BEIJING // Japan's plan to regain public confidence in nuclear energy by carrying out stress tests on power facilities appeared to fail yesterday after a mayor cancelled the restart of two reactors because of the checks.
Officials have ordered stringent checks to ensure plants can cope with everything from tornadoes, heavy rains, floods and terrorist attacks after the emergency at the Fukushima plant. But the announcement of tests provoked a furious response from the mayor of the southern town of Genkai, who had accepted earlier safety assurances. He called off a planned restart of two reactors at a local plant run by Kyushu Electric Power.
His stance adds to the uncertainty over whether other utilities will be able to bring reactors back on line quickly after shutting them for mandatory safety checks, which could have all of Japan's reactors offline by next spring.
Prior to the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency, Japan had relied on nuclear power for a third of its electricity generation.
Currently just 19 of the country's 54 nuclear reactors are operational, with public and local authority opposition having in some cases prevented the starting up of facilities closed for checks.
Power shortages are feared over the summer as high demand for electricity coincides with continued shortfalls in power supplies.
The Japanese trade minister, Banri Kaieda, admitted the forthcoming stress tests, which will check whether plants are capable of withstanding earthquakes, terrorist attacks, fires, extreme weather and even aeroplane crashes, were more about changing public opinion than engineering necessity.
"The safety of nuclear power plants has been secured, but this is to gain a further sense of security among the people," he said on Wednesday.
The tests, he said, were to "gain the understanding of local residents", adding that once the public had "further confidence" then some reactors would be fired up again.
In May the European Union ordered tests to be carried out on its own nuclear plants.
The mayor of Genkai, in Saga Prefecture, had given the green light for a restart this week that would have brought all four reactors at the 36-year-old plant on line, after assurances from the government that they were safe.
But the town has now reversed course.
"Prime Minister [Naoto] Kan made a statement suggesting that stress tests are necessary for reactor restarts," said the Genkai mayor, Hideo Kishimoto. "This made me feel my decision (consenting to a restart) was meaningless, and I feel furious about it."
Amid public disquiet over the safety of nuclear plants, the authorities have been forced to take a cautious line over allowing facilities to operate. Two months ago, Chubu Electrical Power Company agreed to shutter its Hamaoka nuclear plant while a 1.6km sea wall is built - something that could take up to three years to complete - following a request from Mr Kan.
The crisis at the Fukushima plant, the worst nuclear power incident since the Chernobyl disaster, developed when tsunami waters caused by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake overcame a sea wall and knocked out power supplies, causing cooling systems to fail and the reactors to heat up.
The tsunami caused devastation across much of the north-east of Japan, with the official death toll put at more than 15,000, with 8,000 missing.
Timothy Abram, a professor of nuclear fuel technology at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, said stress tests were about exploring "the ground beyond where you have to stop".
"You go a little bit further deliberately," he said. "Doing these tests is an extremely sensible thing to do. I think most rational people would be reassured by that."
However, he said it was difficult to predict whether a public concerned about the perceived dangers of nuclear power would reduce its opposition to the restarting of reactors.
"I do not know how the population will take the news. I would like to think they would be rational. Individuals are rational, crowds are not," he said.
He suggested the public perception of the threat posed by nuclear power in Japan was overblown when set against the 15,000 lives known to have been lost.
"The impact [of the nuclear crisis] when measured, the number of people killed at the moment could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Any further additional deaths that might arise, you would imagine, it's a rather small number," he said.
The nuclear industry as a whole will look to the Fukushima nuclear crisis "to see what can be learned", said Jonathan Billowes, deputy director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute, also in Manchester.
"There may not be many lessons they can learn. Things have moved on since [the Fukushima reactors] were designed," he said.
With radiation releases having contaminated the land around the Fukushima plant, people living within a 30km radius have been evacuated. Many countries banned the import of produce from prefectures close to the plant.
* With additional reporting by Reuters