TOKYO Nearly three-quarters of Japanese companies support abandoning nuclear power after last year's Fukushima disaster, although a majority set the condition that alternative energy resources must be secured, a Reuters poll showed on Friday.
The poll offers fresh evidence of the deep public distrust of nuclear power, the role of which the government is reconsidering after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima nuclear plant, triggering a radiation crisis that caused mass evacuations and widespread contamination.
All of the country's 50 nuclear reactors are now off-line, with those halted for maintenance checks since Fukushima prevented from restarting as a result of public safety fears, and shortfalls in power supply are being met by the use of costly fossil fuels and energy-saving steps.
The government is struggling to finalize a revamp of Japan's energy program, which previously called for an increase in the use of nuclear power to meet 50 percent of the nation's electricity needs. The figure stood at about 30 percent before the crisis, and options in the revised policy are seen ranging from zero to 35 percent by 2030.
"Companies are already coping with the situation where all nuclear reactors have gone off-line so the survey's result seems to reflect such reality," said Taro Saito, director of economic research at NLI Research Institute in Tokyo.
"We could live without nuclear power if we wanted but we would then have to rely on thermal power until alternative sources are found. The question is whether companies are ready to put up with higher costs and lower growth."
Until alternative resources and safety are secured, Japan should not seek to make a straight choice between pursuing nuclear power or abandoning it, Saito added.
Japan's biggest business lobby, Keidanren, has voiced worries that a rise in electricity costs due to abandoning nuclear power could prompt Japanese companies to relocate overseas, costing jobs and growth. Potential power shortages could also undermine Japan's fragile economic recovery.
The latest poll, taken alongside the monthly Reuters Tankan survey, suggests big companies are less wedded to nuclear power than Keidanren's position suggests.
Critics of Keidanren, including Hiroshi Mikitani, president of virtual mall operator Rakuten Inc, accuse the business lobby of protecting the utility firms.
Twenty-seven percent of respondents were opposed to the idea of ditching nuclear power while 18 percent fully supported ending it. A 55 percent majority backed abandoning nuclear power as long as alternative energy resources were secured.
"We'd want to see stable electricity supply other than from nuclear power, and for low-cost and environment-friendly sources to be secured quickly," a metal product maker said in the poll of 400 big firms, of which 286 responded during May 7-21.
MISTRUST OF UTILITIES
The government has asked companies and consumers in western Japan, where Kansai Electric Power Co was the most reliant of any utility on nuclear reactors, to cut power use by at least 15 percent this summer from 2010 levels, and by a lesser degree in other regions to cope with shortages.
Highlighting public mistrust of Japan's regional monopoly power companies, only 11 percent of those surveyed approved of utilities' efforts to secure power supply and just 12 percent trusted their projections for electricity demand.
Forty percent saw efforts by power companies as "insufficient" and 29 percent saw their power demand projections as unreliable.
Critics accuse utilities of exaggerating potential power shortages in order to win public support to restart off-line reactors, beginning with two at Kansai Electric's Ohi plant in Fukui.
The poll also showed 70 percent of firms are prepared to cooperate on power saving to the same degree as last summer, with 24 percent willing to cooperate to a lesser extent.
(Writing by Tetsushi Kajimoto; Editing by Linda Sieg, Michael Perry, Michael Watson and Daniel Magnowski)