TOKYO Japan's government is considering conducting stress tests on nuclear reactors to ease safety concerns which have blocked the restart of idled reactors since the March quake and tsunami, but is likely to delay the nation's first nuclear restart since the disaster.
Japan is struggling with a drawn-out crisis after meltdowns at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant, site of the world's worst nuclear incident in 25 years.
Tokyo worries that without the restart of reactors outside the quake-hit region that have been shut for regular maintenance, the country could suffer power shortages when demand peaks in the summer.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Wednesday he had asked Japan's trade and nuclear safety ministers to plan new tests.
"I have given instructions to consider ways to further boost assurances about nuclear power plants generally, by making evaluations through something similar to stress tests being conducted in Europe," Edano told parliament.
The tests would determine how well each nuclear reactor could withstand severe events, like the magnitude 9 earthquake and 15-meter (49-foot) tsunami that battered Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi facility in the northeast in March.
Such tests would not require extra safety checks but would rely on existing data, a trade ministry official in charge of reactor inspections said. Further details would be decided later, he added.
Local authorities have been calling for new guidelines to ensure that reactors in their communities are safer than Fukushima and another nuclear complex in Hamaoka, 200 km (120 miles) southwest of Tokyo, which Chubu Electric Power Co closed in early May at the prime minister's request due to that area's risk of a major earthquake.
Countries in the European Union have agreed to proceed with stress tests on the region's 143 reactors and have urged that they be conducted worldwide.
POSSIBLE DELAY IN RESTART
Tokyo's surprise move came just as reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co's 36-year old plant in the town of Genkai in the southern Saga prefecture were about to become the first to return online since the disaster.
Saga Governor Yasushi Furukawa signaled a delay in the restart beyond mid-July. "Any decision on Genkai should wait until after the stress tests are completed," he said in a statement.
"I agree with the aim of stress tests which is to offer further reassurance to citizens, but why now?" Furukawa said in a television program.
"There is no shared stance of the government. I don't know whom to believe."
Last week, Japan's trade and energy minister Banri Kaieda, undeterred by several dozen anti-nuclear protesters, tried to persuade local governments in the Saga prefecture that it was safe to restart nuclear reactors.
Delays in restarting reactors and the shutdown of tsunami-hit plants have left Japan with only 19 of its 54 commercial reactors still operating.
To avoid unexpected blackouts, the government has told big power users in Tokyo and northeastern Japan that starting July 1 they must cut their peak power use by 15 percent compared with last year, resorting to such measures for the first time since the oil crisis of 1974.
Before March, nuclear accounted for about 30 percent of the electricity supply in Japan, the world's third-biggest nuclear power generator after the United States and France.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan told parliament Wednesday that his government should come up with a new, comprehensive rule to help local authorities reach decisions on restart approvals, in response to a question about the Genkai reactors.
No time frame has yet been given for the tests, although Furukawa said it was his understanding that they would first be conducted on reactors that had been shut for regular maintenance.
The current parliamentary session has been extended until August to discuss compensation for people harmed or forced from their homes by the nuclear disaster. It will also focus on rebuilding the quake-hit regions and a framework to boost the use of renewable energy.
But political deadlock could undermine progress as opposition parties are likely to keep up pressure on Kan to keep his promise to quit soon.
(Additional reporting by Stanley White and Tetsushi Kajimoto; Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Edmund Klamann)