KAMINOSEKI, Japan—This small fishing village has become the next front in Japan's battle over nuclear power, with an anti-nuke protester threatening to oust the pro-nuke mayor in an election Sunday.
At stake: the fate of a long-planned reactor for which ground-breaking is supposed to take place next year.
More broadly, the defeat of a mayor whose economic development strategy has centered around a controversial power plant could fuel the country's increasingly influential anti-nuclear movement.
"What's often said is that we need nuclear-power money to run Kaminoseki," challenger Sadao Yamato, 61 years old, told a few dozen supporters as he formally kicked off his campaign Tuesday. Standing on a beer crate at his campaign office in front of the Murotsu port, he went on, "Should we sacrifice the precious livelihoods and lives of our villagers for money?"
Mr. Yamato's answer is clear. His election poster, which shows him posed in front of solar panels and wearing a white polo shirt, is captioned "Graduate from Nuclear Power!"James Simms/The Wall Street Journal Pro-nuclear Mayor Shigemi Kashiwabara, wearing a tie, versus anti-nuclear challenger Sadao Yamato, in a polo shirt in front of solar panels
Activists have been fighting Chugoku Electric Power Co.'s plan for a Kaminoseki plant since it was first broached in 1982, and all eight mayoral elections since then have been fought mainly over the issue. But all eight times, the pro-nuclear camp won.
This weekend's contest is the third between incumbent Shigemi Kashiwabara and a Yamato family member. Mr. Kashiwabara first took office in 2003 by besting Mr. Yamato, 59% to 41%. Four years ago, he beat Mr. Yamato's son, Takashi Yamato, 67% to 33%.
But that was before the March 11 Fukushima Daiichi accident eroded support for nuclear power all over the country. Polls show large majorities of the public want to curb Japan's dependence on atomic energy—and, at a minimum, halt construction of new reactors like the one planned in Kaminoseki. On Monday, tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Tokyo to demand an end to nuclear power in Japan.
With the national government feeble and divided, the future of nuclear power now is being shaped more in communities where reactors are located or planned. Of the reactors down for maintenance at the time of the accident or shut down since, just one, which was undergoing test operations in March, has restarted. The restart of the rest has been stymied by local opposition, amid community fears that without stricter safety controls, another Fukushima-style accident is possible.
Still, many long-struggling towns continue to see the atom as crucial for economic development. In the first local post-Fukushima election to center around nuclear energy, a governor who strongly backs building a reactor handily won re-election in June in impoverished northern Aomori prefecture.
Kaminoseki's mayoral election is the second such test. The community was once strongly pro-nuclear, but local newspapers say the race appears closer this time.
In Kaminoseki, as in Aomori, the financial incentives are great, because of declining and aging populations and shrinking local economies and tax bases—issues that much of rural Japan faces.
Since the nuclear project was first proposed some three decades ago, the population has halved, to just 3,534, and the proportion of those age 65 or more has jumped to nearly half from a fifth. Because of the planned reactors, nuclear-related funding sources provide almost one-fourth of the village's nearly $60 million budget now, and Chugoku Electric has donated $32 million to village coffers since 2007.
A billboard on the island where the reactor is planned shows a couple and their baby having a picnic, the proposed twin reactors in the background. Set up by promoters of the plant, it reads, "A Vibrant Village With Nuclear Electricity."James Simms/The Wall Street Journal Pro-plant billboard reads 'A Vibrant Village With Nuclear Electricity.'
Tsutomu Asami heads the Kaminoseki commerce and industrial cooperative, and owns a fish wholesaler. He said the local economy has been hurt by a lack of work for younger people, fewer people to take over fishing jobs and a drop in the catches of prized fish like snapper and flounder. "Nuclear power is the only option," he said.
Chugoku Electric, after three decades of struggle to clear political and legal hurdles, finally appeared close to breaking ground for the plant before the Fukushima Daiichi accident. The utility began full-time work at the site on Feb. 21, when a Yamaguchi District Court issued an order preventing demonstrators from interfering with the project. But protesters continued working to block construction, converging on the site from land and sea.
Little progress had been made by March 11, when the tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Five days later, the governor of Yamaguchi prefecture asked the utility to suspend site-preparation work. But Chugoku Electric says it plans to go forward with construction, a resolve the utility's president repeated at a news conference just last Friday.
A supportive mayor is crucial for those plans.
Mayor Kashiwabara, 62, hasn't revoked his backing for the reactor. But he does appear to be playing it down in his campaign. His official poster, showing him in a dark suit, carries the slogan "Connecting to the Future"—but no mention of nuclear energy.
In one of his opening rallies, speaking to several dozen supporters, Mr. Kashiwabara didn't argue for or against the plant, saying the decision ultimately rests with the national government in Tokyo. He seemed to suggest that if the plug does get pulled, the community should get compensation.
"The main thing is that I want the government to acknowledge the 30 years of anguish" villagers have suffered over the nuclear issue, Mr. Kashiwabara said.—Chester Dawson
contributed to this article.