* Restarts would be first after Fukushima disaster
* Japan's policy to reduce nulcear dependence intact-trade
* Nuclear safety considerably enhanced after Fukushima-trade
* Greenpeace says restart decision risks health of people,
By Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO, June 16 Japan on Saturday approved the
resumption of nuclear power operations at two reactors despite
mass public opposition, the first to come back on line after
they were all shut down following the Fukushima crisis.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, his popularity ratings
sagging, had backed the restarts for some time. He announced the
government's decision at a meeting with key ministers, giving
the go-ahead to two reactors operated by Kansai Electric Power
Co at Ohi in western Japan.
The decision, despite public concerns over safety after the
big earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant, could
open the door to more restarts among Japan's 50 nuclear power
"There is no such thing as a perfect score when it comes to
disaster prevention steps," Trade Minister Yukio Edano told a
news conference after the announcement.
"But, based on what we learned from the Fukushima accident,
those measures that need to be taken urgently have been
addressed, and the level of safety has been considerably
enhanced (at the Ohi plant)," he said.
Edano, who holds the energy portfolio, said the government
policy to reduce Japan's dependence on nuclear energy in the
medium- to long-term was unchanged despite the decision.
The decision 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.
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 amid a heavy
police presence 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.
PM'S FUTURE UNCERTAIN
Noda's own future is murky as he struggles to hold his
fractious party together after cutting a deal with opposition
rivals to double Japan's sales tax to 10 percent by 2015.
"I imagine there will be a fair number of (reactor) restarts
by next year. The government under Noda is surprisingly eager,"
said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple
University's Japan campus.
Nuclear power supplied almost 30 percent of electricity
needs before the March 2011 disaster, which triggered meltdowns
at Fukushima, spewing radiation and forcing mass evacuations.
The accident destroyed public belief in the "safety myth"
promoted by Japanese nuclear power advocates for decades.
Activists have collected more than 7.5 million signatures on
a petition urging an end to atomic power. Protesters have poured
into the street almost daily over the past week.
All 50 reactors were shut down for maintenance or safety
checks in the months since the accident. The government had
placed a priority on gaining the approval of local communities
for the Ohi restarts to avert July-August power shortages.
Critics say the government was too hasty in signing off on
the restarts, especially given delays in setting up a new, more
independent nuclear regulatory agency.
Public trust in regulators was tattered by evidence that
cosy ties with utilities were a key reason Fukushima operator
Tokyo Electric Power Co was unprepared for the tsunami,
and subsequent signs that relations remain far too snug.
Parliament's lower house on Friday approved legislation to
create a new atomic regulator, but getting it up and running
will take months. That could force the government to go slower
on restarts, though some politicians are keen to forge ahead.
"We can no longer go back to a life that depends on
candles," ruling party heavyweight Yoshito Sengoku said in an
interview with the Sankei newspaper this week.
The Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency, the current
watchdog, has approved stress tests for Shikoku Electric Power
Co Inc's 890-megawatt No.3 reactor in Ikata, southern
Japan. Next on the list for possible approval are two Hokkaido
Electric Power reactors in Tomari, northern Japan and
Hokuriku Electric's two in Shika, western Japan.
"Basically he (Noda) doesn't want to wait but ... it would
attract criticism so the government would be cautious if they
are clever," said Hiroshi Takahashi, a Fujitsu Research
Institute fellow and member of a panel advising the government
on energy policies.