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.
Anti-nuclear activists and lawyers have long accused the industry of covering up accidents, falsifying safety reports, bullying opponents and colluding with organized crime gangs that allegedly supply temporary workers to nuclear plants.
Mizuho Fukushima, the leader of Japan's Social Democratic Party, and a group of scientists and academics argued this week that Japan should move toward safer, renewable sources such as solar and wind power.
Ms. Fukushima, whose green-oriented party bolted the government coalition last year over a variety of issues, praised Prime Minister Naoto Kan for calling for European-style "stress tests" before reactors can restart.
"It put a stop to this great momentum of METI, which has been enthusiastic about restarting reactors," she said. "It's obvious that safety standards were inadequate."
She said Mr. Kan "has no vested interests with the nuclear industry in Japan." But she worries that his eventual successor might lack his fervor for replacing nuclear power with renewable energy. She also lambasted the opposition Liberal Democratic Party for its "50-year history of colluding with the nuclear industry."
She said stress tests "shouldn't be some kind of camouflage to reassure the public and restart reactors." She said METI has been dictating energy policy without public consultation.
"I hope there will be more consultations in [parliament] and with the public. It's important for democracy in Japan," she said.
Michiji Konuma — leader of the Committee of Seven for World Peace Appeal, formed in 1955 by Nobel laureates and others — said he sees no future for nuclear power plants in Japan or the world.
"Many people in the world feel there is still a need for nuclear plants to provide energy. We are appealing to them to understand what really happened to people in Chernobyl and Fukushima that you could lose your homes and your way of life," Mr. Konuma said, referring to Ukraine's nuclear disaster in 1986 and Japan's nuclear crisis that began in Fukushima province.
"People can endure and live their lives without so much electricity. Alternative energy sources can take care of the world's energy needs. Japan has not worked hard enough on this issue."
In the 1950s, Mr. Konuma was a member of Japan's science council during debates about adopting nuclear power.
"We talked about the possibilities of earthquakes, the economic consequences of a nuclear disaster, and whether we could take care of disposing of nuclear waste," said Mr. Konuma, now a physicist at Tokyo's Keio University.
"If I have any regret, it's that we did not pursue this debate further and work harder to delay the construction of these plants."
Kinhide Mushakouji, a professor at Osaka University of Economics and Law, called the Fukushima disaster "Japan's third atomic explosion," after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
"The right to live in peace from fear and want is part of the Japanese Constitution's preamble. Now in Fukushima, the Japanese state itself is violating this right," he said.
Citing local opinion polls showing about 80 percent of Japanese opposed to restarting or building new nuclear plants, Ms. Fukushima said it would be "impossible" to build new plants in Japan.
Referring to the traditional belief that a catfish causes earthquakes, she joked that "all of Japan sits on a huge catfish."
"The world really should consider that nuclear plants are dangerous anywhere in the world," she said, "and extremely dangerous in Japan."