News / Asia

Japan to 'Stress Test' Idled Nuclear Plants

Japanese officials say they will allow idled nuclear plants to resume operations only after passing new safety tests gauging their resilience to major catastrophes. The evaluations are part of an attempt to restore public confidence in atomic energy after the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami in the northeastern part of the country led to the meltdown of three reactors.

Japan's government says two-stage "stress tests" will be carried out at all of the country's nuclear reactors.

Chief government spokesman Yukio Edano, speaking to reporters Monday, explained that officials could grant permission to restart the nuclear plants after the first stage of the evaluations.

Edano says there will be no deadline for the safety tests which will be primarily conducted by the country's Nuclear Safety Commission. He said plants that are still in operation will be evaluated under a more comprehensive second stage of stress tests.

Officials say the test results could lead to switching off some of the reactors currently in operation.

The simulations, which will have different standards than those proposed by the European Union, are to determine how well the nuclear facilities would cope in the event of earthquakes, flooding, explosions or planes crashing into them.

Thirty-five of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are out of commission. Most are not operating due to maintenance or because local governments have not granted permission for them to re-start because of safety concerns.

Local officials became more concerned about nuclear safety after the March 11 magnitude-9 earthquake and the resulting tsunami along the northeastern coast. The natural disaster, which has left more than 20,000 people dead or missing, severely damaged Tokyo Electric's Fukushima-1 plant. Three of its six reactors suffered a meltdown and the plant is still leaking radiation.

The accident and the delayed re-start of other reactors have led to energy conservation measures in some regions of Japan.

Before the March disaster, Japan relied on nuclear plants for 30 percent of its electrical power and had intended to raise that to 50 percent by 2030.

But Prime Minister Naoto Kan wants a total review of the country's energy plan. He made a surprise policy shift last week, announcing that all nuclear plants would undergo a full safety assessment.

Kan's announcement prompted the governor of Saga prefecture to reverse his approval for operations to resume at two nuclear units in his prefecture.

Kan has faced repeated criticism for his handling of the nuclear crisis. That has led to renewed calls for his resignation, including among lawmakers in his own party.

After surviving a no-confidence vote in parliament, last month, Kan announced he intends to turn over leadership to a younger generation.  The prime minister has not announced when he will quit although other members of the Democratic Party say Kan is likely to resign next month.

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