(Fixes typo in headline)
* Government panel begins debate on energy policy
* Prime Minister Noda wants "best mix" on energy portfolio
* Minister Edano says debate should not start from current
By Shinichi Saoshiro and Linda Sieg
TOKYO, Oct 3 Former Japanese prime minister
Naoto Kan concluded in March that nuclear power was no longer
worth the risk after the world's worst nuclear accident in 25
years. His successor seems less convinced.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's month-old government let a
panel of experts begin debate on Japan's energy policy on
Monday, but Noda has already signalled that nuclear power could
play a role for decades.
Six months after an earthquake and tsunami crippled the
Fukushima plant, which is still leaking radiation, critics say
powerful pro-nuclear interests are quietly fighting back.
"It's been a real bad year for the 'nuclear village' but I
don't think they are down and out," said Jeffrey Kingston,
Director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus,
referring to the utilities, lawmakers and regulators who long
promoted atomic power as safe, clean and cheap.
Public concern about safety leapt after the Fukushima
accident, which forced 80,000 people from their homes and
sparked fears about food and water supply. Some 70 percent of
voters polled in July backed Kan's call to phase out nuclear
A series of scandals in which regulators and power companies
tried to sway hearings on reactors has also dented public trust.
Noda has acknowledged that public safety concerns will make
it tough to build new reactors, but on Friday stopped short of
saying atomic power would play no role at all by 2050. He said
decisions on reactors already under construction would have to
be made "case-by-case".
The panel is led by the chairman of steel industry
giant Nippon Steel Corp , a heavy user of electricity
and considered partial to nuclear power, but also includes those
opposed to atomic energy.
Public safety fears remain high. Tens of thousands rallied
in Tokyo last month urging an end to nuclear power, a hefty
showing in a country where taking to the streets is rare.
Their concerns include how to deal with
increasing nuclear waste, such as the Fukushima reactors. Japan,
the world's third-biggest nuclear generator, has postponed a
decision on where to build a nuclear waste repository.
The operator of the crippled reactors, Tokyo Electric Power
Co , faces a huge compensation bill, estimated at
4.5 trillion yen ($58 billion) for the two years through
March 2013 alone, and will need funds from a government-backed
scheme to stay solvent.
The government, analysts say, has made clear it views Tokyo
Electric as too big to fail.
"That rickety scheme, though it is not explicit, would see
the monopoly maintained and nuclear plants continue to be used,"
said Andrew DeWit, a Rikkyo University professor who writes
about energy policy.
Yet Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who
was chief cabinet secretary for former leader Kan and
now oversees energy policy, said on Monday
the panel should take into account a change in public views for
"The debate should not start from the current
status but rather show what the country should be in
the future, then discuss how it can quickly
approach there," he told the panel.
($1 = 77.080 yen)
(Additional reporting by Mayumi Negishi, Kentaro Hamada, Risa
Maeda; Editing by Nick Macfie)