Tatsuya Murakami, known for his strident opposition to nuclear power, has retired as mayor of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, home to multiple atomic energy facilities including a nuclear fuel company where a deadly radiation accident took place in 1999.
Murakami, 70, served as mayor of the village with a population of around 38,000 and located about 115 kilometers northeast of Tokyo, for 16 years, completing four terms.
"The last two and a half years were a heart-breaking uphill battle," Murakami told a press conference Friday, recalling the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the neighboring prefecture.
The Tokai No. 2 nuclear plant in the village barely survived the disaster as one of the three emergency power sources was damaged by tsunami.
"The Japanese people should turn (the experience) into an occasion to review their values and lifestyles," which are currently focused on the economy, Murakami said.
Having seen the damage done to the Fukushima plant, Murakami opposed restarting the Tokai No. 2 plant run by power wholesaler Japan Atomic Power Co., saying, "Japan is neither entitled to nor capable of controlling nuclear power."
He has served as caretaker of the conference of 80 heads of municipalities that aim to phase out nuclear power, calling on the state government to overhaul its energy policy.
Murakami did not seek another term at the mayoral race held Sept. 8. It was won by Osamu Yamada, 52, the former vice mayor who was tapped by Murakami as his successor.
Yamada has shown a neutral position on restarting the Tokai nuclear power plant.
Kayoko Sato, 43, a member of a housewives' group campaigning for the decommissioning of the Tokai plant, said Murakami "made it easier for us to oppose the nuclear power plant using our real names."
Hiroko Uehara, 64, an official with the municipal chiefs' conference against nuclear power, said that she wants Murakami to "lead anti-nuclear movement from now on as a free, private citizen."
Noboru Suzuki, a local assembly member, said, "The head of the village should have been neutral, but because (Murakami) made his position clear, it created emotional conflict among villagers."
Suzuki said that many local residents make their living in the nuclear power business and that Murakami's departure will make it easier for him and his colleagues to communicate to the new mayor their wishes for restarting the nuclear plant.
Since June, Japan Atomic Power has been carrying out construction work to install seawalls to protect the Tokai No. 2 nuclear plant from a possible tsunami disaster. "We will decide whether to restart or decommission the reactor during the four-year term," Yamada, the new mayor, said.
Tokai village has played a central role in the history of Japan's nuclear power industry. It was home to a laboratory that first experienced a "criticality" or a sustained nuclear chain reaction in Japan in 1957 as well as the first reactor in the country that generated power several years later.
In 1999, an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction at a fuel processing company in the village caused the deaths of two workers and exposed hundreds of residents to radiation. Murakami organized the evacuation of homes within 350 meters of the company before waiting for an instruction from the central government.