Japanese Town Says 'No' to Reactor

MAKI, Japan -- For 27 years, this seaside town of pine-dotted hills and verdant farming fields has been torn apart by the nemesis of nuclear power as debates over safety, necessity and economics divided neighbors and friends.

But on Sunday, the long struggle over whether to build a nuclear power plant came to an end -- at least for now -- when voters here did what they have never done before: they resoundingly rejected the plant in Japan's first-ever policy referendum, throwing a wrench into the nation's nuclear energy policy.

The big bark from this small town -- 61 percent of 20,382 voters rejected the plant -- is being decried as selfish egotism by those who believe nuclear power is essential to energy-poor Japan. Nuclear power accounts for 28 percent of the nation's energy supply today; government officials want to increase that share to 42 percent by the year 2010 to help wean the country from an dependency on imported oil and gas.

In the wake of the vote, Japanese government officials and power company executives vowed to redouble efforts to "gain the people's understanding" on the need for the plant.

Referendum supporters, however, are hailing the vote as the first showing of direct democracy in a nation that tends to be ruled from the top down. "This was not about winning or losing, but about the people choosing their own future," declared Maki's mayor, Takaaki Sasaguchi, who said he would accept the results of the nonbinding referendum and refuse to sell Tohoku Electric Company the land it needs for the plant.

But the question of whether the Maki vote will set off a reaction around Japan against nuclear power plants cannot yet be answered. Reports from other regions show that a combination of economic hardship, political conservatism and powerful business interests can often influence residents into accepting not only nuclear dumps, but military bases and other controversial facilities as well.

In Maki, however, relentless activists, an obliging mayor and what nuclear power opponent Masatoshi Nakamura called a bit of "heavenly help" combined to facilitate the precedent-setting poll. Although proponents of nuclear power dominated the local council, one mistakenly voted for the referendum in a move that swung the result to the other side.

The sleepy town was transformed into a whirlwind of political activity. A pro-nuclear alliance of power companies, conservative political parties, the national government and business sponsored a flurry of television and radio spots and numerous forums and rallies.

Opponents argued the power plants bring health risks, lower sales of agricultural and fishing products and nowhere near the economic benefits promised.

Makoto Kikuchi, who has battled for years to get the nuclear power issue before the people, said the vote was a call to politicians that it is time to open up the policymaking process.