TOKYO (AP) — Japan's Cabinet stopped short of a commitment Wednesday to phase out nuclear power by 2040, backtracking from an advisory panel's recommendation in the face of opposition from pro-nuclear businesses and groups.
The decision came on the same day that Japan launched a new nuclear regulatory body to replace an agency whose links to the nuclear industry reportedly contributed to last year's disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
While not endorsing last week's advisory panel report, the Cabinet did vaguely agree to pursue its goals. The panel, acknowledging public aversion to nuclear power since the Fukushima accident, urged that it be phased out within three decades through greater reliance on renewable energy, more conservation and sustainable use of fossil fuels.
The Cabinet said it would only take the policy report "into consideration" and would seek public support for its recommendations. The public, in this case, includes the general population as well as the nuclear industry, other business interests, and communities near nuclear plants that rely on them economically.
National Policy Minister Motohisa Furukawa said the focus of Japan's energy policy continues to be the phasing out of nuclear power, although it would take time. Furukawa vowed to push for green energy and for cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.
The Cabinet's ambiguous endorsement added to criticism that the policy revision may be aimed at winning votes in elections expected within the next few months.
Business leaders praised the Cabinet's perceived backpedaling.
"It seems that (the Cabinet) did not mention specific targets such as 2030s or zero percent, so I assume we can avert the problem for the time being," said Masahiro Yonekura, chairman of the influential business lobby Keidanren. On Tuesday, Yonekura called the phase-out plan "totally unacceptable" and threatened to quit a government panel if it were adopted.
The decision still represents a shift for a government that until recently was considering a plan for nuclear power to continue to supply up to 25 percent of the country's energy needs through the 2030s.
"At least the policy showed the direction we should be heading," said Hideyuki Ban, co-head of anti-nuclear Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, who served on a government nuclear energy policy panel. "But the level of commitment has been weakened, and the plan has lots of holes ... It's obvious there was tremendous pressure from businesses."
Nuclear power provided about a third of the country's electricity before the March 11, 2011, accident at the Fukushima plant, and Japan had planned to increase that to 50 percent. Currently only two of the country's 50 functioning reactors are on line while the government addresses public concerns about safety.