| TOKYO, July 25
TOKYO, July 25 Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko
Noda's post-Fukushima nuclear energy policy will be on trial in
a local governor's election on Sunday, where an upset victory by
a renewable energy candidate would deal Noda's wobbly
administration a new blow.
Energy policy has become a big headache for Noda, who is
battling to hold his Democratic Party (DPJ) together ahead of a
possible parliamentary election this year.
The prime minister has already suffered a series of
defections over his approval of reactor restarts despite safety
concerns after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, as well as his plans
to double the sales tax.
The DPJ's fracturing coincides with mounting voter
opposition to nuclear power, with some 100,000 people rallying
against the re actor restarts i n Tokyo on July 16.
Now Tetsunari Iida, a well-known proponent of renewable
energy as an alternative to nuclear, is running for governor of
the western conservative stronghold of Yamaguchi prefecture. An
Iida victory or close finish would add to Noda's woes.
"People are angry about conservative politics, so I am
stressing a change to people-oriented politics and am getting
more support," Iida told Reuters by phone from Yamaguchi.
The local poll result could influence a government decision
on its medium-term energy mix programme and provide clues to the
political fate of the faltering DPJ, its main rival Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP) and "third force" challengers who are
already positioning themselves for the next national election.
A vote for Japan's powerful lower house of parliament must
be held by September 2013 and could be called sooner.
"If Yamaguchi goes against the 'nuclear village' and votes
for a green candidate, it would certainly put a lot of wind in
the sails of the anti-nuclear movement," said Jeffrey Kingston,
director of Asia studies at Temple University's Japan campus,
referring to the powerful nexus of atomic industry interests.
"A lot of politicians are very scared about the election
because there is really deep anger at the two main parties.
There is a lot of frustration and people are ready for change."
Demonstrations outside Noda's office in Tokyo protesting the
resumption of operations at two Kansai Electric Power Co
reactors in western Japan have grown week by week.
Multiple probes into the March 11, 2011 nuclear crisis, in
which a huge quake-induced tsunami devastated the Fukushima
plant, causing meltdowns and forcing mass evacuations, have
underscored the failure by authorities and utilities to adopt
strict safety steps or plan how to cope when disaster struck.
Noda is set to decide a new medium-term energy portfolio
plan next month. Experts have proposed three options: zero
nuclear power as soon as possible, a 15 percent atomic share of
electricity by 2030, or 20-25 percent by the same date compared
to almost 30 percent before the Fukushima disaster.
TEN PERCENT SOLUTION?
Under pressure from businesses worried about stable
electricity supply, Noda has been thought to be leaning toward
15 percent, which would require all of Japan's 50 reactors to
resume operations before gradually closing older units.
The growing anti-nuclear movement, however, may make that
choice difficult -- and it would be even harder if Iida wins in
Yamaguchi, said Hiroshi Takahashi, a Fujitsu Research Institute
fellow and member of government advisory panels on energy.
"I predict that the Noda government will choose a 10 percent
scenario," Takahashi said. "He really needs to show that he has
made some kind of compromise."
Iida, 53, wants Japan to exit atomic power by 2020 and is
promising to revitalise the economy of the rural prefecture with
renewable energy projects.
Until recently an adviser to popular Osaka Mayor Toru
Hashimoto, Iida also opposes Chugoku Electric Power Co's
plan to build a nuclear plant in the town of Kaminoseki
and the restarts of other reactors in nearby prefectures.
Iida's main rival is a former transport ministry official,
Shigetaru Yamamoto, who is backed by the conservative opposition
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Also running are Tsutomu
Takamura, a former Democratic Party lawmaker lacking his party's
full support, and a former local official, Shigeyuki Miwa.
Yamamoto was once seen as unbeatable but domestic media say
he has grown cautious about the Kaminoseki nuclear project and
is now touting the need for Japan to reduce dependence on atomic
energy. Locals, however, still identify him as pro-nuclear.
Analysts at first gave Iida little chance of victory and
point out his narrow expertise may worry local voters. But he
appears to have gained support from deepening doubts about
nuclear power, as well as growing opposition to the arrival on
Monday of U.S. Osprey military hybrid helicopter-planes with a
troubled safety record at a U.S. Marine base in the prefecture.
"There is no doubt that Yamamoto is ahead," said Takashi
Yamato, whose father ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Kaminoseki
on an anti-nuclear platform last year. "The situation is tough
... but my impression is Iida's support is spreading."
(Editing by Michael Perry)