Japan's government has ordered two of the country's nuclear reactors back online, ending the country's month-long freeze on nuclear power. The reactors will be the first to be restarted after last year's Fukushima crisis. The decision reflects Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's concerns about the damage to the country's economy if nuclear power is abandoned, but it could result in a backlash from a public still concerned about nuclear safety.
On Saturday, Mr. Noda, who had backed the restarts for some time, announced the government's decision at a meeting with key ministers. The government has given the go-ahead to two reactors operated by Kansai Electric Power Co at Ohi in western Japan, which could open the door to further restarts.
After the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant last year, nuclear reactors in Japan taken offline for routine maintenance were left inactive due to safety concerns. This meant that as of last month, the country was entirely without nuclear energy. The government had previously estimated that if Japan did not turn its nuclear reactors back on, its economy could shrink as much as 5 percent by 2030.
There have also been concerns of an immediate power shortage, with electricity demand in Japan expected to rise during the summer months. The order for restarts is a victory for Japan's still-powerful nuclear industry and reflects Noda's concerns about damage to the economy if atomic energy is abandoned following the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The push to restart the two Ohi reactors, before a potential summer power crunch, also underscores the premier's eagerness to win backing from businesses worried about high electricity costs that could push factories offshore. Kansai electric says it will take six weeks to get both reactors running fully.
Possible Public Backlash
But the decision risks a backlash from a public deeply concerned about nuclear safety. As many as 10,000 demonstrators gathered outside Noda's office on Friday night to denounce the restarts, urging the premier to step down and shouting "Lives matter more than the economy".
"Prime Minister Noda's rushed, dangerous approval of the Ohi nuclear power plant restart ignores expert safety advice and public outcry, and needlessly risks the health of Japan's environment, its people and its economy," environmental group Greepeace said in a statement.
On Friday, the lower house of Japan's parliament approved legislation to create a new atomic regulator. The new agency will craft new safety guidelines and is expected to take a harder line on vetting reactors. But getting it up and running will take months. The new body is only expected to begin work in September.
Opinion polls consistently show more than half of Japanese are opposed to nuclear power, though they fret over energy shortages expected as soon as this summer and higher electric bills if the reactors stay off. Even some of those who favor atomic energy worry the government hasn't done enough to ensure nuclear plants will be safe from a Fukushima-type accident.
"We understand that we have not obtained all of the nation's understanding," said Industry Minister Yukio Edano at a news conference on Saturday. He added that the government's policy to reduce Japan's dependence on nuclear energy in the long-term was unchanged despite the decision.
Uncertain Political Future
Mr. Noda's own future is murky. Aside from the decision to restart reactors, the Prime Minister is also struggling to hold his party together after cutting a deal with opposition rivals to double Japan's sales tax to 10 percent by 2015.
The tax legislation is also unpopular with the Japanese public, with 56 percent of respondents expressing opposition in a poll published in the Asahi newspaper on 6 June, up from 51 percent a month earlier.
Japan is due to hold national elections by August 2013. None of Japan’s previous five Prime Ministers has held office for much more than a year.
Report: Japan approves 2 reactor restarts, more seen ahead [Reuters, 16 June 2012]
Report: Nuclear-Restart Plans Divide Japan [Wall Street Journal, 17 June 2012]
Report: Noda Ends Japan Nuclear Freeze, Risking Backlash at Polls [Bloomberg, 17 June 2012]