Photo/Illutration Two candidates who are running in the Suttsu town mayoral election in Hokkaido speak about their policies at a town meeting on Oct. 2 before about 130 local residents. (Pool)

SUTTSU, Hokkaido--The mayor’s plan here to host a nuclear waste storage site to boost town coffers will be the foremost issue when residents go to the polls in the Suttsu town mayoral election on Oct. 26.

Incumbent Haruo Kataoka, 72, has been elected mayor four times in a row without any votes being cast as he ran unopposed. 

But this year, Kataoka, who aims to win his sixth term of office, faces another candidate, one who opposes hosting the storage site.

Yoshiki Echizenya, 70, a former town assembly member, is running for the job for the first time.

The race, which kicked off on Oct. 21, features a choice of more than one candidate for the first time in two decades.

The result is likely to have a huge impact on Japan’s national nuclear policies.

Sparks are expected as Kataoka, who promoted and applied for Suttsu to be chosen as a storage site, and Echizenya go at it over the issue one on one.

The debate over whether the town should host the storage site has fractured social relations between Suttsu’s residents.

“Whichever candidate wins or loses, the town’s deep division will continue to remain,” a fisherman in Suttsu said. “Our residents must think about that, too.”

The government has set a 20-year time limit for its selection process to finalize sites for storing highly radioactive nuclear waste produced from nuclear power plants.

The selection process has three stages.

The first, called the literature research process, started in Suttsu in November 2020, the first time for it to be conducted anywhere in Japan.

The literature research process will be the mayoral election’s main issue and the candidates have already taken swings at each other over it.

Japan does not have any final storage facilities for highly radioactive nuclear waste. The central government had been searching desperately for years for candidate sites, but could not find any. 

But in August 2020, Kataoka suddenly declared that he would consider applying for the two-year literature research process to select the final storage sites, in which existing data and documents are examined.

The second four-year stage involves research, including taking geological samples, to ensure the sites meet general conditions for a storage facility.

In the third 14-year stage research, the construction of an underground testing facility is carried out.

A municipal government can receive up to 2 billion yen ($17.5 million) during the first stage and 7 billion yen during the second stage in government subsidies.

Suttsu has a population of about 2,900. The town government’s revenues for fiscal 2018 were about 5.3 billion yen.

Kataoka, who thought he could revive the local economy, damaged by the impacts of population decline and the COVID-19 pandemic, with the subsidies, has increased the town budget by wind farms run by the town and has a keen interest in energy policies.

He said he would “challenge” the issues holding up the selection of the final storage sites.

Town residents opposed to joining the project sought to hold a referendum before the town applied for the literature review process.

However, in October 2020 he applied for the review without holding the referendum.

“I can feel how the pros and cons are among town residents in my heart,” Kataoka said.

Echizenya, hoping to halt division in the town over the issue, called for withdrawal from the research process.

Kataoka and the town assembly adopted the ordinance to hold referendums before entering the second and third stages.

But Echizenya said that the referendum should have been held before entering the first literature review stage.

“First of all, we should listen to the voices of all residents,” he said. “The town should not depend on government subsidies for its financial management.”


Kamoenai village, located in the same Shiribeshi region as Suttsu, also joined the research process around the same time.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO) is conducting its first literature review on data of sites in Japan for the two municipalities.

The central government released a scientific characteristic map of the sites in 2017.

Areas near volcanoes or active faults are considered undesirable as candidate sites.

Kamoenai lies within a 15-kilometer radius of a volcano, with the exception of the village’s southern tip.

Despite this, NUMO has moved forward with the process to consider Kamoenai as a site to store the nuclear waste.

Suttsu, though it has a much larger area than Kamoenai classified as desirable under the government’s criteria for storing nuclear waste, has an active fault under the central part of the town.

Further studies in the town may reveal more undesirable areas, as the map only includes active faults extending for at least 10 km.