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VIENNA (Reuters) - There is political consensus in Japan to cut the country's reliance on nuclear power but there needs to be a public debate on how to proceed, a senior Japanese government official told the U.N.'s atomic agency on Monday.
Nuclear Disaster Minister Goshi Hosono was speaking hours after 60,000 demonstrators marched in Tokyo to demand an exit from atomic energy after the Fukushima plant catastrophe.
"In Japan there is a kind of consensus that we would like to reduce the dependency on nuclear power, but the speed with which that would be achieved or the method that would be used to attain such a target has yet to be identified," Hosono told a news conference.
"Perhaps it will take a full year to discuss with the wider public in Japan to identify how energy policy should be."
New Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, taking office with virtually no cohesive energy policy in place since the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years, has said it would be difficult to build new reactors.
Noda has also said he would like to see reactors shut for safety checks to restart by next April in order not to undermine the world's third biggest economy.
Six months after a huge earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant and caused the biggest civil nuclear power accident since Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, only 11 of the country's 54 reactors are in operation.
With distrust of nuclear power high and authorities exercising extreme caution, not a single reactor taken off stream for routine maintenance since the twin disasters has been restarted.
Hosono used his address to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)'s annual members meeting to stress the government's commitment to nuclear safety and said the Fukushima reactors could be in "cold shutdown" by the end of the year, slightly ahead of schedule.
Japan's government has said cold shutdown, which means the spread of radiation from reactors has been suppressed, is a precondition for any return of thousands of evacuees to the restricted zone around the plant.
The government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) utility that operated the plant had earlier said they planned to achieve cold shutdown by January.
"We will move up the existing target period and endeavor to achieve this cold shutdown by the end of this year," Hosono told the meeting in Vienna.
IAEA head Yukiya Amano had said last week that the reactors at Fukushima were "essentially" stable.
Tepco this month edged a step closer to its goal of bringing the reactors to a state of cold shutdown as the temperature at the second of three damaged units fell below boiling point.
Cold shutdown occurs when water used to cool nuclear fuel rods remains below 100 degrees Celsius, preventing the fuel from reheating.
Hosono acknowledged to reporters that Japan did not have an adequate liability system in place to compensate victims of the accident.
"But now we hear voices ... that we should perhaps review the current system, structure, we have in Japan. We are mindful of the fact that there is a need to look into the possibility of perhaps becoming party to a convention that is dealing with (compensation)," he said.
Eighty thousand people had to be evacuated from the area around Fukushima, and Hosono said it remained unclear when they would be allowed back home.
Even if cold shutdown came by the end of the year, "We should not rush. We should take a cautious stance," he said.
Reporting by Michael Shields and Fredrik Dahl,; Editing by Rosalind Russell