TOKYO (Reuters) - Most Japanese want a new prime minister to lead rebuilding after last month’s earthquake and tsunami, newspaper polls showed on Monday, as the head of government was again scolded in parliament for his handling of the nuclear crisis that followed.
Japan is struggling to bring the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant under control after it was crippled by the March 11 natural disasters, a process that could take the rest of the year.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said on Sunday it hoped to achieve a cold shutdown to make the reactors stable within six to nine months.
That timetable would only be met if “everything goes smoothly,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. The full recovery could take even longer and rebuilding the shattered northeastern coast has yet to begin.
The cost of material damage alone from the quake and tsunami has been estimated at $300 billion, making it the world’s most expensive natural disaster. More than 13,000 people have been confirmed dead and tens of thousands made homeless.
Nearly 70 percent of people surveyed by the Nikkei business daily said Prime Minister Naoto Kan should be replaced, and a similar number said the government’s response to the nuclear crisis was not acceptable.
Kan was criticized again in parliament on Monday for his response to the nuclear disaster. An opposition lawmaker suggested he had been ill-prepared from the start, pointing to Kan’s admission that he could not recall the details of a drill last year that simulated a Fukushima-type incident.
“Prime Minister Kan is working hard and he must be experiencing difficulties. But many people have questions about his leadership,” opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker Masashi Waki told the upper house budget committee.
Kan said he and his government were doing their best.
“Japan has experienced many crises in the past, but I believe this is the biggest crisis in the 65 years since the end of World War Two,” he told a parliamentary panel on Monday.
“From now on ... we must persist with our strategy on two fronts, and I want to make every effort on both issues,” he said, referring to rebuilding the country and resolving the nuclear crisis.
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said radiation levels in the reactors were making it difficult to work there, and experts say the crisis could drag on well beyond TEPCO’s target.
“Just soaking the fuel in water would mean it will take a very long time to cool down the fuel,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a deputy director general of the agency. He said engineers were exploring other cooling methods.
“For us to be able to dismantle the fuel rods and take them to another location will take time measured in years,” he added.
Besides battling to contain the nuclear crisis, the government must also figure out how to pay for the biggest reconstruction project since the aftermath of World War Two despite public debt already twice the size of the $5 trillion economy.
The government hopes to avoid issuing new bonds to fund an initial emergency budget, expected to be worth about 4 trillion yen ($48 billion), due to be compiled this month.
But bond issuance is likely for subsequent extra budgets and markets are worried that post-quake rebuilding may hamper Japan’s efforts to rein in its debt.
Ruling party executives are eyeing a tax rise but some lawmakers fear it would hurt the economy.
“It is no doubt that a substantial amount of revenue sources will be needed for reconstruction,” Japan’s deputy finance minister, Fumihiko Igarashi, said. “I want to ask the people to share burdens broadly. While we review every spending and revenue to raise funds, everyone needs to share the pain.”
Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which swept to power for the first time in 2009, has seen support flag ever since and voters punished the party in local elections earlier this month.
More than half of the people surveyed by the Nikkei newspaper want the DPJ to team up with the LDP, and another poll in the Mainichi newspaper showed a similar result.
Kan has already invited the LDP to form a national unity government, but the LDP has rejected the idea of a coalition and called for Kan to resign. The DPJ controls parliament’s lower house but needs opposition help to pass bills because it lacks a majority in the upper chamber, which can block legislation.
Analysts say that Kan, who took office last June as Japan’s fifth leader since 2006, is unlikely to resign readily, while opposition parties could be criticized if they try to take disaster budgets hostage in a political battle.
“It is impossible to change prime ministers at such a time. Foreign countries would view that as abnormal,” said Hajime Ishii, a heavyweight DPJ upper house lawmaker. “At a time when we must work on rebuilding after the earthquake, it is not possible to have a DPJ leadership vote or a general election.”
Ishii also said a “grand coalition” between the DPJ and the LDP was impractical given an electoral system in which most candidates in most constituencies battle for a single seat.
“It’s fine to cooperate on policies, but if they formed a ‘grand coalition’ the voters would feel betrayed,” he said.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Elaine Lies,; Writing by Daniel Magnowski,; Editing by Nick Macfie