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Japan’s bitter pill as two nuclear reactors to restart

The Japanese government has declared two reactors safe to restart. Now it must convince a traumatised Japanese public that nuclear remains the best route to recovery.

Following a series of meetings in April between Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Trade Minister Yukio Edano and other ministers, the Japanese government announced that reactors three and four at the Ohi nuclear plant in the country’s central west region were safe to restart.

The government, utilities and business leaders know that a nuclear revival is needed to energise Japan’s struggling economy, but the country faces a fierce backlash if it cannot convince the public that the industry is safe. Many Japanese remain sceptical, given the sluggish response of both the government and Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) during the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant after last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

“We've confirmed the safety and necessity for restarting the reactors, and we're now entering into a stage to seek the understanding of local communities and the public," Edano, whose remit also includes energy, said. He added the government would visit Fukui prefecture, where the Ohi nuclear plant is located, to meet its governor and other leading local officials.

The regional government cannot legally block restarts, but the national government is reluctant to press ahead without local backing.

No reactors have been allowed to resume operations since last March’s meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, even those that have shut for periodic maintenance, and all facilities must now undergo stringent new government-ordered stress tests before resuming operations.  

Only one reactor in Japan’s fleet is still online, unit three at the Tomari plant, in Hokkaido. It is scheduled to shut for routine maintenance in early May.

But the two Kansai Electric Power Company (Kepco) operated reactors at the Ohi plant are now the battleground to win back the position nuclear power has ceded during the past year.

Kepco has installed some of the most critical safety measures recommended by Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), such as new cooling facilities to prevent a meltdown similar to Fukushima. More than a third of the upgrades, however, are still not complete. These include filtered vents, which could reduce radiation leaks in case of an explosion; a radiation protected crisis management building; and fences to block tsunami debris. These features are not expected to be ready until 2015.

Edano said: "We confirmed that (units) three and four broadly comply with the safety standards we decided upon." However, he noted that a reactor does not have to be online for an accident to happen. "There is a possibility that any idled reactors, whether they are running or offline, (will) suffer from a severe accident as long as (it contains) active nuclear fuels," he said.

Yet despite broad public reluctance – and some protests – the Japanese government is increasingly likely to reopen the sector.  And Edano is the nuclear industry’s secret weapon.

While the government and Tepco came under intense criticism for downplaying the true extent of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, Edano’s handling of the crisis drew widespread praise.  

As the full extent of the disaster unfolded the public grew to trust Edano, who was then chief cabinet secretary under the previous prime minister Naoto Kan. Thrust into the role of chief government spokesman, Edano’s reputation grew. Blanket media coverage of Fukushima saw him delivering a steady stream of concise and clear updates – often several times an hour – to Japan's terrified public.

After his much-praised role during Fukushima, Edano was given the energy portfolio last September when Noda succeeded Kan as prime minister.

Now, a little over a year after the meltdown, power companies are lobbying for reactor restarts. And, despite his own ambivalence towards nuclear energy, Edano may have to use the trust he built up during the Fukushima crisis to convince the public that restarting reactors is the right thing to do.

Ironically, it may see him contradict his own impulses. Speaking in a personal capacity a few days before confirming the Ohi reactors complied with new safety regulations and could therefore resume operations, Edano said: "I'd like to see (our) reliance on nuclear cut to zero. I'd like to have a society that works without nuclear (power) as (soon) as possible.”

He then said, in a statement likely to give the big nuclear firms a glimmer of hope: "As to how quickly it can be reduced or whether it will ultimately be reduced to zero? That will be judged based on discussion by experts."

Edano’s feelings reflect popular opinion. In a poll of 924 households by Japan’s Nikkei newspaper after the government announced Ohi was safe, 54% of respondents were still against restarting reactors. Less than a third supported restarts. A Greenpeace-commissioned survey of 3,000 people in Osaka, Kyoto, and Shiga prefecture at the beginning of April showed 75.6% of respondents thought a restart of the Ohi reactors was "too hasty". 

But the country’s utility firms and large corporations, which wield considerable political clout, are pushing back hard. Japan faces power shortages unless the reactors are fired up again, they argue. Kepco, which relies on nuclear power generation for almost half of its electricity, forecast a near 20% electricity shortage during the peak summer demand season if reactors are not brought back online.

Besides its four reactors at Ohi, Kepco operates another seven nuclear units in the Kansai region, which is home to a number of heavy energy users, including electronics firms Sharp and Panasonic, as well as Komatsu, the world's second largest construction machinery maker.

"We must not fail to recognise that the foundation for our electricity supply, which supports our sophisticated lifestyles and advanced industry, is now very fragile," Takashi Imai, chairman of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, said in March. Before the earthquake, nuclear accounted for around 30% of power generated in Japan, with another 30% derived from liquefied natural gas (LNG) and 25% from coal.

And imports of fossil fuels such as oil and especially LNG have soared to replace lost nuclear generation capacity since the reactors have shut.

For the fiscal year 2011, which finishes in March, Japanese LNG imports jumped 17.9% to a record 83.18m tonnes, according to preliminary government figures. The fuel import bill also reached a record ¥5.4 trillion ($66bn), up from ¥3.5 trillion the year before.

Until now, the Japanese government has prostrated itself before an angry and traumatised public over the issue of nuclear power generation. It may not be able to afford to do this much longer.

Soaring energy costs and a strong yen are already hollowing out Japan’s huge manufacturing base, with companies moving factories abroad to countries such as Thailand. For an export-led country, the government is fully aware it has to stop this process or risk bleeding the economy of its strength.

Faced with these problems, the Japanese government will feel like it has no choice but to press ahead with restarts. But the public is fully expected to fight back. It will be a hot, uncomfortable summer for both Edano and Noda, whose jobs and reputations are on the line as they navigate a delicate problem.

Like it or not, nuclear energy is the lifeblood for Japan’s economy. The country will be forced to fire up reactors to save itself – and it will be bitter pill for the public to swallow. 

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