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Friday, June 1, 2012

Kansai chiefs accept 'limited' reactor restart

Even Hashimoto caves amid intense lobbying, now faces public ire


Staff writer

OSAKA — Kansai leaders, including vocal critic Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, reversed weeks of opposition Thursday to restarting two of the reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, caving to intense corporate lobbying and central government pressure and removing one of the last major political obstacles to bringing the units back online.

News photo
About-face: Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto faces reporters Wednesday. KYODO

The agreement of the Union of Kansai Governments, which includes seven prefectures and two mayors, to a "limited" restart of the reactors created confusion and concern across the region.

Critics and Hashimoto allies noted the definition of limited was left undefined and could mean the reactors will be kept running for weeks, months or years.

"Concerning the restart of the Oi reactors, under the condition of the government's provisional safety decision, we seek an appropriate judgment on something that is limited," the Union of Kansai Governments said in a joint statement Wednesday evening.

Hashimoto found himself under scrutiny from local media Thursday morning for agreeing to the limited restart of reactors 3 and 4 at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Oi plant after months of intense criticism of Tokyo's handling of atomic safety issues.

With discussions in the Diet on the creation of a new nuclear regulatory agency having begun and progress on revising the way electricity supplies are distributed, Hashimoto defended his decision by saying the central government has done enough for now.

"There's nothing to do but convince the Japanese people of a plan for a new energy supply system and obtain their understanding for a temporary restart. However, this will not be applied to any reactors other than the Oi reactors," Hashimoto said.

Asked whether the central government was thinking of shutting down the Oi reactors after the summer peak period, in line with the Kansai leaders' demands, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura dodged the question Thursday, saying environment and nuclear minister Goshi Hosono would answer it.

Fujimura said once the new nuclear regulatory agency is established, the government will re-evaluate the situation based on a previous restart decision that had been made using tentative safety standards.

The decision by the Union of Kansai Governments to allow a restart came after weeks of intense pressure by Kepco and the Kansai Economic Federation, whose head, Shosuke Mori, is also chairman of the utility.

Public opinion polls in early May showed most Kansai residents opposed the restart, and businesses surveys indicated service firms and small and medium-size companies could save sufficient amounts of electricity.

But after a conclusion in mid-May by Kepco and the central government that the region faced an electricity shortage of 15 percent during the peak summer period, major manufacturers warned of economic damage to the region and the government discussed rolling blackouts during the peak demand period.

"We can't achieve a 15 percent cut gently or completely clear the risks to our lives with rolling blackouts," Wakayama Gov. Yoshinobu Nisaka, vice chairman of the union, said Wednesday evening.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is expected to issue a final decision next week. But he faces opposition from some in hisown party, who were calling on other Diet members Thursday to sign a petition urging him not to rush to judgement.

"It's clear, through a variety of public opinion surveys, that Japanese people say they will persevere this summer through electricity conservation measures. The current situation regarding the restart is one of insufficient understanding among Japanese as a whole and insufficient agreement within our party," said the petition, which was being circulated by Democratic Party of Japan Lower House member Satoshi Arai and Upper House member Teruhiko Mashiko.

"We therefore urge that you use caution when deciding on the restart," the petition says.

As the public backlash against the decision grew louder Thursday afternoon, some Kansai leaders began shifting their positions.

Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui told reporters that all he had agreed to in Wednesday's declaration by Kansai's leaders was that the process for restarting the reactors was insufficient, not that he had approved a restart or understood it.

"Nowhere in the declaration does it say we agree to a restart. The central government is just using the union as an alibi for a restart," Matsui said.



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