By the end of the summer, a 25-person panel — composed of economists, professors and other outside experts — plans to draft Japan’s new “Basic Energy Plan.” But that plan must then be approved by a divided parliament that has struggled to cooperate on far less controversial issues, such as disaster reconstruction.
Meanwhile, power company employees are racing to reassure Japanese that plants are safe and necessary. In recent weeks, officials from the Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kepco), Japan’s largest nuclear operator, have gone door to door in towns that host its nuclear plants, conducting polls and answering questions.
The Kansai region is Japan’s second-largest industrial area, and in normal times, its most nuclear-reliant. Until last year, a band of 11 nuclear reactors — north of the major cities Osaka and Kyoto — supplied almost 50 percent of the region’s power. Now, only one of those reactors is running.
Obstacles to a restart
In this region, one gets a glimpse of the obstacles Kepco must overcome.
The governor in the prefecture that is home to the company’s reactors says stress tests alone are not enough to prove their safety. The popular anti-nuclear mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, elected in November, wants to break up Kepco’s regional monopoly; his city is the firm’s largest shareholder, and Hashimoto is trying to rally support from other shareholders to pressure the company out of the nuclear power business.
Anti-nuclear groups in Osaka have gathered tens of thousands of signatures, raising the possibility of a referendum on atomic power. And last week, a nuclear safety agency meeting to discuss a restart at two Kansai reactors — Units 3 and 4 at the Ohi plant — was delayed for more than 31
2 hours because of protesters. Once the meeting got underway, the agency approved stress tests, a key step in the government’s authorization to restart the reactors.
Closer to the nuclear plants, some feel a growing urgency. In Mihama, a three-reactor plant hugs the craggy shoreline. Its final unit shut down for inspection in December, meaning that the facility, for the first time in four decades, is producing no power. Within several months, the town will feel the economic pinch, as fewer workers draw salaries from the plant, Mayor Jitaro Yamaguchi said.
Yamaguchi faces a delicate balance. For economic reasons, his town needs the plant. But he also wants assurances that it is safe, and he hears from residents who say that stress tests alone won’t suffice.
So late last week, Yamaguchi took a four-hour train ride to Tokyo for a meeting with nuclear officials in the cabinet. His message: Create some new safety measures, and please hurry.
“They need to expedite the process,” Yamaguchi said. “They’ve been really slow. Really, really slow.”
Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.