By Motoko rich and Hikari Hida
KASHIWAZAKI, Japan — Growing up, Mika Kasahara saw the nuclear power plant that hugs the coast of her hometown simply as the place where her father worked, a familiar fortress of cooling tanks and steel lightning towers overlooking the Sea of Japan.
“We thought that as long as nothing bad happened, it’s fine,” Ms. Kasahara, 45, said.
After the disaster 11 years ago at a nuclear power station in Fukushima, where an earthquake and tsunami led to a triple meltdown, Japan took most of its nuclear plants offline. Now, Ms. Kasahara, spooked by security breaches and damaged infrastructure at the power station near her home, wants it shuttered for good.
Ms. Kasahara symbolizes the long road Japan faces as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, confronting threats to fuel supplies posed by the Ukraine war and vowing urgent action to reduce carbon emissions, intensifies efforts to reboot the country’s nuclear power network.
For the first time since the Fukushima catastrophe, a small majority of the Japanese public has expressed support for bringing the plants back online, indicating a growing awareness that the world’s third-largest economy may struggle to keep the lights on as it confronts its own limited resources during a time of geopolitical upheaval.
When Ms. Kasahara’s father died of esophagus and lung cancer three years ago, she wondered if his two decades inside the plant had been a factor. A traffic jam during an evacuation drill left her fearing that she and her family would be trapped by a nuclear accident.
“I was honestly very afraid,” she said.
Business leaders and workers whose livelihoods depend on the plant warn that if it does not come back online, the area will deteriorate, like many rural Japanese communities that are experiencing steep population decline. Currently about 5,500 people are working to maintain the idled plant, although employment would be likely to grow if it reopened.
Many local residents work in the plant or know friends and family who do. “I think that there are more people who understand the necessity of the plant,” said Masaaki Komuro, chief executive of Niigata Kankyo Service, a maintenance contractor at the facility.
Public polling presents a muddier picture. According to a 2020 survey by the city of Kashiwazaki, close to 20 percent of residents want to decommission the plant immediately. About 40 percent would accept the temporary operation of some reactors, but ultimately want the plant shut down. Just over half of prefectural residents oppose a nuclear restart, according to a 2021 survey by Niigata Nippo, a local newspaper.
The public wariness will be tested in an election for governor this month in Niigata Prefecture. The current governor, Hideyo Hanazumi, 63, is backed by the governing Liberal Democrats but has remained vague about his restart intentions. His challenger, Naomi Katagiri, a 72-year-old architect, promises to block the resumption of operations in Kashiwazaki and Kariwa.
The stakes are high because an unwritten government policy requires local political leaders to ratify nuclear reboots. Kariwa’s mayor, Hiroo Shinada, 65, is a vociferous proponent, while the mayor of Kashiwazaki, Masahiro Sakurai, 60, is investing in wind power but would support the temporary operation of some reactors.
Out of 60 reactors in Japan, 24 have been decommissioned and five are currently operating. Another five have been approved to restart but are suspended for routine checkups, and three are under construction. The rest have not been approved to restart.
Nuclear power now contributes less than 4 percent of the nation’s electricity, down from nearly a third before the Fukushima disaster. Japan currently draws more than three-quarters of its electricity from fossil fuels, and about 18 percent from renewable sources.
Since 2014, the Liberal Democrats have said nuclear plants should generate more than 20 percent of Japan’s electricity by 2030. The war in Ukraine and the threat of a blackout in Tokyo after a strong earthquake this spring have made the public more receptive to this message.
In a March poll by the Nikkei business newspaper, 53 percent supported a restart of the plants. As recently as four years ago, more than 60 percent of the Japanese public opposed rebooting nuclear power.
In Kashiwazaki and Kariwa, the national regulator has suspended approvals, citing concerns about the safety culture at the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant’s operator.
Last year, Tokyo Electric revealed that a plant worker had used a colleague’s security card and bypassed biometric systems in 2020, gaining entrance to a control room. The company admitted flawed welding work and a failure to install fire prevention machinery in a reactor. It reported that an earthquake in 2007 had damaged two concrete pegs in a building foundation, and the regulator found a risk of liquefaction in the ground beneath a sea wall protecting reactors.
Officials at Tokyo Electric say they are addressing the issues. The company has spent about $9 billion reinforcing the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.
The setbacks have raised doubts among residents about the competence of the company, which also operated the Fukushima plant where the meltdowns occurred 11 years ago.
“I only feel distrust,” Miyuki Igarashi, 33, said as she loaded her 6-month-old daughter into an S.U.V. at a strip mall in Kashiwazaki. “I think they are hiding things.”
Some local residents say the problems have been overblown by antinuclear activists.