The crippled No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant

March 4, 2023

Several mayors of the three prefectures hardest hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami showed a reluctance to voice an opinion about the government’s return to a reliance on nuclear power. 

The recent Asahi Shimbun poll showed the sensitivity of the issue particularly in areas that still have not completely recovered from the twin disasters.

In December, the government made a dramatic shift in nuclear energy policy that would allow for construction of new reactors and the extension of the operating life of those already built.

The Asahi Shimbun polled mayors of 37 municipalities along the Pacific coast in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures along with five others in Fukushima where evacuation orders were issued following the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

In addition, mayors of three municipalities lying within a 30-kilometer radius of the Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture were also asked their views.

Of the 45 mayors, 19 were somewhat or totally opposed to a reversion to nuclear energy, while 14 were somewhat or totally in favor.

But the mayors of six municipalities that either host the Fukushima No. 1 plant or are in close proximity to the plant did not take a clear stand on any of the questions in the survey.

When the mayors were contacted individually, many said with so many residents still living as evacuees away from their municipalities, expressing a clear opinion on nuclear energy would only further divide those with differing views.

One mayor had in the past voiced clear stands on the central government’s reconstruction policy, but that led to letters sent to the municipal government criticizing those comments.

“I always feel internal turmoil about whether criticism directed at me and the municipal government will also not be turned on the evacuees” who live in various parts of Japan, the mayor said. 

Another mayor said, “I do not want residents to feel troubled by my comments about the central government’s nuclear energy policy.”

With part of the municipality still designated a “difficult-to-return zone” and the population and infrastructure nowhere close to the levels before the disasters, the mayor said, “Now is the time to put every effort into reconstruction.”

The mayor said taking a clear stand on nuclear energy issues might create division among local residents.

Toshiyuki Kanai, a professor of local public administration at the University of Tokyo, said it was understandable why the mayors were reluctant to take a clear stand because municipalities had to seek the cooperation of the central government for their reconstruction efforts.

“It is important that effects on local governments in such policy areas as reconstruction do not arise because of their opposition to nuclear energy policy,” Kanai said.

Eight Fukushima mayors did say they were either somewhat or totally opposed to returning to a reliance on nuclear energy.

The only Fukushima mayor who was somewhat in favor of nuclear energy was Ikuo Yamamoto of Tomioka.

But in response to questions from The Asahi Shimbun, Yamamoto recalled the difficulties he faced with discussions about a final storage site for low-level radioactive waste from the Fukushima nuclear accident. 

“In my heart, I am opposed,” he said. 

But Yamamoto added that in general terms he understood that nuclear energy was effective in preventing global warming and was also instrumental at a time when fuel prices for thermal power generation were surging.

The mayors were also asked if they thought the Kishida administration had done an adequate job of explaining to the public why a move back toward nuclear energy was needed.

Thirty-one mayors said they felt either somewhat or totally negative about the government’s efforts. Even nine mayors who favored reverting back to nuclear energy felt the Kishida administration had done a poor job of explaining the reason for doing so.

(This article was written by Wataru Netsu, Shoko Rikimaru, Keitaro Fukuchi and Takemichi Nishibori.)