TOKYO Former Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan concluded in March that nuclear power was no longer worth the risk after the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years. His successor seems less convinced.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's month-old government let a panel of experts begin debate on Japan's energy policy on Monday, but Noda has already signaled that nuclear power could play a role for decades.
Six months after an earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant, which is still leaking radiation, critics say powerful pro-nuclear interests are quietly fighting back.
"It's been a real bad year for the 'nuclear village' but I don't think they are down and out," said Jeffrey Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus, referring to the utilities, lawmakers and regulators who long promoted atomic power as safe, clean and cheap.
Public concern about safety leapt after the Fukushima accident, which forced 80,000 people from their homes and sparked fears about food and water supply. Some 70 percent of voters polled in July backed Kan's call to phase out nuclear plants.
A series of scandals in which regulators and power companies tried to sway hearings on reactors has also dented public trust.
Noda has acknowledged that public safety concerns will make it tough to build new reactors, but on Friday stopped short of saying atomic power would play no role at all by 2050. He said decisions on reactors already under construction would have to be made "case-by-case."
The panel is led by the chairman of steel industry giant Nippon Steel Corp, a heavy user of electricity and considered partial to nuclear power, but also includes those opposed to atomic energy.
Public safety fears remain high. Tens of thousands rallied in Tokyo last month urging an end to nuclear power, a hefty showing in a country where taking to the streets is rare.
Their concerns include how to deal with increasing nuclear waste, such as the Fukushima reactors. Japan, the world's third-biggest nuclear generator, has postponed a decision on where to build a nuclear waste repository.
The operator of the crippled reactors, Tokyo Electric Power Co, faces a huge compensation bill, estimated at 4.5 trillion yen ($58 billion) for the two years through March 2013 alone, and will need funds from a government-backed scheme to stay solvent.
The government, analysts say, has made clear it views Tokyo Electric as too big to fail.
"That rickety scheme, though it is not explicit, would see the monopoly maintained and nuclear plants continue to be used," said Andrew DeWit, a Rikkyo University professor who writes about energy policy.
Yet Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who was chief cabinet secretary for former leader Kan and now oversees energy policy, said on Monday the panel should take into account a change in public views for atomic power.
"The debate should not start from the current status but rather show what the country should be in the future, then discuss how it can quickly approach there," he told the panel. ($1 = 77.080 yen)
(Additional reporting by Mayumi Negishi, Kentaro Hamada, Risa Maeda; Editing by Nick Macfie)