(Adds comments, detail)
By Risa Maeda
TOKYO, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Japanese utilities are due to submit the results of first-stage stress tests for at least one of their reactors to the nuclear watchdog by the end of this month, the new trade minister said on Monday.
Tokyo ordered Japan’s power utilities to carry out simulations to test how well prepared their reactors were to withstand the impact of extreme events such as a strong earthquake or a tsunami.
Yoshio Hachiro also told reporters that he shared Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s view that reactors idled after regular maintenance is over should get approval from local authorities and return online before next April.
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and resulted in a huge radiation leak, heightened public concerns about safety and kept any reactors from restarting.
Nuclear power provided only 15 percent of Japan’s electricity in July, down from around 30 percent before the world’s worst radiation crisis in 25 years.
Japan’s government is asking the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to assess the results of the stress tests, in addition to assessments by nuclear regulators here, to help restore public confidence in existing reactors, Hachiro said.
The trade ministry is requesting Tokyo Electric to submit more data to prove the nuclear operator’s view that it was not a magnitude 9 earthquake but the tsunami which caused the blackout, stopped cooling systems and triggered the radiation leak at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, he added.
“We’d like such data to help local people to judge the safety of reactors they’re concerned about,” Hachiro said.
Communities around reactors vulnerable to a strong earthquake have been worried that the government’s immediate measures against tsunamis would not be enough.
Hachiro said it is up a new panel of experts appointed by the trade minister as well as a government debate led by the strategy minister as how to ensure Japan has stable energy supply in the mid- to long-term while weaning itself from the reliance on nuclear.
It is also up to these parties to decide whether to allow utilities to continue construction of reactors halted since the March disaster. Both parties are expected to compile an interim report on post-Fukushima energy policy by the end of the year and come to conclusion next year, he said.
“The time is not ripe yet to make a conclusion and shape a policy,” said Hachiro, a veteran lawmaker who has a stronger insight in agriculture and trade issues than energy.
He declined to comment on his position over the U.S.-led free trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership to be discussed at APEC meeting in November, saying that was premature.
But Hachiro, who had worked at a farm cooperative, said he learned from the history of liberalising Japan’s farm markets that Japan should insist its own interests, although farm produce cannot be excluded from trade talks.
Japan’s industry groups have been calling for speedy talks on free trade agreements with major trading partners to better compete against newly emerging economies.
Reporting by Risa Maeda; Editing by Tomasz Janowski