Japan's Abe to visit Middle East in nuclear push

TOKYO - The prime minister of energy-poor Japan heads to the oil-rich Middle East this weekend in his latest push to promote nuclear technology exports, a spokesman said Friday, despite growing problems at the crippled Fukushima plant.

Shinzo Abe (above) was due to leave Tokyo on Saturday for a six-day trip that will take in Bahrain, Kuwait, Djibouti and Qatar, with discussion of Japan's nuclear know-how expected to be on the agenda.

"Qatar and Kuwait have shown interest in Japan's nuclear safety technology," said an official at the foreign ministry.

"They don't necessarily plan to build a nuclear plant themselves, but their neighbouring countries do," the official said.

"Qatar and Kuwait are therefore concerned about a possible accident and any environmental impact that might be inflicted."

Japan has continued to push its atomic expertise as an important export, despite the 2011 catastrophe at the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where multiple meltdowns cast a pall of radiation over a swathe of the country's northeast.

An already-lengthy list of problems in the clean-up got longer this week when around 300 tonnes of highly radioactive water was found to have seeped from one of the 1,000-odd storage tanks on the site.

Workers looking for other leaks on Thursday identified two more radiation hotspots near the containers, although plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) says they were dry and it cannot yet explain where they came from.

While the atomic catastrophe has put a crimp on Japan's own nuclear power generation, with all but two of the country's 50 reactors shut down, the government has been keen to push exports of its technology as part of efforts to boost infrastructure exports to 35 trillion yen ($350 billion) a year by 2020.

Abe, a supporter of nuclear power, visited Turkey in May as part of a wider Middle Eastern tour, signing a long-awaited deal to build a sprawling nuclear power plant on Turkey's Black Sea coast, in a milestone for the Japanese nuclear industry.

The agreement came a day after Japan signed a nuclear cooperation deal with the United Arab Emirates.

The foreign ministry official brushed aside suggestions that the latest setback at Fukushima might put a dampener on talks during the upcoming trip, saying the government does not expect them to have "any impact".

The nuclear shutdown in Japan has also increased the country's reliance on imported fossil fuels, of which the Middle East is an important source.