Japan's nuclear power industry suffered a historic defeat yesterday when one of the country's biggest utilities was forced to scrap plans for a power plant that it has been trying to build for 37 years.
The stunning setback -- less than six months after the country's worst nuclear accident -- underlines the growing hostility to atomic energy in Japan and raises questions about the government's ambitious atomic energy programme.
The plan to construct two 1,300 megawatt reactors in Ashihama, a scenic coastal area in Mie prefecture, central Japan, has been the subject of a prolonged and bitter confrontation since 1963, when it was first proposed by Chubu Electric Power Company.
The prefecture's governor, Masayasu Kitagawa, broke the stalemate yesterday by becoming the first politician of his rank to order the abandonment of a nuclear project.
"The plan has neither the support nor the cooperation of local residents," he told an assembly of local politicians. "It should go back to the drawing board." Within hours, Chubu Electric announced that it would start looking for an alternative site.
The decision has sent shock waves through Japan's nuclear industry, as prefectural governors have tended to side with the powerful utilities which bring jobs and tax revenue, rather than residents.
Public opinion has grown more hostile, however, as a result of a series of high-profile accidents and cover-ups in recent years. In a sign of the changing climate, anti-nuclear campaigners have been elected mayors in some towns and four years ago, the community of Maki in northern Japan rejected plans for a nuclear plant in a referendum.
Mr Kitagawa said his decision was prompted by the growing concerns about nuclear safety in the wake of the uncontrolled nuclear fission at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura last September.
One man died and more than 400 people were exposed to radiation following the accident, which occurred when plant workers mixed seven times the safe amount of uranium in a bucket. It has since emerged that they were following an illegal manual and that the plant was rarely inspected by the authorities.
"People's worries and disbelief in nuclear power reached a previously unknown intensity after the Tokaimura accident," Mr Kitagawa said.
The reputation of the industry has also been damaged by revelations that workers at British Nuclear Fuels fabricated safety data on shipments of recycled fuel sent to Japan.
The Mie governor's move comes at a sensitive time for the government, which is in the midst of a five-yearly re view of Japan's nuclear policy.
A country with almost no natural energy resources, Japan relies on atomic power to supply 30% of its electricity and it wants to increase this amount by building 20 new plants by 2010. Even before yesterday's decision - which means at the very least a delay for one of those facilities - bureaucrats were debating whether to lower the target because of the increasing hostility to nuclear power.
Parliament is also expected to begin a debate early next month on where to site a new storage site for high-level radioactive waste. In the current climate, few prefectures are likely to be willing to accept such a facility.
Anti-nuclear campaigners welcomed yesterday's decision. "After a 37-year fight by the people of this area, we have finally won a victory," said Yoichi Shibahara, a resident near Ashihama. "After this decision, it will be impossible for nuclear plants to be built against the wishes of local people anywhere in Japan."
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