Japan issues warning if atomic plants stay offline

TOKYO - The prolonged suspension of Japanese nuclear reactors beyond areas affected by the March 11 disasters will have a "severe impact" on the economy, the trade and industry minister said Friday.

Utilities not directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami that battered the Fukushima Daiichi plant have not restarted reactors that were undergoing maintenance at the time, due to objections from local governments.

As a result, fewer than 20 of Japan's 54 reactors now are operating, raising the potential for power shortages across wider areas of the nation.

"A sharp drop in supply will increase the demand-supply gap," Banri Kaieda said at a regular press conference. "In particular, the capacity of power supply is likely to drop in western Japan" if nuclear reactors do not come back online.

Kaieda said because a number of companies are shifting their production bases to western Japan, "there will be a severe impact on the reconstruction of the Japanese economy."

Kansai Electric Power Co, which is based in western Japan, on Friday said it will ask businesses and households to voluntarily reduce their power usage this summer by 15 percent.

Four of its 11 reactors that were offline for maintenance have not restarted due to objections from local authorities. Two more are scheduled to stop operations in July for checkups.

"This is an anguished decision we made to avoid blackouts," said Makoto Yagi, president of the utility, according to Kyodo News.

Kaieda also said the government will attempt to submit legislation "at the earliest date" to help Tokyo Electric Power Co. pay for compensation related to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

With the complex crippled by the March tragedy, power shortages hit Tokyo Electric Power's service area in eastern Japan's economically vital Kanto region, where Tokyo is located.

The worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986 has forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from their houses, businesses and farms in a 20-kilometre (12-mile) radius around the plant, and in other areas.

There has been no official estimate of damages yet, but the sum is widely expected to reach several trillion yen.

Uncertainty over the fate of the beleaguered company and slow progress in forming a plan to ensure it can meet what is expected to be a huge compensation bill have seen TEPCO shares lose 90 percent of their pre-quake value.