* Japan in gradual shift away from nuclear power
* Only 5 of the nation's 54 reactors remain online
* Rare protest delays process to help idled reactors restart
(Adds details on meeting of experts)
By Risa Maeda
TOKYO, Jan 18 Japan will allow nuclear
reactors to operate for up to 60 years in revised regulations on
power plant operators, the government said on Wednesday, even as
it looks to shift gradually away from atomic power in the wake
of the Fukushima disaster.
The decision marks the first time Japan has set a limit on a
reactor's maximum lifespan and comes while it debates an energy
strategy that is expected to give a greater role to renewables.
The government said it aims to introduce the 60-year limit a
year from now as part of a revision of laws regulating nuclear
plant operators after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami
crippled reactor cooling systems in the Fukushima Daiichi
complex, triggering meltdowns and radiation leaks that led to
mass evacuations and widespread contamination.
Public anxiety sparked by the disaster has prevented the
restart of many reactors shut for routine checks, and only five
of the nation's 54 reactors remain online, prompting utilities
to import more fossil fuels to bridge the gap.
In a rare protest, a group of citizen observers delayed a
hearing at the trade ministry in which experts were expected to
approve the nuclear watchdog's review of stress test results
from Fukui prefecture's Ohi reactors.
"How can you allow the restart of reactors? We should not
put people in Fukui in the same situation as those in
Fukushima," said Wako Shichinohe, 59, who attended the meeting.
Later, a meeting was held without any observers. Experts
made final comments on the draft report on the two Ohi reactors,
virtually ending the assessment process. No details were
Stress tests are now being carried out on idled reactors to
reassure the public and persuade local governments to allow them
to be restarted.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters
details were still under consideration but the lifespan of a
reactor would in principle be 40 years, as suggested by
Environment and Nuclear Accident Prevention Minister Goshi
Hosono earlier this month.
The government will allow plant operators to apply for one
extension of up to 20 years for each reactor, in line with U.S.
"There will be no change in the fact that the number of
reactors will decline, as will Japan's reliance on them. But
we're not talking about the immediate future," Fujimura said at
a news conference.
Under the current system, plant operators can apply for an
extension after 30 years and are usually granted 10-year
extensions with no limit on how often they reapply as long as
the nuclear watchdog approves.
The six reactors at the wrecked Fukushima plant are among
the oldest, having started operation between 1971 and 1979.
Twelve other reactors date back to the 1970s,
the two oldest having been operating since 1970.
"Public sentiment is for Japan to end the use of nuclear
power. The public wants the country to move away from nuclear
power as soon as possible, let alone an extension in the life of
nuclear reactors," said Hiroshi Takahashi, a research fellow at
the Fujitsu Research Institute.
"But if backed up by safety regulations legally deemed
adequate, one has to admit there would be little reason the
regulation should not be implemented. What has to be considered
is that unlike Germany, which is aiming to shut down all its
nuclear plants by 2022, Japan is still discussing the future
role of nuclear power, allowing for such logic."
The government plans to submit bills on limiting the length
of reactor operations as well as on reorganising nuclear
regulators in a parliament session starting later this month.
But it is also keen to bring existing reactors back into
operation to avert a power crunch and ease the impact on the
(Additional reporting by Rie Ishiguro; Editing by Michael
Watson and Nick Macfie)