Japan's government is considering conducting stress tests on nuclear reactors to ease safety concerns which have blocked the restart of idled reactors since the March quake and tsunami, including several that have completed maintenance and complied with new, stiffer safety standards.
Japan is struggling with a drawn-out crisis after meltdowns at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant, site of the world's worst nuclear incident in 25 years.
Tokyo worries that without the restart of reactors outside the quake-hit region that have been shut for regular maintenance, the country could suffer power shortages when demand peaks in the summer.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said on Wednesday he had asked Japan's trade and nuclear safety ministers to plan new tests.
"I have given instructions to consider ways to further boost assurances about nuclear power plants generally, by making evaluations through something similar to stress tests being conducted in Europe," Edano told parliament.
The tests would determine how well each nuclear reactor could withstand severe events, like the magnitude 9 earthquake and 15-metre (49-foot) tsunami that battered Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi facility in the northeast in March.
Such tests would not require extra safety checks but would rely on existing data, a trade ministry official in charge of reactor inspections said. Further details would be decided later, he added.
Local authorities have been calling for new guidelines to ensure that reactors in their communities are safer than Fukushima and another nuclear complex in Hamaoka, 200 kilometres (120 miles) southwest of Tokyo, which Chubu Electric Power Co closed in early May at the prime minister's request due to that area's risk of a major earthquake.
Countries in the European Union have agreed to proceed with stress tests on the region's 143 reactors and have urged that they be conducted worldwide.
Delays in restarting reactors and the shutdown of tsunami-hit plants have left Japan with only 19 of its 54 commercial reactors still operating.
To avoid unexpected blackouts, the government has told big power users in Tokyo and northeastern Japan that starting July 1 they must cut their peak power use by 15 percent compared with last year, resorting to such measures for the first time since the oil crisis of 1974.
Before March, nuclear accounted for about 30 percent of the electricity supply in Japan, the world's third-biggest nuclear power generator after the United States and France.
Among the first to restart could be two reactors that have completed regular maintenance at Kyushu Electric Power Co's 36-year old plant in the town of Genkai in southern Japan, pending approval from Sage Prefecture Governor Yasushi Furukawa.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan told parliament on Wednesday that his government should come up with a new, comprehensive rule to help local authorities reach decisions on restart approvals, in response to a question about the Genkai reactors.
Saga Governor Furukawa later said in a statement that any decision on Genkai should wait until after the stress tests are complete.
No time frame has yet been given for the tests, although Furukawa said it was his understanding that they would first be conducted on reactors that had been shut for regular maintenance.
The current parliamentary session has been extended until August to discuss compensation for people harmed or forced from their homes by the nuclear disaster. It will also focus on rebuilding the quake-hit regions and a framework to boost the use of renewable energy.
But political deadlock could undermine progress as opposition parties are likely to keep up pressure on Kan to keep his promise to quit soon.
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