaders and workers whose livelihoods depend on the plant warn that if it does not come back online, the area will deteriorate, like many rural Japanese communities that are experiencing steep population decline. Currently about 5,500 people are working to maintain the idled plant, although employment would be likely to grow if it reopened.

Many local residents work in the plant or know friends and family who do. “I think that there are more people who understand the necessity of the plant,” said Masaaki Komuro, chief executive of Niigata Kankyo Service, a maintenance contractor at the facility.

Public polling presents a muddier picture. According to a 2020 survey by the city of Kashiwazaki, close to 20 percent of residents want to decommission the plant immediately. About 40 percent would accept the temporary operation of some reactors, but ultimately want the plant shut down. Just over half of prefectural residents oppose a nuclear restart, according to a 2021 survey by Niigata Nippo, a local newspaper.

The public wariness will be tested in an election for governor this month in Niigata Prefecture. The current governor, Hideyo Hanazumi, 63, is backed by the governing Liberal Democrats but has remained vague about his restart intentions. His challenger, Naomi Katagiri, a 72-year-old architect, promises to block the resumption of operations in Kashiwazaki and Kariwa.

The stakes are high because an unwritten government policy requires local political leaders to ratify nuclear reboots. Kariwa’s mayor, Hiroo Shinada, 65, is a vociferous proponent, while the mayor of Kashiwazaki, Masahiro Sakurai, 60, is investing in wind power but would support the temporary operation of some reactors.

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