TOKYO Japan's prime minister said on Friday that two idled nuclear reactors in western Japan must be restarted to protect jobs and ensure the "survival of society", risking a voter backlash given safety fears more than a year after the Fukushima crisis.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda sought to soothe those worries at a news conference just hours after the former president of Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co testified in front of a panel appointed by parliament to probe the disaster.
The ex-president, Masataka Shimizu, denied allegations he had considered pulling out all the plant's workers as they battled the world's worst atomic accident in 25 years following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
But he acknowledged he might not have been clear about his intentions.
Noda's decision to restart the two reactors, expected to be confirmed at a meeting with key ministers, will ease worries about power shortages among firms in the region, including struggling electronics giants Panasonic Corp and Sharp Corp.
But the move, seen by many as a first step to bringing more reactors on line even before a new nuclear regulator is in place, could undermine Noda's already sagging support among voters still worried about safety.
Noda said the government had confirmed that even if Kansai Electric Co's two reactors at its Ohi plant in Fukui lost power as happened after Fukushima, there would be no damage to the reactors' core.
"Cheap and stable electricity is vital. If all the reactors that previously provided 30 percent of Japan's electricity supply are halted, or kept idle, Japanese society cannot survive," Noda said, pointing to the possibility that more companies would shift output offshore and jobs would be lost.
"It is my decision that Ohi reactors No.3 and No.4 should be restarted to protect the people's livelihoods."
Nuclear power had supplied nearly 30 percent of Japan's electricity before last year's quake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima plant, spewing radiation and forcing mass evacuations.
All of the country's 50 reactors have gone offline since, risking power shortages especially in the western metropolis of Osaka and other parts of Kansai Electric's service area.
VOTERS WANT SAFETY
The governor of the host prefecture of Fukui had insisted that Noda make his stance clear to the public. A formal decision is expected to be made soon at a meeting of Noda and other key ministers after the Fukui governor responds.
Japanese voters, however, have grown wary of nuclear power since Fukushima, with surveys showing that about 70 percent want to abandon reliance on atomic energy even if not immediately.
Around 1,000 people protested outside the prime minister's office in central Tokyo after his news conference, chanting "We oppose restarts" and "Protect our children". More were joining the crowd of office workers, mothers with children and elderly as they waved banners opposing nuclear power.
"The overwhelming majority of the public do not want nuclear reactor restarts, and they are more than ready to work together and conserve power over the summer to remain nuclear free," environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement.
"By ignoring them and continuing his reckless push to restart Ohi, Prime Minister Noda is compromising the health and safety of millions, and showing just how deep his government is in the pocket of the nuclear industry," it said.
The government is currently thrashing out a new medium-term energy strategy to replace a 2010 plan that would have boosted nuclear power to 30 percent of electricity supply by 2030.
Experts say a 15 percent target for 2030 is likely but the government is not likely to pledge to abandon atomic energy completely by mid-century given the clout of the nuclear industry and business worries about higher electricity costs.
In a sign of the close ties that bind corporate Japan, former Tepco president Shimizu, a target of public outrage after the accident, will this month become an outside board member of Fuji Oil Co., which is owned by AOC Holdings Inc, a firm in which Tepco has an 8.7 percent stake.
Shimizu was widely criticized for vanishing from public view three days after the disaster struck. He was later hospitalized for dizziness and high blood pressure, leaving the utility's chairman to supervise operations during his absence.
On Friday, he apologized again for the nuclear disaster but denied charges by then-premier Naoto Kan that he had considered pulling out all the plant's workers.
When pressed, however, Shimizu - whose frequent comments that he could not recall certain conversations prompted a rebuke from the panel chairman - said he had never clearly stated that some staff would remain.
(Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Michael Watson and Nick Macfie)