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Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has approved the immediate restart of two reactors under intense pressure from businesses concerned about summer power cuts.
As expected, the prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, on Saturday approved the immediate restart of two reactors at Oi nuclear power plant under intense pressure from businesses concerned about summer power cuts and disruption to manufacturers.
Japan's last working reactor was turned off in early May, leaving it without nuclear power for the first time in more than 40 years.
Just as the triple meltdown at Fukushima meltdown marked a turning point in Japan's attitude to nuclear power, the restart — albeit of just two of the country's 50 reactors — could be the first step towards resurrecting nuclear's role in the energy mix.
Japan has torn up pre-Fukushima plans to increase its dependence on atomic energy from 30 percent before the disaster to more than 50 percent by 2030.
Had Naoto Kan, a recent convert to the anti-nuclear movement, remained prime minister, Japan could still be debating a policy shift that would, in the short-term, require huge imports of fossil fuels and, eventually, a much bigger role for renewables.
But Noda, who succeeded Kan last autumn, has made no secret of his desire to see a limited return to nuclear power as the country enters the hottest months of the year.
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Voters, though, are wary of early restarts, even after safety officials said they were satisfied that the Oi reactors could withstand a catastrophe similar to the earthquake and tsunami that killed almost 20,000 people in northeast Japan last year and triggered the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
The Oi plant, in Fukui prefecture — Japan's "nuclear alley" with 14 reactors crammed into four facilities — was the first to pass stress tests introduced last year to address public concern about safety.
The trade and industry minister, Yukio Edano, conceded that the government had failed to build a national consensus on the Oi restart, despite weeks of campaigning that included a warning from Noda that, without nuclear energy, the very future of Japanese society was at risk.
Crucially, though, Noda did win the backing this week of important figures in the debate — the mayor of Oi and the governors of Fukui and six other prefectures in the region.
"Having won local consent, reactivating [the reactors] is now the government's final decision," Noda said. "We are determined to make further efforts to restore people's trust in nuclear policy and safety regulations."
In convincing Noda to proceed with the restart, Japan's business lobby succeeded where anti-nuclear campaigners — 10,000 of whom staged a noisy demonstration outside his official residence in Tokyo last night — failed.
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On Saturday, campaigners accused the prime minister of rushing into a decision and ignoring lingering concerns over safety.
"Prime Minister Noda's rushed, dangerous approval of the Oi nuclear power plant restart ignores expert safety advice and public outcry, and needlessly risks the health of Japan's environment, its people and its economy," said Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan.
"Japan has already survived the peak summer and winter energy demand periods once with little nuclear power online, as well as a full month with none, and despite continued fear-mongering statements from industry and government about the need for restarting Oi, the economy has still grown remarkably well and there have been no significant energy shortages."
Manufacturers warned of possible disruption to output at a time when the economy is already under pressure from the impact of the March 11 disaster, the euro-zone crisis and the strong yen, while the Oi plant's operator, Kansai Electric Power, said power shortages were inevitable.
The utility warned that the region served by Oi would face electricity shortfalls of about 15 percent in July and August, and had urged consumers to make power savings. Its service area includes the city of Osaka, the industrial center of a regional economy whose GDP rivals Mexico's in size.
In the end, the economy trumped all other considerations. Not only would a prolonged nuclear shutdown cause power shortages, Noda said, it would increase dependence on fossil fuel imports, in turn driving up electricity bills and jeopardizing Japan's climate-change commitments.
The impact of the Oi restart will not be felt immediately, however. Both reactors must go through a series of safety checks before they can be brought back to full capacity, a process that is expected to last about six weeks.
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The end of Japan's nuclear estrangement could pave the way for restarts at other plants. The likely candidates include Ikata in southwest Japan, where nuclear regulators have approved the results of the first round of stress tests, and Tomari in the far north, where demand surges in winter.
In the meantime, Noda will continue to explain his decision to a skeptical public, just over a year since the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown sent large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.
According to a poll by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper earlier this month, 71 percent of people cautioned against a rush to restart the Oi reactors, while 25 percent supported Noda's stance.
As his chief ally in the restart campaign, the trade and industry minister Yukio Edano, conceded, absolute guarantees of safety are impossible in a country susceptible to powerful earthquakes.
"There is no such thing as a perfect score when it comes to disaster prevention steps," Edano told reporters on Saturday. "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 Oi plant].
"Safety is our main concern ... if there are safety problems, the process could be delayed."