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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said on Wednesday the Fukushima nuclear crisis had convinced him that Japan should wean itself from nuclear power and eventually have no atomic plants.
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.
"Given the enormity of the risks associated with nuclear power generation, I have realized nuclear technology is not something that can be managed by conventional safety measures alone," Kan told a news conference. "I believe we should aim for a society that is not dependent on nuclear power generation."
The Fukushima plant is still leaking radiation four months on, although Kan said workers were on track to achieve a target of stable cooling of the reactors by mid-July and that the government hoped to move forward its deadline of putting the crippled reactors into cold shutdown by January.
Kan said it was premature to set a time frame for achieving the goal of a nuclear power-free society but said it would be a gradual process.
The unpopular prime minister has become increasingly sensitive to public concern about nuclear power, but whether he oversees an overhaul of energy policy is in doubt since he has promised to resign, although he has not said when.
Kan also said Japan would be able to avoid summer and winter power shortages through energy conservation efforts and companies' in-house power supplies, despite the large number of reactors now off-line for inspections or other work.
He said the government would take steps to alleviate the impact on consumers and businesses from the short-term loss of nuclear power due to idled reactors, but gave no details.
Nuclear energy accounted for about 30 percent of Japan's power supply before the March 11 disasters crippled Tokyo Electric's Fukushima plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of the capital. That ratio slipped to 18 percent in June.
Nuclear power advocates have warned that abandoning atomic energy would itself entail risks, although of a different kind.
"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.
Japan has set a target for 2020 of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels.
"Another possible risk would be energy prices could go up and possibly dependence on the Middle East or other fossil fuel exporting countries," 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.
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 (tens of billions of dollars) off gross domestic product.
But he gave no time frame for that prediction.
Energy experts said Japan would have to boost fuel imports to make up for any short-term decline in nuclear power.
"It takes time to reduce reliance on nuclear power and replace it with alternatives, maybe a span of 10 years or so," said Koki Ota, senior economist at Sumitomo Shoji Research Institute, adding that demand for low-sulphur waxy residue and gas imports would strengthen the most.
Kan, who has come under fire for his handling of the nuclear crisis, defended his introduction of stress tests for reactors to soothe public safety concerns but apologized once again for the apparent abruptness of the move.
He said that idled reactors that completed the first stage of the two-stage stress tests could resume operations if experts and relevant cabinet minister agreed.
Last week's 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.
Kan said he was not thinking about calling a snap election over energy policy and sidestepped a question on when he would quit.
Among the conditions he has previously cited for resigning is passage of a bill that would promote renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. ($1 = 78.740 Japanese Yen)
Additional reporting by Risa Maeda, Chikako Mogi, Rie Ishiguro and Linda Sieg; Writing by Linda Sieg