-ICHI NUCLEAR POWER PLANT, Japan (AP) — Newly installed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the tsunami-devastated Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant on Saturday as his government reconsiders plans to eventually phase out the use of atomic energy.
Donning protective gear, Abe took a bus tour of the plant — site of the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — and greeted workers at its emergency operations center in Okuma town on Japan's northeastern coast.
A massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, swamped parts of the Fukushima plant, disabling backup systems and triggering radiation-spewing meltdowns that forced tens of thousands of people to flee. The disaster triggered massive protests against atomic energy and widespread public distrust in nuclear plant operators and regulators.
Japan's nuclear reactors were suspended for checks after the Fukushima meltdowns, and only two of the country's 50 reactors are currently online.
During his visit to the Fukushima plant's operations center, Abe urged employees of the plant's embattled owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., to persevere as the company works to clean up radiation released by the accident and safely close the plant permanently.
"Your courage is what brings hope to Japan," Abe told workers at the center. "Yet, we still face a great challenge — an unprecedented challenge in human history to working towards decommissioning the plant in such scale."
The previous government, led by the rival Democratic Party of Japan, had pledged to phase out nuclear power by 2040 by retiring aging reactors and not replacing them.
But Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, which regained power in elections this month, says it plans to spend 10 years studying the best energy mix for the country. Abe has said he may reconsider the previous government's decision to stop building reactors.
The relatively favorable stance toward resuming operations of more nuclear plants has won favor among business leaders worried about power shortages and rising costs; since the Fukushima disaster, Japanese imports of costly liquefied natural gas have soared.
It's unclear, however, if that would win the approval of the government's Nuclear Regulation Authority, which is drawing up new, compulsory safety standards and checking some plants for potential trouble from geologic faults that could compromise safety in case of earthquakes, which are common in this seismically active country.
Associated Press writer Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo contributed to this report.