- - Thursday, July 14, 2011

TOKYO — Japan’s nuclear industry is eager to restart reactors shut down for maintenance or switched off after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused explosions and meltdowns at a power plant in the northeast and sparked a nationwide panic over radiation exposure.

Energy officials and pro-nuclear politicians say they need to “gain public understanding” — a buzzword often heard at civic forums, on news programs and on Internet chat sites across Japan, where thousands are passionately arguing the pros and cons of nuclear power in the disaster-prone nation.

Banri Kaieda, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), one of Japan’s most powerful agencies, said, “There is no change in our view that [nuclear power] is safe.”

The ministry said reactors are needed to provide electricity to prevent power shortages in the hottest Japanese summer on record.

Only 19 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are operating.

Kaoru Yosano, minister of economic planning and fiscal policy, told Asahi TV on Tuesday night that Japan cannot maintain its affluent lifestyle without nuclear power.

Mr. Yosano, a former official of the Japan Atomic Power Co., had been the finance minister in the Liberal Democratic Party, which permitted the construction of 54 nuclear reactors during its 50-year dominance of Japanese politics, which ended with the 2009 election. Mr. Yosano left the LDP last year and joined the new government in January.

Many regional power monopolies, governors and mayors are asking the government of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan to clarify its position on whether to restart the nuclear reactors.

The government, with only a 16 percent approval rating according to state broadcaster NHK’s survey over the weekend, has been sending vague signals, trying to appease a growing number of nuclear protesters as well as an older generation of industrialists accustomed to relying on nuclear energy.

“The government will introduce a safety review based on new rules and procedures in addition to the conventional ones,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference.

“To achieve more confidence about safety, the government will implement the additional checks as an assessment and for assurance so that we can make a judgment on restarting idled reactors.”

Many Japanese citizens, political leaders and scientists are increasingly calling for decommissioning all of Japan’s reactors and banning construction of new ones.

“It’s a complete abdication of responsibility to start these plants up again after what has happened at Fukushima,” Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto said.

“The nuclear industry keeps saying they’re safe. If they’re so safe, the senior executives of the power companies should come and live next door to them.”

Hideo Kishimoto, mayor of Genkai town in Saga province, said he will not let Kyushu Electric restart reactors there. Company officials last week admitted that executives ordered employees to pose as ordinary citizens and post messages in support of nuclear power to a public forum in Genkai.

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