Japan orders restart of two nuclear reactors shut by tsunami

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Saturday ordered the restart of two nuclear reactors, a move that returns Japan to atomic power but also runs counter to public concern about its dangers.

The central government’s decision clears the way for western Japan’s Kansai Electric Power Co. to refire a pair of units at the Ohi plant, whose four reactors — like others in the country — were idled after last year’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.

Although engineers will need several weeks to power up Ohi reactors 3 and 4, Noda’s announcement formally breaks the stalemate in a months-long debate about Japan’s short-term energy plan. A majority here argued that the earthquake-prone country should back away from nuclear power because of safety concerns. But Noda and his powerful lieutenants argued that Japan’s economy would wither if the country remained nuclear-free and short on energy.

The restart at Ohi could open the door for reactors to come back online elsewhere in the country, and Noda has said that the government will make judgments “on individual cases,” based on safety.

“We are determined to make further efforts to restore people’s trust in nuclear policy and safety regulations,” he said Saturday, according to the Kyodo news agency.

In the 15 months since the Fukushima disaster — an earthquake- and a tsunami-triggered triple meltdown that forced the evacuation of 100,000 people — Japan has first abandoned nuclear power and then re-embraced it.

As the country’s 50 working reactors were shuttered either because of safety concerns or for routine maintenance checks, officials in host communities put up stiff resistance to any restart orders. Many said Tokyo had done too little to reform its discredited nuclear regulatory system or break up the traditional cozy ties between government and utility companies. In early May, a final nuclear reactor on the northern island of Hokkaido came offline, and Japan, briefly, was nuclear-free.

But Noda has pushed local mayors and regional governors to reconsider their stance, emphasizing the possibility of rolling blackouts that would potentially cause companies to relocate overseas.

In recent months, he has brought most pressure to bear on officials in Fukui prefecture, or state, home of the Ohi plant. Fukui is often called “nuclear alley,” because it hosts four plants and feeds energy to a chain of major cities — Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe — just to the south that the government sees as particularly vulnerable to shortages this summer.

The government might push next to restart the No. 3 reactor at the Ikata nuclear plant, in the southwest. That reactor has passed an initial stress test conducted by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

But public opposition remains high. In Ohi, 71 percent of respondents polled by the Mainichi newspaper this month said they were against a “hasty” restart at the plant. On Friday night, several thousand people protested outside the prime minister’s office in Tokyo, yelling, “We oppose the restart!”

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