TOKYO (Reuters) - Exiting nuclear power in Japan is unrealistic, the country’s new industry minister said on Thursday, in comments that reiterated the government’s line but are at odds with those made a day earlier by another newly installed cabinet member.
The conflicting comments by cabinet members appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday highlight the abiding sensitivities of nuclear power in Japan, more than eight years after the Fukushima catastrophe caused mass evacuations and Japan’s worst energy crisis in the modern era.
“There are risks and fears about nuclear power,” industry minister, Isshu Sugawara, told reporters a day after his appointment in a cabinet reshuffle.
“But ‘zero-nukes’ is, at the moment and in the future, not realistic,” he added.
The comments by Sugawara, himself once an anti-nuclear advocate, were at odds with those made by new environment minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, who said earlier that Japan should look at ways to exit nuclear power to avoid repeating the March 2011 Fukushima disaster.
“I would like to study how we will scrap them, not how to retain them,” Koizumi said at his first news conference late on Wednesday.
Japan’s nuclear regulator is overseen by Koizumi’s ministry, while energy policy is set by Sugawara’s ministry.
The comments by Koizumi, the son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, were out of step with government policy, which designates atomic power as an important element of the energy mix. The senior Koizumi became an anti-nuclear campaigner after Fukushima.
“The reality is that restarts have been not only delayed, but are increasingly difficult and many will be scrapped” said Martin Schulz, senior research fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute.
Shinjiro Koizumi’s comments were “a bit at odds with the government position – but not totally out of line,” Schultz said.
Three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi station run by Tokyo Electric Power melted down after being hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, spewing radiation.
Most of Japan’s nuclear reactors, which before Fukushima supplied about 30% of the country’s electricity, are going through a re-licensing process under new safety standards imposed after the disaster highlighted regulatory and operational failings.
Japan has six reactors operating at present, a fraction of the 54 units before Fukushima. About 40% of the pre-Fukushima fleet is set to be decommissioned after operators decided it would be too expensive to refit them to meet the new safety requirements.
The nuclear sector’s shutdown forced Japan to import record amounts of thermal coal and liquefied natural gas to replace the lost capacity, sending electricity bills for consumers and businesses higher.
Reporting by Ritsuko Shimizu and Linda Sieg; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by David Dolan and Muralikumar Anantharaman