TOKYO Several thousand Japanese anti-nuclear protesters marched in the rain on Saturday, welcoming a call from the prime minister to shut down a plant in central Japan and urging him to close more to avoid another nuclear crisis.
The surprise call from Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Friday to shut down Chubu Electric Power Co's Hamaoka plant followed pressure on the government to review nuclear energy policy after a March 11 quake and tsunami damaged another plant and triggered the worst disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Tens of thousands of residents around the Fukushima Daiichi plant on the northeast coast have been ordered to evacuate after radiation leaks into the air, soil and sea. Radiation checks have led to shipment bans of some vegetables and fish.
Students, labor union members and parents with children hoisted on their shoulders marched through Tokyo's bustling Shibuya district to music and chants, carrying flags written with "Close all nuke plants at once!" and "No More Fukushima."
"After Chernobyl, we collectively forgot the seriousness, the horror of nuclear power," said Takashi Enari, a businessman who said he also protested outside the Fukushima plant after the 1986 disaster in Ukraine.
"I have always thought that they should close Hamaoka. There needs to be a rethinking of energy policy in this country," he said, as other protesters marched wearing hazard masks and carrying colorful balloons.
Media said on Saturday that Japan's anti-nuclear movement, small and ignored by the general public until the Fukushima crisis, could become even more vocal after Kan's call for a Hamaoka shutdown.
Kan said he made the decision "out of concerns for public safety," citing a forecast by government experts that put at 87 percent the chance of a magnitude 8.0 quake hitting the area served by Chubu Electric within the next 30 years.
Chubu Electric held a board meeting on Saturday to discuss Kan's decision, but did not reach a decision on whether to comply with his request, which is not legally binding.
"The decision is still under discussion," a spokesman said. "We therefore cannot say when exactly the decision will be made, but we would like to reach one quickly."
Kan's Hamaoka decision signals a likely shift in Japan's energy policy, with the government now rethinking its target of boosting the country's reliance on nuclear to 50 percent of its power needs by 2030, up from a current 30 percent.
"I'm happy that Hamaoka is closing but I don't think it's enough," said social worker Akemi Nomura from Hiroshima, western Japan, at the anti-nuclear protest.
"I want the Yamaguchi plant to close too," she said, referring to a plant under construction near Hiroshima, one of two cities hit by atomic bombs dropped by the United States in 1945.
A Hamaoka shutdown could also make it difficult for other utilities to restart reactors now shut for planned maintenance, with local residents growing more worried about safety, the Nikkei business daily said on Saturday.
While that would be welcomed by anti-nuclear activists, it could upset companies worried about energy supply, as well as local governments worried about the impact on jobs. Media said 1,200 residents of Omaezaki, where the Hamaoka plant is located, worked at the facility.
"We would have liked the government to listen a little more to the local perspective and for that to have been reflected on the governance of national nuclear power policy," Omaezaki mayor Shigeo Ishihara told reporters.