[TOKYO] Two-thirds of Japanese companies want and expect a lesser role for nuclear power than the government is targeting, a Reuters survey showed, reflecting persistent concerns about safety four years after the Fukushima disaster.
All of the country's 43 operable reactors are offline - the result of a tougher safety regime introduced after an earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima plant, causing meltdowns, explosions and plumes of radioactivity.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government last month proposed bringing nuclear energy back to account for 20-22 per cent of the nation's electricity mix by 2030, seeking to reduce Japan's huge reliance on imported fossil fuels and lift the economy out of two decades of anaemic growth.
But slightly more than two-thirds of firms in the Reuters Corporate Survey, conducted May 7-19, saw levels of less than 20 per cent as appropriate and realistically achievable given strong public opposition.
"Some nuclear power stations may resume operations, but it will be difficult to expect as many restarts as the government and utilities want," a corporate manager at a machinery company wrote.
A further breakdown of the numbers showed a wide variation in expectations. Fourteen per cent of firms saw nuclear power only managing to account for less than 10 per cent of Japan's energy mix by 2030.
A quarter saw levels of 10-14 per cent while 29 per cent saw levels of 15-19 per cent.
A Reuters analysis last year indicated that as few as a third, and at most about two-thirds, of Japan's reactors are ever likely to pass today's more stringent safety checks and clear other seismological, economic, logistical and political hurdles needed to restart.
A third of reactors back online would be roughly equivalent to nuclear energy accounting for 10 per cent of the country's electricity supply while two-thirds would be about 20 per cent.
Japan has made some tentative steps towards restarts with the nuclear regulator signing off on the basic safety of five reactors since last year.
The corporate survey, conducted for Reuters by Nikkei Research, polled 481 large and mid-sized companies. Around 230, which responded anonymously, answered questions on nuclear energy prospects.
Most public opinion polls have put opposition to nuclear restarts at about two-to-one over support. This is despite an average 20 per cent rise in household electricity bills to cover the cost of imported fuel.
Local residents and activists are seeking to block the restart of all five reactors certified as meeting new safety standards from the Nuclear Regulation Authority - making it hard to predict the timing of resumption of operations.
The restart of one, the Takayama plant owned by Kansai Electric Power, has been delayed indefinitely after a court sided with activists. The first restart could be the Sendai plant owned by Kyushu Electric Power but the regulator has said company plans for that to happen in mid-July are too optimistic as it needs to finalise its review.
The government is also pushing through reforms in the electricity industry and will open the market to full competition from next year to try to cut costs.
But the survey showed two-thirds of companies do not expect deregulation to have a big impact on their energy costs.
Still, 62 per cent of firms are considering purchasing or increasing purchases of power from new entrants in the market.
"We are already seeing a sales war and we've already started buying power from non-Tepco companies for our buildings, which helped lower our costs," a manager for a real estate company wrote, referring to Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant.