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How Close Is Japan To Pushing The “On” Button On Nuclear Reactors?

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Thursday the government’s “close” to a decision on whether to restart two nuclear reactors in western Japan — the first pair in line to switch back on after last year’s terrible accident in Fukushima.

So what’s the controversial decision going to be and where does it stand? JRT expects it’ll be a “yes,” but the pressures against restarting are so great that the order to bring them back online could be delayed for months — possibly after peak electricity demand in the summer. Here’s our attempt to cut through the obscure, politically charged process.

First the background. All Japan’s 50 operational nuclear reactors are now offline — most of them stopped for routine maintenance and left off while utilities conducted extra safety checks in light of last year’s meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. Recent opinion polls have shown the restart of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi reactors — the ones chosen by the government as the test case — to be highly unpopular, with more than 50% of Japanese now opposed.

Nevertheless, the government last month cleared two Oi reactors as safe to restart. And Friday, the government warned that without Oi’s electricity, the area of western Japan served by Kansai Electric would be asked to keep power consumption between July and September to no more than 85% of peak usage during the hot summer of 2010.

Before restarting, the government has said it will consult local communities and then make a final Cabinet-level decision.

The problem is, the Japanese government failed to define what communities it’s going to consult, and what level of support it’ll need from them. At the very least, officials have said they’ll want support from the town of Oi and the prefecture of Fukui, which host the reactors.

This support appears to be largely in the bag. On Monday, the Oi town assembly officially decided that the reactors needed to be restarted, and the mayor has said he’ll make his decision by the end of the month. The Fukui prefectural assembly convened its own expert panel, which recently concluded that the Oi reactors were safe to restart. Fukui’s governor is also backing the government’s evaluation, although he’s raised concerns over Japan’s nuclear regulator, which has been in a state of confusion since April. The regulator was supposed to have been reformed into a new agency last month, but political infighting has slowed the process.

But the governors of neighboring Kyoto and Shiga prefectures are opposing the restart of Oi’s reactors, saying that the government shouldn’t rush to bring them back online before it’s finished investigating the cause of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and completed a long-term energy plan. The Japanese government said it’s planning to set up a joint council comprising Fukui, Shiga and Kyoto prefectures to monitor the Oi plant.

In Osaka, popular mayor Toru Hashimoto is demanding Kansai Electric seek approval from all local authorities within 100 kilometers of its nuclear plants before deciding to operate its reactors.

But none of those politicians are guaranteed a voice in the decision.

Pundits say Mr. Noda and the three other Cabinet members in charge of the final decision are likely to press ahead with restarts anyway, since Japan’s big utilities will lose a lot of money if they don’t. “If nuclear plants are not restarted, they will turn become liabilities, instead of assets,” Yoshito Sengoku, a senior member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, said recently. “Even for accounting reasons, it’s difficult to exit from nuclear power.”

Still, energy-watchers say the unexpected could still happen — particularly since the political risks to a restart are so high. “There could be an accident the day after the restart. Any politician who authorized the restart would be forced into resignation,” said Tomoko Murakami, nuclear expert at the pro-business Institute of Energy Economics. “No one wants to take such risks, especially with general elections looming next year.”

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