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NIIGATA, Japan, Oct 16 (Reuters) - An antinuclear candidate was leading a Japanese regional election on Sunday, media said, with a win likely to deal a blow to Tokyo Electric Power's attempts to restart the world's biggest atomic power station.
Ryuichi Yoneyama, 49, a doctor-lawyer who has never held office and is backed mostly by left-wing parties, was ahead in the race for governor of Niigata north of Tokyo, an election dominated by concerns over the future of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power station and nuclear safety more than five years after the Fukushima catastrophe of March 2011.
The Asahi newspaper said its exit polls showed Yoneyama was ahead by 51 percent to 47 percent for former mayor Tamio Mori, 67, who is backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pronuclear ruling party. Public broadcaster NHK said its polling showed Yoneyama with a "slight lead." Kyodo News said it was a tight race.
Yoneyama promised to continue the policy of the outgoing governor who had long thwarted the ambitions of Tepco, as the company supplying about a third of Japan's electricity is known, to restart the plant.
Reviving the seven-reactor giant, with capacity of 8 gigawatts, is key to saving the utility, which was brought low by the Fukushima explosions and meltdowns, and then the repeated admissions of cover-ups and safety lapses after the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Tepco is vital to Abe's energy policy, which relies on rebooting more of the reactors that once met about 30 percent of the nation's needs.
Reporting by Kentaro Hamada; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and William Mallard