Japan minister's quitting a hitch, but won't affect reactor restart

TOKYO - Japan's plan to restart nuclear reactors shut down after the Fukushima disaster will not be affected by Monday's resignation of the industry minister, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is losing a convincing advocate of a move viewed mostly with suspicion.

Forty-year-old Yuko Obuchi's resignation from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, six weeks after she was appointed, is the latest hitch in a process bogged down by documentation over safety standards, concerns about natural disasters and local opposition.

"Obviously as a young mother, the youngest cabinet minister, she was a reassuring figure (who showed) that restarting the reactor wouldn't be as threatening as people feared," said Professor Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus.

"Now that she's gone, (Abe has) lost that reassuring presence and it's unlikely that he's going to be able to find anyone as convincing as her," Kingston said.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Japanese are opposed to restarting reactors since the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi station in March 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami. Among women, there is overwhelming opposition to restarting reactors.

Abe and his cabinet argue that rebooting the country's nuclear reactors is crucial to reducing a record trade deficit, as utilities have been forced to import expensive fossil fuels.

"This is established policy and I think it will go ahead. But it will hurt his (Abe's) support rates," said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University.

A second minister resigned later on Monday after the opposition filed a criminal complaint against Justice Minister Midori Matsushima, accusing her of violating the election laws. Abe told reporters he wanted to name successors for the two posts within the day.

In Satsumasendai, 1,000 km (600 miles) from Tokyo, where the first reactors that have received safety clearance are located, local officials on Monday started debating whether to give their final go-ahead.

"I do not think there will be an impact. We are steadily moving forward in the restart process and it is down to the city and the prefecture now," said Hirofumi Yahisa, a city official and aide to the mayor of the city.

"Of course, it may have been good for residents' sensibilities if (Obuchi) had visited, but it's not a situation where we can't move forward without her visit," he said.

The city's assembly will vote on the restart of the reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co's as early as Oct. 28.

Once the Satsumasendai assembly gives its expected approval to the restart, the matter will go the wider Kagoshima prefectural assembly. According to a poll by the Minami Nihon Newspaper earlier this year, 59 per cent of Kagoshima residents are opposed to restarting the reactors.

Kenichi Ikehata, chairman of the Kagoshima prefectural assembly, said Obuchi's resignation was a setback but not more than that.

"We were hoping that there would be more understanding (towards the restart) after a thorough explanation by the minister as a woman, who could speak from the perspective of a housewife," he said by phone. However, Ikehata added: "This will not affect the restart."

Kyushu Electric still needs to pass operational safety checks by Japan's nuclear regulator, making it difficult to determine the timing of the restart even after local approval.

The utility is still submitting hundreds of pages of documents on operational management and their construction plans. The plant also needs to pass an on-site safety inspection by regulators before reactors can be turned back online.

Government officials in Tokyo will also need to visit Kagoshima to explain the restart, said an official in the industry ministry, who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media on the matter.

Obuchi's "soft" demeanour and popularity would have helped achieve the government's aims to restart stalled reactors, but her resignation would not affect the process, he said.

"In selecting a replacement, this will be an important point," the official said.