Japan holds off on decision to restart reactors

By Risa Maeda, Reuters

TOKYO– Japan needs more time to decide whether to restart two offline nuclear reactors, the trade minister said on Tuesday, as concerns about a summer power crunch vie with safety worries in the wake of last year’s Fukushima crisis.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will meet three cabinet members on Tuesday to discuss restarting the reactors, but will not make any immediate decision, Trade Minister Yuki Edano, who holds the energy portfolio, told reporters.

“Safety should be ensured to avoid massive leaks of radioactive materials as occurred in the Fukushima crisis even if an earthquake and tsunami that exceed past expectations occur,” Edano told reporters.

“We should also obtain the understanding of local communities in that regard.”

All but one of Japan’s 54 reactors have been shut, mostly for maintenance checks, over the months since the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima plant, triggered by a huge tsunami in March 2011. The remaining reactor is set to be closed for maintenance on May 5.

Kansas Electric Power’s No.3 and No.4 reactors at Ohi nuclear plant in Fukui prefecture, western Japan, are the first to have passed government-imposed, computer-simulated stress tests, a necessary step before any restart.

Energy markets are keen to know when the Ohi reactors will go back on line. Their restart could reduce imports of liquefied natural gas equivalent by about 2 million tonnes a year.

To make up for the lost nuclear power, Japan’s utilities burned 25 percent more imported liquefied natural gas – equivalent to a total of 51.8 million tonnes – and 150 percent more crude oil in the year to February, according to the latest power industry data.

The government, however, must persuade wary locals that the plants are safe after last year’s nine-magnitude earthquake and tsunami triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.

Nuclear power supplied about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity before the crisis, and Noda’s administration is now debating what role it should play in the future.

Japan’s defences against another major tsunami and the safety of its nuclear plants were thrown into further doubt after two official studies released at the weekend predicted much higher waves could hit and that Tokyo quake damage could be bigger than it was prepared for.