Japan yesterday approved the resumption of nuclear power operations at two reactors despite mass public opposition, the first to come back on line after they were all shut down following last year’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear crisis.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, his popularity ratings sagging, had backed the restarts for some time. He announced the government’s decision at a meeting with key ministers, giving the go-ahead to two reactors operated by Kansai Electric Power Co at Ohi in western Japan.
The decision could open the door to more restarts among Japan’s 50 nuclear power reactors.
“There is no such thing as a perfect score when it comes to disaster prevention steps,” Japanese Trade Minister Yukio Edano told a news -conference after the announcement.
“But, based on what we learned from the Fukushima accident, those measures that need to be taken urgently have been addressed, and the level of safety has been considerably enhanced [at the Ohi plant],” he said.
Edano, who holds the energy portfolio, said the government policy to reduce Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy in the medium to long-term was unchanged despite the decision.
The decision is a victory for Japan’s still-powerful nuclear industry and reflects Noda’s concerns about damage to the economy if atomic energy is abandoned following the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The push to restart the two Ohi reactors, before a potential summer power crunch, also underscores the premier’s eagerness to win backing from businesses worried about high electricity costs that could push factories offshore. Kansai electric says it will take six weeks to get both reactors running fully.
However, the decision risks a backlash from a public deeply concerned about nuclear safety. As many as 10,000 demonstrators gathered outside Noda’s office on Friday night amid a heavy police presence to denounce the restarts, urging the premier to step down and shouting: “Lives matter more than the economy.”
Nuclear power supplied almost 30 percent of electricity needs before the disaster in March last year, which triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, spewing radiation and forcing mass evacuations.
All 50 reactors were shut down for maintenance or safety checks in the months since the accident. The government had placed a priority on gaining the approval of local communities for the Ohi restarts to avert July-August power shortages.
Critics say the government was too hasty in signing off on the restarts, especially given delays in setting up a new, more independent nuclear regulatory agency.
Public trust in regulators was damaged by evidence that cozy ties with utilities were a key reason Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Co was unprepared for the tsunami, and subsequent signs that relations remain far too snug.
Parliament’s lower house on Friday approved legislation to create a new atomic regulator, but getting it up and running will take months. That could force the government to go slower on restarts, though some politicians are keen to forge ahead.