The governor of Shizuoka Prefecture submitted a bill to the prefectural assembly on Sept. 19 calling for a referendum on the restart of the Hamaoka nuclear power plant.
The move came after a citizens group collected more than 160,000 signatures, nearly three times the number required, and submitted them to Governor Heita Kawakatsu.
Addressing the prefectural assembly, Kawakatsu said: "(The signatures) express the intentions of people who want the prefectural administration to address popular will shown through the referendum. This is a matter I take seriously to heart."
We support the governor's decision. It would mark the first prefectural referendum on the restart of an idle nuclear power plant.
There is deep-rooted opposition to allowing residents of a local community to decide the future of nuclear power. Previous attempts in Tokyo and Osaka were turned down by the local assemblies.
If nuclear power plants stop operating, electricity rates would go up. The move would affect various areas, such as economic activity, employment and national security.
A question that needs to be asked is whether local residents can be trusted to have the foresight to take such factors into account and make a sound decision. There is always a fear that people may get carried away with the trend of the times.
Such apprehensions have been voiced about the effectiveness of putting the matter to a public vote. The observation is not entirely off the mark.
Still, the significance of holding a referendum is great. The five representatives of the citizens group which collected the signatures told the Shizuoka prefectural assembly: "We were told to leave the matter to experts and politicians, but the disaster (at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant) occurred because they made light of the danger. Nuclear power generation can affect the lives and livelihoods of future generations. It is a serious problem that cannot be shouldered only by people who are now in power.
"Once an accident occurs, there is no other way than for local residents to accept the consequences. It is our duty as ones who experienced an accident to seriously think and accept responsibility."
The move for a referendum does not mean to deny indirect democracy under which voters choose their representatives by election. But that does not mean everything will automatically work out for the best if we leave matters in the hands of our representatives.
Directly seeking popular will on themes that greatly affect everyday life is a way to complement the limits of indirect democracy. For the citizens, it is significant to cast their ballots after seriously thinking about the issue to make their decisions."
While the bill calls on prefectural authorities to attach importance to the outcome of the vote, it is not legally binding. Kawakatsu, the governor, said: "Safety is the top priority. If 90 percent of the voters say let's restart the plant, I am prepared to explain to those 90 percent my position that we cannot restart it now. My accountability will only get bigger."
Reality is complex. The referendum requires voters to either support or oppose the restart. But it doesn't mean the outcome will be respected.
Still, politicians must squarely face popular will and make their decisions on the referendum bill. They will receive the voters' verdict for their decisions in the next election.
Democracy functions best when a relationship of tension develops between politicians and voters.
If politicians refuse to listen because they don't want to be bound by popular will, it would be arrogant negligence of their responsibility under indirect democracy.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 21
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