NIIGATA – Residents of the town of Maki, Niigata Prefecture, made the right decision 20 years ago, according to Takaaki Sasaguchi.
The town was Japan’s first ever to hold a referendum over a plan to build a nuclear power plant and firmly knocked it down.
“I’m proud that we opened our future through the referendum,” the former town mayor, 68, said in an interview. “Our choice not to allow a nuclear plant to be built in our town was not wrong.”
Maki no longer exists as a discrete entity as it has since been absorbed into the city of Niigata.
But memories run strong of what people power achieved, and in light of the Fukushima disaster what it may have prevented.
In 1971, Tohoku Electric Power Co. unveiled plans to construct a nuclear plant in the town. The facility was to generate electricity from a central 825,000-kw reactor of boiling-water design.
But as land appropriation and other work got underway, opposition strengthened.
Sasaguchi and his colleagues set up a group aimed at holding a referendum so that residents could decide for themselves.
He was elected mayor in January 1996, and the Maki government then established a municipal ordinance for a referendum.
Referendum day was Aug. 4 that year, and 12,478 residents voted against the plan. Those in favor totaled 7,904.
Voter turnout was 88.29 percent in Japan’s first local referendum over a nuclear power station.
Following the result, Mayor Sasaguchi decided to reject the nuclear plant construction, and a plot of land that the town owned within the proposed site was sold off to residents who had opposed the plans.
Those in favor of the plant sued, but in December 2003 they lost the case and later that month Tohoku Electric threw in the towel.
Sasaguchi accuses Japan’s government of not encouraging respect for local voices back then.
A pro-nuclear push made it difficult for Maki residents to speak up.
“The most important thing in the referendum was that residents showed their intentions and made a choice,” Sasaguchi recalls.
The referendum result drew heavy media coverage, and the town was praised for choosing the democratic process.
Sasaguchi says it also brought the town together.
“I think Maki residents probably wanted to bring their town, which had been upset by the nuclear project, back to being a normal community,” he said.
The town was merged into the city of Niigata in 2005, and the referendum began to be forgotten.
However, the March 2011 nuclear crisis in neighboring Fukushima Prefecture reminded ex-Maki residents of the significance of their vote back in 2006.
They told Sasaguchi the same tragedy could have happened to them if they had allowed a nuclear plant to be built.
Meanwhile, Sasaguchi notes that Tokyo Electric Power Co. has filed for Nuclear Regulation Authority safety checks for two of the seven reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station in Niigata Prefecture.
“Even if the NRA endorses the safety, the issue of the nuclear waste disposal site remains unresolved,” he said.
The central government still has not identified a long-term disposal site for high-level waste.
“The Japanese government should put into force a policy that doesn’t depend on nuclear power plants as soon as possible,” he said.