TOKYO Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said on Friday that Japan should aim to reduce reliance on nuclear power as much as possible in the medium and longer term, but stopped short of outlining a strategy for abandoning atomic energy by mid-century.
Noda has been stressing that nuclear power remains an important source of energy for the resource-strapped country, not least because of business worries about higher electricity costs if atomic energy is spurned following the Fukushima crisis, the world's worst atomic accident in 25 years.
"With regard to future energy policy, we must aim at decreasing reliance on nuclear power as much as possible in the medium and long-term," Noda said in written replies to interview questions from Reuters.
He said, however, that it was difficult to specify at present the role of nuclear power in Japan's energy mix or say whether it needed a plan to eliminate atomic power by 2050 ahead of a public debate on options being considered by the government.
Nuclear power provided about 30 percent of electricity needs before last year's disaster, in which the Fukushima plant was crippled by a big earthquake and tsunami. But all 50 reactors have since gone offline for checks or maintenance.
A 2010 energy policy, ditched after the crisis, had set a target of more than 50 percent for nuclear by 2030 and the government is now considering options ranging from zero to 20-25 percent by 2030.
Noda and key ministers are expected to approve on Saturday the restart of two reactors operated by Kansai Electric Power Co at the Ohi plant in western Japan, before a potential summer power crunch.
Experts have said that decision could open the door to resuming operations at other reactors despite delays in setting up a new regulatory commission to tighten safety rules and restore tattered public trust.
Noda, however, sidestepped the question of whether further restarts should wait for a new nuclear regulator to be set up, saying decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis.
A bill to create the new regulatory commission passed parliament's lower house on Friday. But it will take months to set it up.
Noda, 55, who took office last September as Japan's sixth premier in five years, was battling on Friday to hold his Democratic Party together after nearing a deal with the opposition to raise the sales tax to help curb huge public debt.
The low-profile leader has faced criticism for bringing his party's policies too much in line with those of its biggest rival, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in power for most of the past half century until being ousted in 2009.
The Democrats swept to power three years ago pledging to pry policy-making out of bureaucrats' hands and give consumers more money to boost growth instead of catering to big corporations.
Noda, a former finance minister who has made fiscal reform his key policy plank, acknowledged the Democrats had failed to keep some pledges, in part because as an opposition party they had not fully understood the fiscal situation.
But he insisted that policy differences remained and the historic change in power was a significant step in creating a real two-party system.
"The key point is that the Democratic Party has been growing as a political party and that a system which allows for government change has begun to function," he said.
He declined to speculate on the Democrats' fate in an election that must be held no later than next year and that could come sooner. Political analysts say the party could face a drubbing but that the LDP may not do much better.
(Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Ron Popeski)