JAPAN |Govt pushing N-safety message / Battling on 2 fronts to ease concerns of IAEA, local governments

Posted on June 19, 2011

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JAPAN | YOMIURI SHIMBUN | 20 June 2011 JST

The government has been trying to stress at home and abroad the safety of nuclear power plants ahead of an International Atomic Energy Agency ministerial meeting scheduled to start Monday.

This is why the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry (METI) on Saturday insisted sufficient safety measures have been taken at the plants. But the ministry’s statements also show the government’s desire to restart suspended reactors at nuclear power plants nationwide before demand for electricity peaks in July.

Convincing the local governments concerned that this is true has been made more difficult by Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s ad hoc approach to energy policy, according to some government officials.

Of the nation’s 54 reactors, operations at 35 are suspended, either for scheduled inspections or because of damage caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Seven more reactors, including those at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama power plant in Takahamacho, Fukui Prefecture, and Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai power plant in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, will be suspended by late August for inspections.

If none of the suspended reactors are reactivated by that time, the power production capacity of five electric power companies in western Japan will fall by 11 percent, or 8.8 million kilowatts.

The five companies will also struggle to supply power to Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Chubu Electric Power Co., which operates the Hamaoka nuclear power plant that was recently closed due to safety concerns.

On Saturday, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda said that this weekend he will visit local governments of areas that host nuclear power plants, and seek their approval for the reactors to be restarted.

Time is of the essence–power demand will start to rise sharply in July, and according to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, it will take more than ten days for the plants to actually start generating power.

During the IAEA ministerial meeting, which Kaieda is scheduled to attend, attention is expected to focus on Japan’s response to the ongoing nuclear crisis. Japan needs to dispel the concerns of the international community, or damaging rumors about the safety of this nation’s agricultural and industrial products will continue.

Some electricity companies believe it will be possible to avert power shortages if local governments agree for the reactors to be restarted.

Obtaining that consent will likely not be easy for the central government, but Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Katsuya Okada was optimistic on Saturday. He said in Kuwana, Mie Prefecture, “If people consider it calmly, they’ll see we can’t survive without depending on nuclear power to a certain degree.”

When Kan asked Chubu Electric last month to shut down all reactors at the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, citing the risk of a major earthquake striking the facility, he stressed that Hamaoka was an exceptional case.

But his request sparked confusion and discontent in economic circles and local governments. Governors of prefectures that host nuclear power plants are skeptical about how the central government can express such confidence in the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants, yet deem Hamaoka unsafe.

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