Hokkaido Electric Power Co's Tomari nuclear power plant

Japan's Hokkaido Elec gets approval for restarted reactor

Japan's Hokkaido Electric Power Co has been given local approval for commercial operation of its Tomari nuclear reactor.

Hokkaido Governor Harumi Takahashi gave his backing to the 912-megawatt Tomari No.3 reactor in a press conference today, and formal consent of the change in status by the trade minister was expected as early as the same day.

"I think the Hokkaido Governor is making a reasonable, commonly acceptable decision," said Toshinori Ito, senior analyst at UBS Securities Japan.

"I hope that the governor's decision will help leaders of other communities hosting reactors to calm down, face the reality and use their common sense."

The decision came as Japan weighs its need for a steady supply of electricity against worries over the safety of atomic power.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co, shattering public confidence in nuclear power.

That has darkened the outlook for the restart of off-line reactors and raised the possibility that all of Japan's 54 reactors could be shut down by May 2012.

The change in status of the Tomari No.3 reactor, however, does not mean a boost in energy output from the plant as the reactor has been operating in "test status" since four days before the March 11 disaster.

Nor does it necessarily imply that reactors now off-line will gain local approval easily, with the halted reactors - 39 of a total of 54 in Japan - must first undergo "stress tests" to confirm their safety.

Tomari No.3 will not operate for more than a few months, since it must be halted by the end of May 2012 for its next round of planned maintenance.

Concerns about the impact on Japan's economy of a complete shutdown of all the nation's nuclear reactors have been running up against worries about safety in the wake of the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years, as well as mistrust of utilities and regulators after a spate of scandals.

Surveys show about 70 per cent of voters support prime minister Naoto Kan's vision of a future free of nuclear power, although the nuclear reactors supplied about 30 per cent of electricity before the March disaster.

"One of the most important responsibilities that the governor has is the protection of the life of the citizens of their prefecture," said Hideki Osada, a representative of the the Hokkaido Peace Movement Forum, an anti-nuclear group.

"We are against the governor giving official recognition of the plant operations.

"Concerning the plants that are already in operation, they should eventually be stopped taking into account short- and long-term safety concerns."

However prime minister Kan is expected to step down in coming weeks, and most of his potential successors have said it would be difficult to abandon atomic power entirely.

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