TOKYO Nearly three-quarters of Japanese voters want to see a gradual phase-out of nuclear power, a newspaper poll showed on Tuesday, the latest sign of concerns about atomic safety as the country struggles with the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
The survey by the Asahi newspaper, however, also showed that 51 percent agreed reactors now off-line for inspections should be restarted if they meet government safety standards, compared with 35 percent who were opposed, although the percentage opposed was higher in regions hosting reactors.
The survey coincided with Monday's referendum in Italy where almost 95 percent of votes cast favored blocking a nuclear power revival in the earthquake-prone country.
Three months after a massive earthquake and tsunami, workers are trying to stabilize reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi plant. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from the area around the plant.
Officials at the trade ministry, which oversees energy policy, have warned that all of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors might be shut down by next April if communities objected to operating plants due to safety concerns.
But experts say the economic costs are too high to pull the plug on all the plants despite the public's concerns. Before the quake, nuclear power supplied about 30 percent of Japan's electricity needs.
Trade minister Banri Kaieda on Tuesday said that Japan would not change its stance of keeping nuclear power as one of the key pillars of its energy policy, along with fossil fuels, renewable energy and energy conservation.
"What is important is finding a balance (between taking steps such as Italy's move toward banning nuclear energy) and current power supply constraints," he told a news conference.
Unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has promised to step down in coming months after coming under fire for his handling of the nuclear crisis, has pledged to overhaul the regulation of nuclear power and announced new safety steps.
Kan also pledged last month to boost renewable energy to at least 20 percent of Japan's electricity supply in the 2020s, about double the current level, and aims to cut the costs of solar power generation by one-sixth by 2030.
Sixty-five percent of respondents to the Asahi survey said they were willing to accept higher electricity rates to promote renewable energy sources, compared with 19 percent who were not.
(Reporting by Linda Sieg and Yoko Kubota; Editing by Chris Gallagher and Joseph Radford)