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Japan begins nuclear charm offensive
by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) June 26, 2011

Sunflowers to clean radioactive soil in Japan
Tokyo (AFP) June 24, 2011 - Campaigners in Japan are asking people to grow sunflowers, said to help decontaminate radioactive soil, in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed March's massive quake and tsunami.

Volunteers are being asked to grow sunflowers this year, then send the seeds to the stricken area where they will be planted next year to help get rid of radioactive contaminants in the plant's fallout zone.

The campaign, launched by young entrepreneurs and civil servants in Fukushima prefecture last month, aims to cover large areas in yellow blossoms as a symbol of hope and reconstruction and to lure back tourists.

"We will give the seeds sent back by people for free to farmers, the public sector and other groups next year," said project leader Shinji Handa. The goal is a landscape so yellow that "it will surprise NASA", he said.

The massive earthquake and tsunami left more than 23,000 people dead or missing on Japan's northeast coast and crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant that has leaked radiation into the environment since.

Almost 10,000 packets of sunflower seeds at 500 yen ($6) each have so far been sold to some 30,000 people, including to the city of Yokohama near Tokyo, which is growing sunflowers in 200 parks, Handa said.

Handa -- who hails from Hiroshima, hit by an atomic bomb at the end of World War II -- said the sunflower project was a way for people across the nation to lend their support to the disaster region.

"This is different from donations because people will grow the flowers, and a mother can tell her children that it is like an act of prayer for the reconstruction of the northeast," Handa said.

"I also hope the project will give momentum to attract tourists back to Fukushima with sunflower seeds in their hands. I would like to make a maze using sunflowers so that children can play in it."

Japan began a campaign Sunday to convince communities hosting nuclear reactors to let operations resume, with several local governments blocking nuclear power generation after the atomic crisis in Fukushima.

Central government officials held a briefing in Saga prefecture, where two reactors at the Genkai power plant are among several across the country that were halted for regular checks when a huge quake and tsunami hit on March 11.

Local officials have since withheld routine consent for operations to resume, citing safety concerns after the tsunami triggered a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which has leaked radiation into air, soil and sea.

Sunday's briefing was broadcast online, but only seven government-selected local residents were allowed to attend, while the meeting venue was not disclosed to the public.

In a press conference after the 90-minute briefing, one of the seven complained that it had been "way too short".

Another participant said: "Officials used many technical terms that were too difficult to understand. Since I didn't understand, I cannot agree with their explanation."

Dozens of protesters demonstrated outside the building against the government's nuclear policy.

"This is a programme designed to lead to an approval for the resumption of operations of the Genkai reactors. We cannot accept that," one of the protesters, Hatsumi Ishimaru, 59, was quoted by Kyodo News as saying.

Nuclear energy makes up about a third of Japan's overall energy supply, but the government has faced stiff criticism from the public on the issue since the Fukushima crisis forced the evacuation of thousands of local residents.

earlier related report
Japan PM may step down by mid-August: lawmakers
Tokyo (AFP) June 26, 2011 - Japan's unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan may step down by mid-August if parliament passes key bills for disaster reconstruction, senior lawmakers said Sunday.

Kan pledged earlier this month to resign soon, but he has also demanded that bills on reconstruction from the March 11 quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster are passed first, along with legislation to promote renewable energy sources.

"Once things settle in late July or early August, I think the conditions for the prime minister to step down will be there," Jun Azumi, a senior member of Kan's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), told reporters.

Japan's centre-left government last week pushed through an extension of the parliamentary session by 70 days to the end of August.

The DPJ and its coalition partners plan to use the time to pass the key reconstruction bills -- another budget bill on rebuilding the disaster areas, as well as a bill to issue bonds for the current fiscal year to help pay for the recovery efforts.

Kan -- who started his political life as an environmental campaigner -- also wants to pass a bill to promote renewable energy, having pushed for a rethink on atomic power since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster.

Once these bills get passed, "That'd be about what the prime minister should be responsible for," DPJ secretary general Katsuya Okada told reporters.

"I would like to see opposition parties pass these bills unconditionally," he said during a Fuji TV debate show.

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Japan's Chubu Electric to get $1.2 billion loan
Tokyo (AFP) June 24, 2011 - Japan's Chubu Electric Power will receive a 100 billion yen government loan as it looks to fund alternative power sources after it had to suspend its Hamaoka nuclear plant following the crisis at Fukushima.

The low-interest $1.24 billion crisis response loan will be provided later this month through the Development Bank of Japan, government minister Banri Kaieda told a news conference on Friday.

Chubu Electric faces costs for shifting to other sources of power generation after Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered the suspension of the Hamaoka nuclear plant due to its location in a high-risk earthquake zone southwest of Tokyo.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan's northeast coastline, leaving 23,000 people dead or missing and crippling cooling systems at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, triggering reactor meltdowns.

More than three months on and tens of thousands of people remain evacuated from homes, farms and businesses in a 20-kilometre (12-mile) zone around the radiation-spewing plant, with evacuation pockets also further afield.

Utilities not directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami that battered the Fukushima Daiichi plant have not restarted reactors that were undergoing maintenance at the time, due to objections from local governments.

As a result, fewer than 20 of Japan's 54 reactors now are operating, raising the potential for power shortages across wider areas of the nation.

An effort to cut electricity usage by 15 percent in Tokyo and the surrounding region as well as the Tohoku region will begin on July 1 in a bid to avoid blackouts during the peak summer months.

Kansai Electric Power Co, which is based in western Japan, has said it will also ask businesses and households to voluntarily reduce their power usage this summer by 15 percent.

Japan, the world's number three economy, endures 20 percent of all major earthquakes and generates about 30 percent of its power from nuclear plants.

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India to press ahead on nuclear power
Washington (AFP) June 23, 2011
India's commerce minister called Thursday for more cooperation with the United States on nuclear energy and brushed aside talk of scrapping ambitious plans in the wake of Japan's Fukushima crisis. On a visit to Washington, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma said he has faced questions on whether India should rethink its nuclear energy policy and responded flatly: "My answer was no." While su ... read more

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