TOKYO • Japan has ended a two year nuclear shutdown, restarting a nuclear reactor under new standards put in place after the Fukushima disaster in 2011.
But in the face of protests, with anti-nuclear sentiment high, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to reassure a nervous public that the industry is now safe.
Kyushu Electric Power turned on a reactor yesterday at its Sendai nuclear power plant, about 1,000km south-west of Tokyo - the farthest of Japan's reactors from the capital.
The 31-year-old reactor - operating under tougher post-Fukushima safety rules - is expected to start generating power by Friday. Commercial operations are to begin early next month.
The restart comes more than four years after a quake-sparked tsunami triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, prompting the shutdown of Japan's reactors. The accident sent radiation over a wide area and forced tens of thousands of people from their homes - many of whom will likely never return.
The crisis shocked Japan and the world was transfixed as the government and the Fukushima operator, Tokyo Electric Power(Tepco), badly fumbled their initial response.
Decommissioning of the crippled Fukushima reactors is expected to take decades, with compensation expenses - excluding the cost of the site's clean-up - now topping US$57 billion(S$79 billion).
Protesters scuffled with police in front of the Sendai plant. Local media said about 200 demonstrators had gathered, including former prime minister Naoto Kan, a high-profile anti-nuclear activist.
The country, which once relied on nuclear power for a quarter of its electricity, restarted two reactors temporarily to feed its needs after Fukushima. But both went offline by September 2013, making Japan completely nuclear-free for about two years.
Stricter safety regulations are in place, including more back-up preventive measures and higher tsunami- blocking walls in some areas.
''It is important to restart reactors one by one from the perspective of energy security, the economy and measures against global warming, but safety always comes first,'' Industry Minister Yoichi Miyazawa said. If another atomic accident happened, he added, the government would ''deal with it responsibly''.
Beefed-up safety measures are key to Mr Abe's bid to get some of about four dozen reactors back up and running, as Tokyo's energy policy sets its sights on nuclear accounting for as much as 22 per cent of Japan's energy needs by 2030.
Power companies are also keen on more restarts, fed up with having to make up for lost generating capacity with pricey fossil fuels.
Japan's post-Fukushima energy bill skyrocketed as it scrambled to fill the gap left by taking reactors offline, pushing the country into successive trade deficits.
A sharp weakening of the yen also pushed up costs for energy imports paid for in other currencies.
Dr Takashi Kato, professor emeritus at Tokyo's Seikei University, was critical of the restart. ''It is big business demanding a stable supply of power by resuming nuclear reactors, not the public,'' he said.
Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka said in an interview with the Nikkei newspaper published at the weekend that ''a disaster like that at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will not occur'' under the new rules.
But he conceded that there was ''no such thing as absolute safety''.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS