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* Osaka city assembly to decide on nuclear plebiscite
* Osaka mayor anti-nuclear but lukewarm on referendum
* Activists battle apathy a year after Fukushima crisis
By Yoko Kubota
TOKYO, Feb 14 A group of Japanese
activists submitted a petition to the western city of Osaka on
Tuesday seeking a referendum on scrapping atomic power, a step
some hope will boost a campaign that appears to be flagging a
year after the Fukushima disaster.
The world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years after an
earthquake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima plant spurred
anti-nuclear movements, previously seen as the preserve of
Plebiscites are rare in Japan -- three have been held on
nuclear power as well as a number of others -- and no law exists
for a national referendum. But campaigners in Osaka, Tokyo and
the western prefecture of Shizuoka are taking advantage of rules
that allow for referendums if the local assembly gives the nod.
Osaka, the core of Japan's second biggest metropolitan area
with 2.7 million residents, receives its electricity from Kansai
Electric, Japan's second-biggest utility operating 11
reactors at three plants near the city.
If a plebiscite takes place, residents will vote on whether
to scrap Kansai-operated nuclear power plants.
"Deciding such an important issue should be in the hands of
the voters," said Hajime Imai, an organiser of the group.
The role of nuclear power is now under debate by the central
government, which has abandoned a pre-Fukushima goal of boosting
atomic energy's share of electricity demand to 50 percent by
2030 from 30 percent before the accident.
The industry is under intense scrutiny, with many reactors
undergoing computer-simulated tests to ensure they could
withstand a new disaster. Only three of 54 reactors are on
stream at the moment.
The activists submitted to Osaka City 55,430 signatures of
residents, or 2.1 percent of the city's population, above the 2
percent required by legal regulations.
CITY ASSEMBLY DIVIDED
Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto must now present a motion to the
city assembly for a vote on whether a referendum should be held.
Hashimoto, a reform-minded former TV celebrity who has set
up a new political party, wants to reduce dependence on nuclear
power and has vowed to exert the city's right as a holder of
about 9 percent of Kansai Electric's shares.
But he has shown little enthusiasm for a costly referendum.
Imai said the campaign faced a tough battle in the Osaka
assembly, where major parties are split over the issue.
The anti-nuclear side has won all three referendums already
held. The votes had little direct impact on national policies,
although a groundswell of similar ballots could make a
Imai's group is also collecting signatures for a national
referendum, though parliament would have to pass a law in order
for such a national vote to take place.
Fukushima shattered Japan's myth that nuclear energy was
cheap, clean and safe, but the absence of a legal framework
means a national vote is unlikely.
Opinion polls show about three-quarters of the public favour
at least a gradual exit from nuclear power. But enthusiasm for
active campaigning is waning and many voters appear to be losing
hope that their opinions matter.
"I don't think that people believe in democracy much," said
Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University
in Japan. "A lot of people are turned off by politics and think
the government does what it wants anyway."
Imai echoed the concern. "Our biggest enemy has been
apathy," he told Reuters.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)