World and Nation

Japan to begin restarting idled nuclear plants, leader says

TOKYO — Japan will begin restarting its idled nuclear plants once new safety guidelines are in place later this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday, moving to ensure a stable energy supply despite public safety concerns after the Fukushima disaster.

In a speech to Parliament, Abe pledged to restart nuclear plants that pass the tougher guidelines, which are expected to be adopted by a newly created independent watchdog agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, as early as July. However, he did not specify when any of the reactors might resume operation. News reports have suggested that it might take months or even years to make the expensive upgrades needed to meet the new safety standards.

All of Japan’s 50 operable nuclear reactors were shut down following the March 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which spewed radiation across northern Japan after a huge earthquake and tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems. Two were later restarted as an emergency measure to avert power shortages in the heavily populated region that includes the cities of Osaka and Kyoto.

Responding to public safety concerns, leaders from the previous Democratic Party government had vowed to slowly phase out nuclear power by the 2030s in favor of cleaner alternatives like solar and wind power. However, Abe, who took power after his Liberal Democratic Party won national elections in December, has vowed to shelve the planned phaseout, saying that Japan needs stable and cheap electricity from nuclear power to compete economically.

On Thursday, Abe said that Japan had learned the need for tougher safety standards from the Fukushima accident, which forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate. He said the new safety standards will be enforced “without compromise.” Abe also said Japan would continue seeking energy alternatives to reduce its dependence on nuclear power, without going so far as to eliminate it.

In January, the new nuclear agency released a list of its proposed new safety regulations, which include higher walls to protect against tsunamis, additional backup power sources for the cooling systems and construction of specially hardened earthquake-proof command centers. According to a report by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun, none of Japan’s 16 undamaged commercial nuclear plants would currently pass those new standards.

The newspaper said making the necessary upgrades to meet the proposed guidelines would cost plant operators about $11 billion, in addition to improvements already made after the Fukushima accident. The agency has said the new guidelines will be finalized and put in place by July 18.