* LDP nurtured nuclear power in earlier reign
* Nuclear operators' shares surge after LDP win
* New govt to take 10 years to decide energy policy
By Aaron Sheldrick
TOKYO, Dec 20 Hopes within an anxious business
community that Japan's idle nuclear power stations would be
rapidly restarted will almost certainly have to be placed on the
backburner despite last weekend's landslide election victory by
a pro-nuclear party.
Shares of nuclear operators surged after the Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP), with a reputation for close links to the
nuclear industry, was returned to power. The reasoning was it
would respond quickly to industry demands to get reactors going
more than 18 months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Tokyo Electric, operator of the crippled Fukushima
plant, climbed 53 percent. Kansai Electric Power Co,
the most nuclear reliant of the utilities, is up almost 18
But restarts are likely to be a slow process, subject to
rules still to be drafted by a new nuclear regulator and to wary
public opinion, mobilised against the industry since the March
2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to meltdowns at Fukushima.
"(Their) hopes might be a little premature, to the extent
that they assume their travails are over and income streams
ready to go right back into the black," said Andrew DeWit, a
professor at Tokyo's Rikkyo University who researches energy
And that will also mean continued high bills for fuel
imports to run conventional power plants.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), set up with more
independence after the disaster discredited its predecessor, is
expected to draw up safety standards by July 2013. It will judge
whether plants are safe to restart, but its head says elected
officials must take the final decision.
"It is unlikely the LDP-led government will want to
interfere at an early stage with the operation of the recently
established independent NRA, the creation of which they
supported," said Tom O'Sullivan, a Tokyo-based energy
During its years of almost uninterrupted rule before the
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won power in 2009, the LDP
helped foster Japan's "nuclear village", a web of vested
interests including utilities, bureaucrats and lawmakers who
promoted atomic power and kept independent oversight minimal.
Now the party says it will decide gradually on restarting
reactors deemed safe by the watchdog over the next three years
and devise an optimal energy mix over 10 years.
The LDP's caution may be explained in part by its coalition
partner New Komeito's call to phase out nuclear power. Komeito's
support is crucial for the LDP to maintain the two-thirds
majority it needs in parliament's lower house to overcome a
policy deadlock as it has no majority in the upper house.
Media surveys have shown a majority of Japanese want to
abandon atomic energy by 2030, if not sooner. The outgoing DPJ
government promised to end reliance on an energy source that
supplied about 30 percent of Japan's needs before Fukushima.
The NRA has also signalled it will take a tougher stance on
nuclear stations situated over possible seismic fault lines and
prevent risky plants from restarting.
But pressure from business interests will be unrelenting.
Both the Keidanren, Japan's biggest business lobby, and the
Federation of Electric Power Companies, called on the new
government this week to bring nuclear back into the energy mix.
"They have opposed the policy of phasing out nuclear power
which they claim is significantly increasing electricity charges
for industrial and domestic customers, jeopardising the
international competitiveness of Japanese industry," O'Sullivan
Fossil fuel imports have risen sharply since the Fukushima
meltdowns, helping push the country into a trade deficit that
increased to the largest in 10 months in November.
Utilities have mostly increased purchases of natural gas.
Liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports rose 11.6 percent to almost
80 million tonnes, in the first 11 months of 2012, from a year
earlier, according to Ministry of Finance data issued on
That is equal to one third of global trade in LNG in 2011.
The Fukushima disaster, the worst nuclear accident in the
world in a quarter century, prompted the gradual shutdown of all
Japan's nuclear reactors until there were none left operating in
The DPJ government's decision to restart two reactors last
July to prevent possible summer power shortages galvanised the
country's previously dormant anti-nuclear movement and sparked
the biggest demonstrations in decades.
With no evidence subsequently that the two reactors were
vital to meet demand, protesters still gather en masse every
week outside the prime minister's office and parliament.
"Any restarts might inflame public opinion, particularly in
the large urban centres and those prefectures that do not host
nuclear power facilities," O'Sullivan said.
Both political considerations and safety issues will
probably mean no early decision on restarting reactors even if
the NRA declares them safe, J.P. Morgan analysts said this week.
"It is uncertain if there will be restarts prior to peak
summer power demand, as media polls suggest that over half of
the Japanese population favours phasing out nuclear power," they
said in a research note.
"The impending upper house election, which takes place in
July 2013, may also encourage policymakers to put off decisions
to a later date."
(Additional reporting by Osamu Tsukimori; Editing by Ron