Updated at: 12/06/2013 10:36 AM
By MARI YAMAGUCHI
(AP) TOKYO - Japan should continue to use nuclear power as a key energy source despite the Fukushima power plant disaster, a government panel said Friday in a reversal of a phase-out plan by the previous government.
The draft energy plan issued by the panel underscores Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to restart as many nuclear reactors as possible under new, stricter safety requirements that took effect this past summer.
Currently, all 50 of Japan’s reactors are offline for safety inspections or maintenance.
The draft Basic Energy Plan says nuclear energy should remain "an important and basic power source that supports the stability of Japan’s energy supply and demand structure."
It says Japan should also try to diversify its energy mix, without giving numerical targets.
Nuclear energy supplied about one-third of Japan’s energy needs before the Fukushima accident in March 2011, and the country had planned to push that to 50 percent.
The draft plan also urges Japan to continue with its plan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium despite international concerns about the country’s large stockpile of the highly toxic element that can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Japan has 44 tons of plutonium at home and overseas after unsuccessfully pushing to establish a system in which it is extracted from spent fuel rods and then made into hybrid fuel that can be reused. Experts say the stockpile poses a nuclear security threat and raises questions over whether Japan plans to develop nuclear weapons, which the government denies.
Japan also has more than 17,000 tons of spent fuel in cooling pools at its 50 reactors. Some pools are expected to be full in several years, and the spent fuel is expected to be moved to a dry cask facility just completed in northern Japan.
Japan has no final nuclear waste repository, not even a potential site.
Earlier Friday, the top U.S. nuclear regulator said atomic energy users, including Japan, must figure out how to ultimately store radioactive waste.
Allison Macfarlane, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in Tokyo that developing an underground repository remains a challenge despite a global consensus on the need for such facilities to deal with waste from nuclear plants.
"In the nuclear community, we of course have to face the reality of the end product _ spent fuel," Macfarlane said.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)