TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan should aspire to phase out nuclear power completely, its energy minister said on Friday, even as the government struggles to persuade a wary public that it is safe to restart reactors after the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
Yukio Edano, whose trade portfolio makes him responsible for energy, couched his remark as a personal and not necessarily realistic view - though it could still anger utilities and industries eager to see nuclear power bounce back.
"The government's policy is now to reduce reliance on nuclear power as low as possible," Edano said, adding that it should in future account for less than the third of national electricity it supplied before last year's Fukushima crisis.
On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima nuclear power complex north of Tokyo, causing meltdowns, sending radiation into the air and forcing 80,000 people to evacuate from the area.
"I'd like to see the reliance on nuclear cut to zero. I'd like to have a society work without nuclear as early as possible," Edano told a news conference in energy policy.
"I myself think it should be reduced as soon as possible. But as to in reality how quickly it can be reduced or whether it will ultimately be reduced to zero - I want to judge based on discussion by experts."
The government is crafting a new energy mix in light of Fukushima, with experts' options for atomic energy ranging from zero to 35 percent of electricity supply. In 2010, a government plan had called for boosting that to more than 50 percent.
Japan's nuclear industry is on its knees: all but one of its 54 reactors are offline, mostly idled as they came due for maintenance. None can be restarted until each clears a safety review and gets the nod from local governments.
The government is keen to get some reactors restarted soon to avoid power cuts in the summer when electricity demand peaks.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's administration is being buffeted by conflicting pressures, with big businesses urging it to get reactors back on line and keep atomic power in the energy mix to keep the economy afloat, while many voters worry about safety after the Fukushima crisis.
Experts say the government is racing to try to restart two nuclear reactors by next month out of fear that surviving a total shutdown would make it hard to convince the public that atomic energy is vital to avoid serious power shortages.
The last online reactor is due to shut for maintenance on May 5. Asked if the government was rushing to restart other reactors before then, Edano said: "No, not at all."
"This is a process we started in July last year and we thus have taken quite some time to give careful consideration," he added, referring to a decision then to require computer-simulated stress tests as a condition for reactor restarts.
Noda, Edano and two other key cabinet ministers met again later on Friday and confirmed a safety check list that will be applied to decide on the possible restarts of the No.3 and No.4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co's Ohi plant in Fukui prefecture, a region dubbed the "nuclear arcade" for the string of atomic plants that dot its coast.
But Edano said he would not visit Fukui in western Japan this weekend, as previously reported by Japanese media, because the ministers would need further consultations.
Edano has said he wants to gain understanding from communities near the reactors, including those such as Shiga and Kyoto prefectures which are not hosts to atomic plants but are close enough to be at risk of radiation from any major accident.
A group of seven lawmakers from ruling and opposition parties, which wants Japan to abandon nuclear power, urged the government on Friday not to approve restarts hastily.
"The government needs to investigate the causes of the nuclear accident, launch a nuclear regulatory body, set new rules and gain agreement from local people. These are the right steps," one member of the group, opposition lawmaker Taro Kono, told a joint news conference.