Japan moves closer to restarting first nuclear reactors since tsunami-driven meltdowns

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP - The No. 3, right, and No. 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Ohi nuclear power plant in western Japan. Japan moved closer Thursday to restarting the nuclear reactors for the first time since last year's earthquake and tsunami.

TOKYO — Japan is on the verge of returning to atomic power after a mayor consented Thursday to the proposed restart of a pair of reactors idled in the wake of last year’s nuclear accident.

The restart could come as soon as this weekend, Japanese media reported. It would mark a controversial victory for the central government, which has spent months arguing that Japan needs nuclear power to sustain its fragile economy.

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Before the tsunami-triggered crisis — a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that displaced about 100,000 people — Japan was among the world’s most nuclear-reliant countries. But its 50 working reactors have steadily come offline as authorities in host communities blocked efforts to restart them after they were shut down for routine maintenance tests or because of safety concerns.

That resistance is finally easing, apparently in large part because the government forecasts severe summer energy shortages for some regions if the country remains nuclear-free, as it has been for the past six weeks.

On Thursday, the mayor of the western city of Ohi, Shinobu Tokioka, said he would accept Tokyo’s plan to restart two of the four reactors at the Ohi nuclear power station. For months now, central government officials have said that units 3 and 4 at Ohi should be the first to resume operations, because they have already passed stress tests, computer simulations designed to gauge their response in emergencies.

With the mayor’s sign-off, only a series of formalities stand in the way of a restart. The regional governor needs to give his approval, and he has signaled his willingness to do so. Then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda can give the final authorization, which could happen as early as Saturday, according to Japanese media.

Last week, Noda told the nation in a televised address that Japan “will not be able to function if there is a decision to permanently halt nuclear power generation.”

As reactors were shuttered following the Fukushima disaster and Japan drew less power from atomic energy sources, the resource-poor country imported record amounts of fossil fuels, resulting in a 2011 trade deficit. Noda, in his speech last Friday, noted that Japan depends on the Middle East for 70 percent of its oil, leaving it vulnerable to shocks.

“This is not only about summer electricity supply and demand in the short term,” Noda said in arguing for the restart. “If our dependency on fossil fuels is increased and electricity prices rise sharply, this would affect retail shops and small- and medium-size enterprises that are just managing to stay afloat, as well as households. This would accelerate the hollowing out of industry and lead to a loss of places for employment.”

The Ohi reactors are located in western Japan, just north of the industrial cities of Osaka and Kobe. That region, supplied by the Kansai Electric Power Co., was once the most nuclear-dependent in Japan. Without nuclear power, the government said, Kansai will be 16.3 percent short of peak demand this summer.

Despite those forecasts, public wariness about nuclear power has continued to grow. According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Japanese think their country should reduce its reliance on nuclear energy. In the weeks after last year’s meltdowns, 44 percent thought so.

 
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