Japan's new govt sticks to 3-year nuclear safety goal

TOKYO Thu Dec 27, 2012 10:31pm EST

TOKYO Dec 28 (Reuters) - Japan's new government said on Friday it hoped to stick to a three year deadline to decide whether to restart all nuclear reactors after safety checks, despite the country's newly formed nuclear regulator saying the deadline was impossible to meet.

Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, who is also responsible for energy policy, said reactors would be restarted as units received the all-clear from the atomic regulator.

"We will rely on the NRA (Nuclear Regulation Authority) to judge safety from an expert point of view and will not restart ones as long as safety is not confirmed," Motegi told a news conference.

NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said in an interview in the Asahi newspaper on Friday that completing safety checks within the three-year timeframe set by new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be impossible to meet.

All but two of Japan's 50 reactors remain switched off after an earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi station in northeastern Japan in March 2011.

Atomic energy supplied about 30 percent of Japan's needs before Fukushima, but since the disaster support for nuclear power has plummeted.

Abe's government, which was installed on Wednesday after a landslide election victory, has said it will take 10 years to decide on the best energy mix for Japan.

"We have not decided on the policy of going zero-nuclear by the 2030s," Motegi said, referring to the previous government's policy.

An order from former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to restart the two reactors now operating in western Japan prompted the biggest demonstrations in the country in decades and contributed to his election defeat this month.

The NRA, which still needs to draft new rules on safety, has signalled it will take a tougher stance on nuclear stations situated over possible seismic fault lines and prevent risky plants from restarting.

If a review of a faultline under the operating reactors at the Ohi station shows it is active, the NRA will request a halt for the units, operated by Kansai Electric Power Co, Tanaka said in the interview.

A panel of NRA experts this week confirmed its assessment that there are active faults under the Higashi Dori nuclear plant in northern Japan, which is owned by Tohoku Electric Power Co. The assessment means the NRA is unlikely allow the plant to restart.