- - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

TOKYO — Prime Minster Naoto Kan is beginning to win public support for his hard-nosed determination to steer Japan through its post-tsunami nuclear crisis.

A Mainichi newspaper survey on Monday showed that two-thirds of Japanese voters back his decision to close a risky nuclear power plant in Hamaoka, which is built on a fault line and has been the site of massive tsunamis as recently as 1944.

Only a quarter of respondents said Mr. Kan should resign immediately, while roughly the same percentage said they support him, up about 6 percentage points from previous polls.

The polls show a marked change in the political fortunes of Mr. Kan, who only hours before his country’s nuclear crisis began seemed on the verge of becoming yet another Japanese prime minister to be forced to resign.

In addition to persuading Chubu Electric to close its profitable plant at Hamaoka, the Kan administration this month succeeded in passing a $50 billion package to clear debris and build temporary housing. The effort will be financed by spending cuts and pension reserves, rather than a direct tax that could worsen consumer confidence and corporate investment.

Mr. Kan also has managed to fend off his main political rival, Ichiro Ozawa, known as the “Shadow Shogun” for his kingmaking and back-room dealing dating back to his time in the ousted Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled Japan for most of the postwar period and created much of the nuclear industry problems and public debt inherited by Mr. Kan.

In addition, Mr. Kan has won increasing public support after pledging to rethink Japan’s nuclear policy from scratch.

Instead of following the plans of previous administrations to build nuclear reactors to provide half of Japan’s electricity by 2030, Mr. Kan has said that renewable energy will be a key pillar of the country’s energy policy.

The Mainichi poll said that half of Japanese believe the nation should rely less on nuclear energy, while 12 percent said each of Japan’s 54 current reactors must be scrapped.

Mr. Kan said the government’s plan to bring the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactors under control by the end of this year remains on target, though many fear a melt-down could be under way at reactor 1 and perhaps others.

“We will manage to continue working without changing the timeline prospects of putting [the reactors] in to a state of cold shutdown in six to nine months,” he told parliament.

He was referring to the “road map” that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) announced April 17 to bring closure to the world’s worst atomic crisis in 25 years, sparked by a tsunami more than 40-feet high which knocked out the Fukushima plant’s electricity and vital cooling systems.

The operator of Japan’s crippled nuclear plant said the revised road map to resolve the crisis will stick with an existing timeline but add new tasks, such as boosting tsunami preparedness and improving conditions for workers.

Tepco Vice President Sakae Muto said the utility still aims to bring the radiation-leaking Fukushima Dai-ichi complex to a stable cold shutdown within six to nine months as announced in the original April action plan.

Mr. Muto said the revised plan calls for stepping up precautionary measures for aftershocks and closer monitoring of the amount of radiation in groundwater and elsewhere in the environment.

*This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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