TOKYO — Japan is setting stricter, clearer safety guidelines for nuclear power plants to ease public concern about restarting reactors idled after the disasters a year ago.
Facing a national power crunch, the government is anxious to restart two reactors in Fukui, western Japan, before the last operating reactor of the 54 in the country goes offline in May.
But the government has faced strong public opposition due to the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, and local leaders are reluctant to give their approval.
Authorities say the new safety guidelines are more extensive than past "stress tests," which were essentially computer simulations meant to test how reactors would cope in the event of major earthquakes, tsunamis or other emergencies. Many questioned the objectivity of the tests and whether they guaranteed the plants' safety, even though two reactors passed the tests.
If utilities can show they meet the new guidelines, authorities hope the public will be convinced that the reactors are safe to restart, including the two in Ohi, Fukui prefecture.
The new guidelines, based on 30 recommendations adopted last month by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, require nuclear power plants to install filtered vents that could reduce radiation leaks in case of an accident, as well a device to prevent hydrogen explosions, among other steps. No deadline is cited by which these steps must be taken.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the government can order utilities to restart reactors regardless of local opposition, because obtaining residents' consent is not legally required.
The plan will be officially announced later Friday after Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three Cabinet ministers in charge of nuclear crisis management finalize the measures.
All but one of Japan's 54 reactors have been shut down for inspections, required every 13 months. None have been restarted since the March 11, 2011, tsunami set off meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.
The reactor on the northern island of Hokkaido goes off line in early May. If none of the reactors are restarted, Japan could face power shortages this summer. Before the crisis, Japan depended on nuclear power for one-third of its electricity.
To make up for the shortfall, Japan has expanded production at conventional gas- and oil-fired plants.
But officials in cities and towns near Fukui are requesting explanations for the rush.
"Why rush? It's too soon to decide. I think they should gain understanding from the public first," said Yukiko Kada, governor of Shiga prefecture bordering Fukui.
Toru Hashimoto, the outspoken mayor of Osaka — a top shareholder of Kansai Electric Power Co. that runs the Ohi plant in Fukui — criticized the government for compiling the new guideline in two days.
Economy and Trade Minister Yukio Edano said earlier Friday that many of the safety measures have been already taken and the new guidelines aim to set even higher standards.
Fukui, home to 13 reactors clustered in four complexes along the Sea of Japan coast, is called Japan's nuclear alley.