” TOKYO — The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made its biggest push yet to revive Japan’s nuclear energy program on Tuesday, announcing details of a draft plan that designates atomic power as an important long-term electricity source.
The new Basic Energy Plan, which states that Japan will push to restart reactors that were closed after the disaster in 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, overturns a promise made by a previous government to phase out the country’s nuclear reactors. The plan also leaves open the possibility of building new plants as well as restarting existing ones.
Japan’s minister for trade and industry, Toshimitsu Motegi, sought to play down the shift, telling reporters that Japan was still committed to “reducing its reliance on nuclear power.” But he also criticized the earlier commitment, first made by Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the months after the Fukushima disaster, to forgo nuclear power entirely, a policy Mr. Motegi called irresponsible for a resource-poor nation.
Still, the government’s own energy plan was vague, setting no specific targets for the percentage of power to be provided by nuclear energy. Mr. Motegi said the country needed more time to figure out the best mix of energy sources, which would also include renewables like solar, wind and geothermal power.
The Japanese have been struggling for three years to decide whether to return to nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, which contaminated a vast area of northeast Japan and is still keeping tens of thousands of people from their homes as a cleanup effort continues. Mr. Abe has been promising to add nuclear power back into Japan’s energy mix since soon after he took office in late 2012, but he has been unable to budge national opinion even as a renewed reliance on fossil fuels has increased energy costs and helped drive Japan’s trade deficit to record highs.
Polls show lingering public misgivings about the safety of nuclear energy and the government’s ability to oversee it, with a majority of people supporting a gradual phaseout. The draft plan issued this week, the first under Mr. Abe, suggests that he plans to move forward despite a lack of agreement among citizens.
To ease public jitters, an independent regulatory agency has been evaluating whether Japan’s 50 operable reactors, which are all currently idle, can safely be brought back online. Even with regulatory approval, though, local opposition could still block or delay restarts. The national plan did not say when the government would begin trying to restart reactors, which are being upgraded to meet the agency’s new safety requirements.
The government is set to discuss the policy with opposition parties, but the cabinet can approve it at any time.
Mr. Abe may feel empowered to move ahead in part because the country’s organized opposition to nuclear power — which erupted in the months after the Fukushima accident into mass street rallies — has failed to materialize. In a closely watched governor’s race in Tokyo this month, a fractured field of antinuclear candidates appeared to split the opposition vote, helping to return a pro-nuclear governing party candidate to office. That victory has given momentum to Mr. Abe’s push.
Mr. Kan, the former prime minister who led the country’s response to the Fukushima crisis, blasted the turn back toward nuclear power.
“This government has not learned the lessons of Fukushima,” he said in a telephone interview. “Japan was on the brink, but now we want to go back to nuclear for economic reasons. But what happens to the economy if another disaster hits?”
Fears about nuclear safety were heightened on Tuesday by another mishap at the crippled Fukushima plant, where continued radiation leaks and errors have undermined cleanup efforts. The plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, said a damaged power cable had shut down a vital cooling system, forcing workers to suspend the delicate process of removing spent nuclear fuel rods from a wrecked storage pool.
The cooling system for the pool at Reactor No. 4 failed for about four hours on Tuesday before power was restored, Tokyo Electric Power said in an emailed announcement. It added that the pool temperature was stable and that it had not detected a rise in radiation levels at the plant.
The country’s new energy plan calls nuclear power an important “baseload” electricity source — one that can produce energy at a constant rate and at a lower cost than alternatives like solar or wind power. Proponents of renewable energy argue that safety risks and the costs of handling nuclear waste make nuclear power less reliable and more expensive than other options.
The plan also says that Japan will ultimately determine the appropriate size of its nuclear program after taking into account its future energy needs, as well as its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which have surged with the decline of nuclear power. That wording, Japanese news outlets noted, left the door open for the government to build new plants. “