REFILING: FOCUS: Japan to cautiously turn to nuclear power after bitter experience.
(EDS: CLARYFING 2ND TO LAST GRAF)
Japan appears to be heading toward a gradual revival of nuclear power generation under a new government supportive of retaining it, but the outlook for the industry in 2013 is unclear with antinuclear sentiment still lingering among the public after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
The new government led by the Liberal Democratic Party has already signaled that it has no intention of following in the footsteps of the Democratic Party of Japan government over energy policy. The previous government aimed at phasing out nuclear power in the 2030s.
"We need to reconsider the previous government's policy of seeking zero operation of nuclear plants," Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told a press conference early Thursday, shortly after assuming the ministerial post.
He also said that completely giving up Japan's spent-fuel recycling policy, which would lose its role if nuclear power generation ends, is "currently not an option," and that the government backs the resumption of reactors as long as they are deemed safe by the country's nuclear regulatory authority.
The remarks are likely to encourage utilities, which have been desperate to restart idled reactors to improve their business conditions. The minister's words also leave open the possibility of allowing utilities to install new reactors that have been planned but are not yet in the process of construction.
But the nuclear industry is not necessarily optimistic about its prospects, taking into consideration the huge impact the Fukushima crisis has had on the public.
"The LDP won (the Dec. 16 general election), so will nuclear power be pursued? I don't think things are as simple as that," Takuya Hattori, president of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, told reporters recently, adding that the industry would end up further losing public trust if it just goes back to business as usual.
"The point is whether the nuclear industry can show how deeply it regrets the Fukushima accident and how far it will change itself," Hattori, a former executive vice president of Tokyo Electric Power Co., said.
The year 2012 was tumultuous for Japan's nuclear plant operators. From May, the country experienced a period without nuclear power generation for the first time in decades, as reactors that had been operating before the nuclear crisis went offline for mandatory routine maintenance and were unable to restart.
Two reactors in western Japan were reactivated in July after clearing provisional safety standards created by the government amid massive antinuclear rallies, which drew some 200,000 people near the prime minister's office in Tokyo at one point, according to the organizers.
In addition to such a harsh climate of public opinion about atomic power, utilities may also face more headwinds now that the Nuclear Regulation Authority is gearing up to assess the safety of reactors in the quake-prone country.
Recently, the NRA has suggested that it will be tough with utilities, warning that geological faults under two plants are likely to be active, assessments that will significantly affect prospects for restarting the two plants' reactors.
Motegi said the government will "respect" the safety assessments made by the independent regulatory body and added that reactors will not be allowed to restart unless they clear the new safety standards, which the NRA plans to craft by July to prevent a recurrence of the Fukushima crisis.
Tadahiro Katsuta, an associate professor at Meiji University who is a member of a panel tasked by the NRA with devising the standards, said that "high bars" are expected to be set for utilities.
But he also said he feels the plant operators are determined to meet the requirements at any cost and that there is no guarantee that the NRA can maintain its current tough stance against the companies.
"You don't know in what form pressure could be exercised on the NRA commissioners. Public opinion (skeptical about nuclear power) could also be a factor that is affecting them now, so if people start to become mum on the issue, the NRA's stance could change," Katsuta said.
Some political experts said the new government is expected to carefully consider how to handle the nuclear issue, especially before the House of Councillors election, expected in July, because explicitly taking a pronuclear stance could trigger a public backlash.
"The LDP's landslide victory in the lower house election may have made some ruling party lawmakers think there is less risk of pushing for the resumption of reactors. But they could still take a cautious approach until they win the upper house election, opting to do what they really want to after that," Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said.
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|Publication:||Japan Energy Scan|
|Date:||Dec 31, 2012|
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