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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's public should realize that phasing out nuclear power would not be risk-free, the vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission warned on Wednesday, as the government seeks to craft a new energy policy and the Fukushima crisis drags on.
The radiation crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima plant, triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, has sparked debate about the role of nuclear power in quake-prone, resource-poor Japan, as well as concerns about power shortages with 35 of the nation's 54 reactors now halted.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said on Tuesday that Japan had no choice but to reduce its reliance on nuclear power over time.
The unpopular premier stopped short, however, of calling for a complete phasing out of nuclear power, which before the crisis accounted for about 30 percent of Japan's electricity supply.
"Phasing out nuclear power is not risk-free," said Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which advises the government on nuclear policy.
"Probably the immediate risk would be increased consumption of fossil fuels that would lead also to CO2 emissions increases and other air pollution," Suzuki told Reuters in an interview.
"Another possible risk would be energy prices could go up and possibly dependence on the Middle East or other fossil fuel exporting countries," he said.
Adopting a policy to abandon nuclear power would also create problems in maintaining plant safety and securing workers and experts during the decades needed to phase out and decommission reactors and deal with nuclear waste, Suzuki said.
"Having a vision of being nuclear energy-free is one thing. How to achieve it is another thing. It is very difficult to phase out nuclear power in a real sense," he said.
"My sense it that it would be very important to keep the option alive so that if anything happens in the future we can come back to make nuclear power in a better way."
Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano, an ardent supporter of nuclear power, echoed concerns about economic costs, telling a news conference that substituting fossil fuel for atomic energy would be equivalent to a large rise in Japan's corporate tax and slice several trillion yen off gross domestic product. But he gave no time frame for that prediction.
Suzuki defended Kan's introduction of reactor stress tests to soothe public worries about safety following the Fukushima crisis, the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.
Last week's abrupt decision to introduce the tests, simulations to confirm nuclear plants' safety and check their ability to withstand extreme events, fanned corporate worries about power shortages if idled reactors stay off-line, and outraged some local officials who had been ready to approve restarts after earlier government safety assurances.
"NISA (Nuclear Industry and Safety Agency) has already confirmed the safety of existing nuclear power plants but to ensure local public concerns (are addressed) we need further tests," he said.
"I think it is important to make sure that any additional concerns could be answered ... so I think it is good to conduct another test to make sure that people feel safe."
Suzuki said power shortages could spread nationwide as more nuclear power plants come off-line for regular checks but that corporate and consumer efforts to save energy were going well.
"The point is not total energy consumption but rather peak load, so one way to continue manufacturing but also to reduce the peak load is shifting production programs, so that is already being done."
Additional reporting by Shinji Kitamura and Yoko Kubota; Editing by Edmund Klamann and Michael Watson