Exit polls show anti-nuclear candidate wins local election in Japan

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Ryuichi Yoneyama, an anti-nuclear candidate, has won the gubernatorial election in Niigata Prefecture, home of the world's largest nuclear power plant, according to the exit polls of major media outlets here on Sunday.

The result was seen as a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling administration who favors bringing the nation's nuclear power plants, idled in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, back on line.

The Asahi newspaper, Nippon Television and Japan's public broadcaster NHK have all said that Yoneyama was assured victory in the gubernatorial election according to their exit polls.

Yoneyama, 49, have never held office before.

"Let me clearly say that I cannot accept the restart of the (Kashiwazaki-Kariwa) plant under the current circumstances where I cannot protect people's lives and live as I have promised," Yoneyama was quoted as saying to his supporters on Sunday, with reference to major concerns in the area over the plant's checkered safety record.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power station, located in the towns of Kashiwazaki and Kariwa in Niigata Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan, was central to Yoneyama's winning campaign, with incumbent Governor Hirohiko Izumida, who was not seeking reelection, also voicing skepticism over the safety of the plant's restart, likely adding support to Yoneyama's bid, local observers said.

Yoneyama, a doctor as well as lawyer, who was backed by the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and two other smaller opposition parties, saw off a challenge from former mayor Tamio Mori, 67, who was backed by Abe's pro-nuclear ruling Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition, albeit in a tight race.

Mori, who had held his position as mayor since 1999, had failed to generate enough local support as he had not made his stance on the reopening of the huge seven-reactor facility clear enough, aiding Yoneyama who was widely seen before the race as being Izumida's logical successor, observers said.

The latest result will deal a fresh blow to Abe, who sees firing up Japan's aged nuclear plants as central to his energy policy.

The nation is struggling under the deficit of only having two of its 42 reactors back online after the Fukushima crisis - the worst commercial nuclear accident in history and the most devastating since Chernobyl in 1986.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant itself has been no stranger to accidents and controversy, as in 2007 an earthquake caused reactors at the plant to catch fire and leak radioactive materials.

As with Fukushima Daiichi, the 8 gigawatts plant in Niigata is also owned and operated by the embattled Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which is currently under state control.

Following TEPCO's numerous coverups, continued misinformation and other monumental gaffes related to the ongoing Fukushima disaster, public opinion towards the utility has remained indignant and distrusting. Endit

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