Japan local assembly OK's reactor restarts, hurdles remain

Mon May 14, 2012 2:44am EDT

Related Topics

* Japanese public wary, split on nuclear power

* Government likely to await ruling by authorities in prefecture

* Critics say government too hasty in seeking restart of reactors

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO, May 14 (Reuters) - The assembly in a western Japanese town that hosts a nuclear plant agreed on Monday it was necessary to restart two off-line reactors, domestic media said, the first such nod since all the country's stations were halted after the Fukushima crisis.

With power shortages looming in the region when demand peaks this summer, the central government has been trying to win approval from towns and prefectures that host reactors. All 50 reactors are off-line since the last one shut down for maintenance on May 5.

The government is set to urge businesses and consumers in Kansai Electric Power Co's service area in western Japan to make voluntary power cuts of 15 percent this summer to cope with shortages, media reported.

That would avoid the mandatory restrictions imposed in some regions last year after the Fukushima crisis, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986, with three reactors suffering meltdowns after the plant was hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami.

The central government last month said reactors No. 3 and No. 4 at Kansai Electric Power Co's plant in Ohi, Fukui prefecture, 360 km (225 miles) west of Tokyo, were safe to restart.

Officials must still persuade a wary public - including residents of regions close enough to be at risk from a nuclear accident but too distant to reap economic rewards - that a resumption is safe. Delays in setting up a new nuclear regulatory agency due to disputes in parliament have further spooked voters.

Members of the Ohi town assembly noted that many residents still had concerns about safety, but most local lawmakers felt restarts were essential for the town's economy, Kyodo news agency reported.

Ohi received about 2.5 billion yen ($31 million)in subsidies in the financial year to March 2010 related to Kansai Electric's four reactors. Many jobs also depend in some way on the plant.

WARY NEIGHBOURS

The central government has no legal obligation to win local approval, but is unlikely to proceed with restarts without the agreement of the host town and prefectural government.

It is uncertain, though, whether Tokyo authorities would override opposition from nearby prefectures with public opinion divided.

A weekend survey by the pro-nuclear power Yomiuri newspaper showed that 45 percent of respondents backed restarting reactors deemed safe and an equal number were opposed.

Ohi Mayor Shinobu Tokioka will take the assembly's view into account but intends to wait for a ruling by a prefectural panel of experts on safety before conveying a decision to Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa, Kyodo said. That decision could come this week.

Some critics say the government is making undue haste to get reactors up and running because surviving peak summer demand without nuclear power would make it hard to convince the public that atomic energy is vital.

Environmental group Greenpeace said the government's "reckless push" to get reactors back in service "has left many communities thinking they have to choose between risks to their health and safety, and risks to their jobs and prosperity.

"Japan is surviving without nuclear power and can continue to do so with proper energy demand management and leadership from the government," Greenpeace added. Nuclear power produced nearly 30 percent of Japan's electricity before the crisis. The government is working on a energy mix policy it hopes to unveil this summer, replacing a programme that had aimed to boost the share of atomic power to more than 50 percent by 2030. ($1 = 79.8800 Japanese yen) (Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Aaron Sheldrick and Ron Popeski)

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