SAGA, Japan, June 29 Japan's trade and energy minister tried on Wednesday to persuade local governments in the country's southern Saga prefecture that it was safe to restart nuclear reactors shut since a deadly earthquake and tsunami in March.
Banri Kaieda's trip to Saga, his first such visit since the disaster, was interpreted as a sign that Tokyo was hoping reactors at Kyushu Electric Power's 36-year old plant in the town of Genkai would be the first to win approval from local authorities to return online.
"I am aware it's a tough decision for the local government, but we would like your understanding for a restart," Kaieda said in a meeting with Genkai city mayor Hideo Kishimoto, who said he would approve the restart.
The March 11 disaster crippled the Fukushima power plant in northeast Japan, triggering the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl and fanning safety concerns in communities hosting nuclear facilities.
Out of Japan's 54 commercial reactors, 35 remain shut, including six at the Fukushima Daichi plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power . The government fears that local governments' refusal to sanction the restarting of reactors shut for regular maintenance will exacerbate the loss of power generating capacity and lead to blackouts when demand peaks in the summer.
An official at the Genkai city office said the mayor would try to give his approval by mid-July for the restart.
Before the crisis, nuclear power provided about 30 percent of Japan's electricity, a figure that fell last month to about 20 percent.
But Yasushi Furukawa, the governor of Saga, sounded a more cautious note. "We have to reconfirm the safety of the plant and heed the opinion of the local council and its leaders before making a decision on the restart," he was quoted by Kyodo news agency as saying.
Approvals from both the governor and the mayor of the neighboring city of Karatsu will be needed to restart the reactors after the government suspended scheduled restarts following the March 11 disaster.
The meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, 240 kilometres (150 miles) north of Tokyo, and radiation leaks that forced the evacuation of about 80,000 residents of the surrounding area have swayed public opinion against nuclear energy.
A poll showed earlier this week that nearly 70 percent of Japanese people opposed restarting reactors, even if that meant power blackouts and higher electricity bills.
The Genkai plant has four reactors, two of which are in operation. Kyushu Electric was ready to restart the remaining two reactors in March and April but kept them shut after the March disaster.
Early in May, Chubu Electric Power Co closed its Hamaoka nuclear plant in central Japan at the request of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who said the plant would be vulnerable if a major earthquake hit the area. However, since then it has offered repeated assurances that several other facilities were safe to operate. (Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka; Writing by Shinichi Saoshiro and Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Joseph Radford)