Japan nuclear firm hit by email scandal

TOKYO, July 8, 2011 (AFP) - The head of a Japanese utility firm apologised to the government on Friday after the company urged staff to send emails from home to a televised meeting calling for the restart of idled nuclear reactors.

The aim of Kyushu Electric Power Co. had been to swing public opinion toward accepting two reactor restarts in the aftermath of the country's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the world's worst since Chernobyl.

The reactors, in Kyushu island's Saga prefecture, would be Japan's first to go back online since the March 11 quake and tsunami, with the aim of easing nationwide power shortages in the sweltering summer months.

The company had told staff to send messages during a televised June 26 meeting of nuclear officials and residents on whether to restart the Genkai nuclear plant which has been shut down for routine maintenance.

The company's president Toshio Manabe, now facing calls to resign, visited the ministry of economy, trade and industry to apologise on Friday.

"I am deeply sorry we affected a briefing that should have been fair and impartial," Manabe was quoted as saying by the Jiji Press news agency.

Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda, in charge of national energy issues, told a press conference: "I was hugely disappointed. We must closely supervise utility firms so something like this doesn't happen again."

The ongoing Fukushima crisis has ignited debate in Japan about nuclear power, which previously accounted for a third of electricity needs.

At the moment only 19 of Japan's 54 reactors are operating. Most others are shut for maintenance and awaiting the approval of host communities to restart. More reactors are set to go offline for routine checks in coming months.

The government this week announced "stress tests" for all reactors, without specifying what these would entail -- a directive that backfired when some communities said this contradicted earlier assurances the plants are safe.

Embattled Prime Minister Naoto Kan apologised on Friday for causing confusion over the issue, saying "my instruction was inadequate and came too late".

Japan has been battling a post-disaster energy shortfall and has launched a power saving campaign during the summer months, including directives to companies to reduce their electricity use by at least 15 percent.

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