TOKYO - In a blunt appeal on national television, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda asked for his nation’s support Friday in restarting one of Japan’s idled nuclear plants, saying the loss of energy could bring blackouts and economic chaos.
In the 10-minute speech, Noda took his case directly to the Japanese people, explaining why he wants to resume operation of at least some of Japan’s 50 commercial reactors, which have all been idled since last year’s nuclear accident in Fukushima. Noda said he would order the restart of two reactors at the Ohi nuclear plant in western Japan once he gets the final approval from the local Fukui prefectural government, which is expected to make a decision as early as next week.
Noda spoke in stark terms, saying he had concluded that Japan could not maintain its current living standards without nuclear power. Responding to the commonly heard argument here that Japan is currently getting along fine without the plants, he said conservation measures would not be enough in the approaching summer months to overcome the loss of the nation’s nuclear plants, which before the Fukushima accident supplied almost a third of Japan’s electricity.
He also cited national security, saying Japan needed nuclear power to avoid relying too heavily on oil and natural gas from the politically volatile Middle East.
“Cheap and reliable electricity are essential for supporting prosperous and decent livelihoods,’’ Noda said. “Japanese society cannot function if we stop or try to do without nuclear power generation, which has supplied 30 percent of our electricity.’’
Such appeals are unusual in Japan’s often colorless political world, and Noda’s was seen here as recognition of how the restart issue has polarized his nation. While many Japanese are now deeply distrustful of their government’s ability to oversee the politically powerful nuclear industry, others worry that power shortages could cost jobs and accelerate the nation’s industrial decline.
For weeks, his government has been trying to convince skeptical local leaders to allow a restart of the Ohi plant, which provides power to the heavily urbanized Kansai region, including the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. He has said he wants to restart the Ohi plant first because Kansai faces the most severe potential electricity shortages in Japan during the steamy summer, when air conditioner use surges.
The threat of rolling blackouts seems to have persuaded local leaders to accept at least a temporary restart of the Ohi plant. However, the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who led local opposition, has said he may ask that the plant be turned off again in September, saying he is against a permanent restart until Japan revamps its nuclear oversight.
“Restarting the Ohi plant will solve the problem for now, but it still leaves open the question of what happens in September,’’ said Hiroshi Tasaka, a nuclear policy specialist at Tokyo’s Tama University who advised the previous prime minister, Naoto Kan. “There may be a political showdown if Prime Minister Noda tries to keep the plant on, or restarts other plants, without strengthening regulatory oversight.’’
In his speech, Noda sought to address some of those concerns by explaining measures his government was taking to avoid a repeat of last year’s accident, which was caused when a huge earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, resulting in meltdowns in three reactors.
The main step, he said, was overhauling Japan’s current regulatory oversight, which he admitted had failed to prevent the Fukushima accident. He said his government was moving as quickly as possible to create an independent new nuclear regulatory agency. He was responding to criticism that the current watchdog, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, part of the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, is charged with promoting the nuclear industry.
He did not call for a blanket restart of all Japan’s reactors, saying he would review other plants’ safety measures on a case-by-case basis. He said there was no timetable for restarting other plants, signaling that his government would perhaps wait to see the public reaction to the Ohi restart before turning on other plants.