Photo/IllutrationThe three independent candidates for Niigata governor are, from left: Chikako Ikeda, Hideyo Hanazumi and Satoshi Annaka. (Photos by, from left: Shinya Takagi, Azusa Kato and Sei Iwanami)

NIIGATA--The election for a new governor of Niigata Prefecture was triggered by a sex scandal, but the key issue facing voters is where the candidates stand on restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, one of the world's biggest nuclear facilities.

Campaigning officially kicked off May 24.

The outcome of the June 10 vote could have a bearing on the Abe administration's moves to bring more nuclear plants back online.

Although the candidates are running as independents, two are supported by political parties.

In early speeches, they all outlined their position on the nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., but residents are calling on them to be less cautious and state where they truly stand.

"Many people are still suffering (because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster), and there are still many people living as evacuees," said a female resident, 66. "Some kids have even been bullied. So I really want the candidates to state clearly that Niigata doesn't need a nuclear plant anymore."

On the other hand, a 70-year-old female resident argued that local people "cannot flatly oppose the restart of the nuclear plant because of the impact it will have on economy."

For this reason, she said, "I cannot easily say I am against it."

The election is expected to come down to a battle between Hideyo Hanazumi, 60, a former vice commandant of the Japan Coast Guard, and Chikako Ikeda, 57, a former member of the prefectural assembly.

Hanazumi is supported by the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, while Ikeda is backed by five opposition parties.

The other candidate is Satoshi Annaka, 40, a former member of the Gosen municipal assembly.

The election was triggered by the April resignation of Ryuichi Yoneyama after he admitted to paying women for sexual favors.

Yoneyama, 50, had taken a cautious stance on restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex.

Hanazumi declared that he would take over an investigation started by Yoneyama to understand the fundamental cause of the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in 2011, and reach his decision on the issue when the investigation ends in several years.

Ikeda stressed the significance of reviewing the Fukushima nuclear disaster, stating that continuing with the investigation is "the most basic of basics."

She said the matter must be pursued rigorously.

Ikeda added that she would make a final decision on the restart issue after careful discussions with residents and other parties.

"I will seek a zero-nuclear Niigata Prefecture,” she said.

(This article was written by Azusa Kato and Shinya Takagi.)