Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda
Japan on Saturday approved the resumption of nuclear power operations at two reactors despite mass public opposition, the first to come back on line after they were all shut down following the Fukushima crisis.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, his popularity ratings sagging, had backed the restarts for some time. He announced the government's decision at a meeting with keep ministers, giving the go-ahead to two reactors operated by Kansai Electric Power Co at Ohi in western Japan, reports Reuters.
The decision, despite public concerns over safety after the big earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant, could open the door to more restarts among Japan's 50 nuclear power reactors.
"There is no such thing as a perfect score when it comes to disaster prevention steps," Trade Minister Yukio Edano told a news conference after the announcement.
"But, based on what we learned from the Fukushima accident, those measures that need to be taken urgently have been addressed, and the level of safety has been considerably enhanced (at the Ohi plant)," he said.
Edano, who holds the energy portfolio, said the government policy to reduce Japan's dependence on nuclear energy in the medium- to long-term was unchanged despite the decision.
The decision is a victory for Japan's still-powerful nuclear industry and reflects Noda's concerns about damage to the economy if atomic energy is abandoned following the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The push to restart the two Ohi reactors, before a potential summer power crunch, also underscores the premier's eagerness to win backing from businesses worried about high electricity costs that could push factories offshore. Kansai electric says it will take six weeks to get both reactors running fully.
But the decision risks a backlash from a public deeply concerned about nuclear safety. As many as 10,000 demonstrators gathered outside Noda's office on Friday night amid a heavy police presence to denounce the restarts, urging the premier to step down and shouting "Lives matter more than the economy."
Noda's own future is murky as he struggles to hold his fractious party together after cutting a deal with opposition rivals to double Japan's sales tax to 10 percent by 2015.
"I imagine there will be a fair number of (reactor) restarts by next year. The government under Noda is surprisingly eager," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.