Niigata Governor Ryuichi Yoneyama announces his resignation in a news conference at the prefectural government office on April 18. (Hiroaki Takeda)

NIIGATA--Nuclear-power proponents were already accelerating plans to restart two reactors in Niigata Prefecture following Governor Ryuichi Yoneyama’s resignation and admission April 18 that he paid women for sexual relations.

“I will ask the new prefectural governor to start discussions on the restart as early as possible,” Kashiwazaki Mayor Masahiro Sakurai, 55, said.

The gubernatorial election to replace Yoneyama will likely be held in early June, according to the Niigata prefectural election administration commission. Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s plans to resume operations at the No. 6 and No. 7 reactors of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant will likely be a key issue.

Anti-nuclear groups say they lost a key ally when Yoneyama, who took a cautious stance toward approving the reactor restarts, submitted his letter of resignation to the prefectural assembly on April 18.

Yoneyama, 50, said at a news conference at the Niigata prefectural government office that his lack of virtue led to his practice of giving money to women he met through a dating site.

“I apologize from my heart for the fact that I betrayed the (people’s) trust,” he said.

He admitted that he had met the women once or twice a month and handed them 30,000 yen (about $280) or more each time.

Even after he became Niigata governor in October 2016, he twice met one of the women at his condominium in Tokyo by December that year.

His arrangement with the women was reported in the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun issue that went on sale on April 19.

The Anti-Prostitution Law prohibits the exchange of money for sexual intercourse.

Yoneyama said he gave money to the women to win their favor. But he added, “I think it could be said that I bought the women.”

His tenure as governor was marked by his reluctance to approve TEPCO’s plan to restart the two reactors as early as fiscal 2019.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in December 2017 said the two reactors met new safety standards introduced after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011.

However, Yoneyama said he would not make a decision on the restarts until the prefectural government completes its own investigation into the cause of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, which is also run by TEPCO.

At the news conference, Yoneyama said with regret, “I really wanted to hold discussions about the future by giving our full attention to the accident at the (Fukushima No. 1) nuclear power plant.”

When asked about the next Niigata gubernatorial election, Yoneyama said: “I’m not in a position to talk about it. But I hope (the winner) will take over my budding policies on nuclear power generation and other issues.”

Asked whether he eventually plans to return to politics, he said, “My answer as of now is ‘no.’”

Mayor Sakurai said he expects a smoother path toward firing up the nuclear plant that his town co-hosts.

“In the NRA, excellent experts gave the green light to the two reactors after repeated discussions,” he said. “(In comparison,) it will be impossible for the prefectural government to make its own judgment (on the restarts) by holding only several meetings a year.”

For those opposed to the restarts, the governor’s resignation represented a setback.

“Yoneyama expanded the framework to probe the safety of nuclear power plants,” said Eiko Takeuchi, 48, a public health nurse and a member of an anti-nuclear group in Kashiwazaki. “He was also positive about holding discussions with citizens.

“Yoneyama created an environment for citizens to think seriously about the pros and cons of nuclear power plants. It is extremely regrettable that such a person was forced to resign due to a private issue,” she said.

Yumiko Sugi, a 49-year-old homemaker, evacuated from Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, and is now living with her second son, a third-year senior high school student, in Niigata.

“I wonder if there is a person who will take over the (prefectural government’s) investigation,” she said. “Do we have to experience the same anxieties again?”