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Abe on nukes - A victory for a powerful lobby

 May 31, 2013

Abe to intensify efforts to restart nuclear power plants



By TOMOYA FUJITA/ Staff Writer

Score a victory for Japan's powerful business lobby.

Despite deep-rooted public distrust of nuclear power generation in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the Abe administration is set to push restarts of idled nuclear reactors as an integral engine of policy to spur economic growth.

The Asahi Shimbun obtained a copy of the government's draft growth strategy that is expected to win Cabinet approval as early as June 14.

The decision represents a marked turnaround from the previous government. There are concerns it could set off a fresh outcry from the public, which has lingering doubts about the safety of nuclear reactors following triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Business groups have been pressing the government to seize the nuclear initiative because of the humongous financial battering Japan has absorbed as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

The government's decision to continue to rely on nuclear power will be presented to the Industrial Competitiveness Council, a government panel tasked to draw up a growth strategy, on June 5 for formal approval.

As such, the government will put the nation on notice that a reliance on nuclear power generation will be fundamental to growth prospects on a mid- to long-term basis.

In January, Abe suggested continued reliance on nuclear power. He pledged to conduct "zero-based review" of the energy policy set by the previous administration, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which aimed to phase out nuclear power by the end of the 2030s.

The draft underscores a need to help business circles by addressing potential shortfalls in power supply after the nuclear disaster forced all the nation's reactors, except two, to go offline.

Nuclear energy represented roughly 30 percent of overall power supply before the 2011 disaster.

The draft also stresses that an increase in electricity rates as a result of ballooning fossil fuel costs to operate more thermal power plants to make up for idled reactors should be kept in check.

The use of nuclear power, the draft says, is an answer to energy woes, along with the implementation of proposed reform of the electric power system and the introduction of highly efficient thermal power generation.

The draft also states that the government will restart reactors whose safety was cleared by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, a nuclear industry watchdog that was established after the accident.

It goes on to say that the government will "make utmost efforts" to win the understanding of and cooperation from local communities hosting nuclear power plants.

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party had pledged earlier to draw up a mid- to long-term energy policy within 10 years while cutting Japan's reliance on nuclear power as much as is deemed feasible.

However, the Abe administration made an about-face amid calls for reactor restarts from major utilities and other industries, which cited mounting fuel costs and potential risks of power shortages.

Earlier this month, 40 or so LDP lawmakers formed a group to push for restarts.

Abe reiterated his resolve on restarts at an Upper House Budget Committee session on May 15, saying, "We want to achieve (reactor restarts) at the earliest possible time."

Many members of the Industrial Competitiveness Council who are from the industrial sector strongly support nuclear energy.

"Japan should maintain a certain percentage of nuclear energy as a national strategy by bringing reactors back online soon," said Sadayuki Sakakibara, chairman of Toray Industries Inc.

Some members, such as Heizo Takenaka, a professor of economics at Keio University, called for caution but were unable to win over their colleagues.

The results of "deliberative polling," a combination of conventional public opinion polls and discussion meetings, on nuclear power last August showed that half of the participants from the public backed a phaseout of nuclear energy by 2030.

All of Japan's 50 remaining reactors were shut down by May 2012.

But two reactors at the Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture were brought online two months later.

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