(NEW YORK) — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered the restart of two idle nuclear reactors Saturday amid widespread public opposition, more than a year after a powerful earthquake and tsunami triggered three nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Power Plant, and halted all 50 reactors in Japan.
The decision to reactivate the Ohi reactors in western Japan marks the first time the government has turned nuclear power back on since the Fukushima accident, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Japan was rocked by a series of powerful earthquakes and a tsunami in March 2011.
Operator Kansai Electric Power or KEPCO said it would take several weeks to restart its reactors. They could be fully operational by late July.
“We will increase our efforts to restore the public’s trust over nuclear safety regulation and atomic energy administration,” Noda said, following a meeting with ministers.
Saturday’s decision comes as the government scrambles to shore up its energy supply, to avert power shortages during the summer months, when usage is at its peak.
KEPCO provides power to Kansai, the area around Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city. Without the Ohi reactors, the utility has said the region would see a 15 percent electricity shortfall in July and August.
Japan relied on nuclear power for a third of its energy prior to the Fukushima disaster, but all 50 reactors have been taken offline since, for maintenance and safety checks.
Noda, who favors reducing Japan’s reliance on nuclear power overtime, has aggressively pushed to turn existing reactors back on, saying the country’s economy depended on it. But the Japanese public remains largely opposed to the idea.
Recent polls show a majority of the public opposes the restart of the Ohi reactors, and think Japan should reduce its reliance on nuclear power.
In a sign of how polarizing the issue has become, crowds of demonstrators protested outside the Prime Minister’s residence in the rain, as Noda met with ministers.
In Koriyama city, where many of the 80,000 evacuees displaced by the nuclear disaster now live, residents said the government was acting too quickly, just 15 months after the Fukushima accident.
“[The politicians] don’t care because it doesn’t affect them,” one man told broadcaster NHK. “They act as if they’re taking responsibility but they’re not. Nothing has been resolved.”
The focus will now shift to the remaining 48 reactors, and how quickly the government moves to resume operations.
Officials will likely hold off on any decision until a new, more independent nuclear regulatory agency is created, to replace the old one.
The Japanese parliament is expected to pass a bill calling for that change, as early as next week.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Arthur Brice, CNN
Ben Westcott, CNN
Evan McKirdy, Tim Hume and James Masters, CNN
Reed Alexander and James Griffiths, CNN