TOKYO The restart of Japan's nuclear power industry is proving pivotal to the economic vision of the country's prime minister as soaring fuel bills after the Fukushima disaster threaten to keep the country's trade in a deeper deficit for longer.
As Japan marks the second anniversary this week of a crisis that scarred the nation, the fuel bills to pay for lost atomic output are leaving their own scars on the economy, partly owing to Abe's own making.
His mix of economic policies - dubbed Abenomics by the media - has driven the yen down sharply, thus raising the cost of imports that will weigh on the revival of a nation that has traditionally relied on exports to drive growth.
The sooner that pro-nuclear Abe can restart atomic power stations, the sooner he will return the country's record trade deficit to its long-term standing of a trade surplus and so mark a milestone in the recovery of the economy.
But in Abe's way is the country's new, independent atomic watchdog, which has said it will take as long as three years to approve restarts under safety guidelines it is drawing up.
"It's a problem for Abe because his economic policies depend partly on an export led recovery to really deliver growth and he needs to get the trade balance back to positive," said Tom O'Sullivan, a Tokyo-based energy consultant.
"He also needs to stimulate domestic demand in parallel with improving exports," O'Sullivan said, adding he believed Abe had made up his mind to restart reactors.
The Fukushima disaster, triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan in March 2011, led to the shut down of the country's entire nuclear power industry, which was producing 30 percent of the country's electricity supply at the time. Only two reactors have resumed operation, sparking huge protests against nuclear power.
Japan's fuel imports bill jumped immediately as power companies ramped up production of oil and gas-fired generators. Just as quickly, the trade balance swung into a deficit.
Abe's push for more aggressive fiscal and monetary policy since he won a big election victory in December has added to the fuel bill by driving down the value of the yen to a 3-1/2 year low of 96.71 per dollar on Tuesday.
Japan, the most energy-import dependent of the world's major economies, spent about 24 trillion yen ($250 billion) in 2012 on fuel imports including for electricity generation, based on the official average yen rate of 79.55 to dollar, finance ministry figures showed.
That made up a third of Japan's total imports bill and towered over a record trade deficit of 6.9 trillion yen.
Should the yen fall to 100 to the dollar and stay there for the next year, Japan's purchases of oil, gas and coal from overseas would rise 25 percent to just over 30 trillion yen, in the unlikely scenario that import volumes hold steady.
But energy imports are likely to rise as Japan faces a second complete shutdown by September when the two running nuclear plants must be idled for regular maintenance.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party is seen as more pro-nuclear power than the preceding Democratic Party of Japan government. Abe plans, for example, to review from scratch his predecessor's plan to exit atomic power.
"Abe will surely use high import costs after the summer to argue that Japan needs to get restarts simply because the cost for doing business in Japan is prohibitive," said Martin Schulz, a senior research fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute.
Like Abe, utilities have strong economic reasons to restart nuclear power stations as they see costs soar. Imports of liquefied natural gas, the main substitute for nuclear fuel, cost 6 trillion yen in 2012 and utilities are desperate to restart other units to reduce costs and cut losses.
They are betting they will be able to get just over a fifth of Japan's 50 reactors restarted by the end of March 2014, although some critics say that is ambitious given the regulator's more cautious view.
If utilities were able to get half the country's 50 nuclear reactors back online, they would save as much as 1.8 trillion yen in fuel imports over the next year, the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, a government-linked research institute, said.
Tokyo Electric Power Co, Kansai Electric Power Co, Kyushu Electric Power Co, Shikoku Electric Power Co and Tohoku Electric Power Co have included the restart of 11 reactors as part of applications to raise electricity prices.
Out of the country's 10 nuclear operators, the five account for more than 70 percent of fuel oil, crude and LNG use for power generation in Japan and 40 percent of coal burning. Together they operate two-thirds of the country's reactors.
"Nothing has been decided yet about the restart of nuclear reactors, but my guess is that the current government is supportive of restarts, although in a low-key manner, since the resistance among the population is substantial," said Gerhard Fasol, chief executive officer of Eurotechnology Japan KK, a Tokyo-based consulting firm.
The big five are forecasting a 50 percent increase in coal use in the year to March 31, 2014, while their LNG use is expected to decline 9.4 percent.
Reflecting the currency impact, the volume of crude oil imports fell 4.7 percent in January but their value rose 5.9 percent. Average benchmark Brent crude prices in the month were only 0.8 percent higher than a year earlier. ($1 = 96.0100 Japanese yen)
(Reporting by Aaron Sheldrick and Osamu Tsukimori; Editing by Simon Webb and Neil Fullick)