TOKYO - For the first time since a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011 and killed nearly 16,000 people, Japan held no state memorial for the disaster anniversary on Friday.
On the eve of the 11th anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, some ruling party lawmakers urged the government to hasten the restart of nuclear power plants, most of them idled since 2011 because of safety concerns.
As memories of the March 11 tragedy fade, proponents of nuclear power have become emboldened to speak out in its favour, seizing on a new threat of soaring energy prices amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The growing calls from Japan's business leaders, lawmakers, and even the main opposition party come amid persistent public opposition to nuclear power, muddying the outlook for energy policy.
"The government must restart nuclear power plants swiftly to overcome this current crisis," a parliamentary group of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said on Thursday, calling the situation in Ukraine "dangerous" for Japan's energy supply.
Mindful of a looming upper house election in July, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and members of his cabinet have moved cautiously, repeating the government's position that safety considerations were key to any decisions on nuclear restarts.
With thousands still displaced after the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor, public opposition to nuclear power runs high.
Just six of Japan's more than 30 nuclear power plants are operating, accounting for just 3.7% of energy use in 2020, down from 26% in 2010.
Resource-poor Japan imports most of its energy, and Russia, which calls the action in Ukraine a "special military operation", is its fifth-largest supplier of oil and liquefied natural gas.
"If you could obtain the understanding of the people after having verified safety, speeding up inspections and then speeding up the restarts, that's definitely a choice," LDP lawmaker and former defence minister Itsunori Onodera told Reuters this week.
As energy prices hit multi-year highs, the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations have also agreed it is critical to diversify energy sources and reduce dependence on Russia.
Still, national approaches have diverged, with France eyeing more nuclear power plants, while Germany vetoed this week a proposal to extend the lifespan of its nuclear plants.
"All of us are troubled by the rising energy costs … but to give that as a reason to say that nuclear energy is the only way forward is not right," said Satoshi Tatara, an activist against nuclear energy, who lives near a nuclear plant.
"Renewable energy should be the conclusion drawn from this war, not a return to nuclear," he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Ritsuko Shimizu and Sakura Murakami; Additional reporting by Yuka Obayashi, Yoshifumi Takemoto, and Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Clarence Fernandez)