Japan to hold stress tests at all nuclear plants

Battered heavy oil tank removed from Fukushima - 29 June
Image caption The nuclear accident at Fukushima is the worst since Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986

Japan is to conduct safety tests on all its nuclear reactors in the wake of the crisis at the Fukushima plant following the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.

Trade Minister Banri Kaieda said Japan's 54 reactors would undergo "stress tests" to determine how well they can withstand major disasters.

Only 19 reactors are still operating, causing a drawn-out energy crisis.

Engineers are still working to shut down the Fukushima plant, which continues to leak radioactive material.

Japan was hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake - the country's most powerful on record - creating a massive tsunami that levelled towns along the country's north-east coast.

Waves from the tsunami caused back-up generators at the Fukushima Daiichi plant to fail, disabling reactor cooling systems and leading to meltdowns, explosions and radiation leaks.

The plant's operator Tepco has come under heavy criticism for failing to sufficiently prepare for the natural disasters.

The crisis has led to great public concern over the safety of nuclear energy.

"The safety of nuclear power plants has been secured, but this is to gain a further sense of security among the people," Mr Kaieda was cited as saying by Jiji Press news agency.

Speaking on television, Mr Kaieda said: "We are planning the stress tests to gain the understanding of local residents. We will get further confidence from the people and will restart operations at some plants."

He did not say when the stress tests would begin; however, he promised there would be enough energy available for the peak usage during the summer months.

Beleaguered leader

To avoid unexpected blackouts, the government has ordered large companies in Tokyo and north-eastern Japan to cut their peak power use by 15% or face fines.

Before the March disaster, nuclear energy accounted for about 30% of Japan's power supply, making it the world's third-biggest nuclear generating country after the US and France.

Meanwhile, Japan's government has approved a second budget of 2tn yen ($24.7bn; £15.4bn) for reconstruction.

The money will be spent on rebuilding, and on compensating victims of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. About 85,000 people have been forced to evacuate the area around the plant.

This emergency budget will be sent to parliament for approval later this month.

Last month, Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived a no-confidence motion brought by MPs critical of his handling of the reconstruction process.

Mr Kan, who is just over a year into his post, has vowed to step down soon, but only once several key bills on disaster recovery and renewable energy are passed.

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