TOKYO -- Brushing aside widespread public opposition to avoid feared electric power shortages, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered the reactivation of two nuclear reactors at a plant in western Japan on Saturday, making it the nation's first plant to go back online since the crisis last year in Fukushima.
The decision to restart the Ohi nuclear plant ends the temporary freeze of Japan's nuclear power industry, when all 50 of the country's functional reactors were idled after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Despite the prime minister's vows to strengthen the Ohi plant against the same sort of huge earthquake and tsunami that knocked out the Fukushima plant in March 2011, the Japanese people have remained deeply divided on the safety of nuclear power.
Even after the prime minister made a rare appeal on June 8 on national television, opinion polls showed that more Japanese opposed restarting the Ohi plant than supported it. Mr. Noda urged the nation to return to nuclear power to avoid electricity shortages that could cause blackouts and cripple industry at a time of rising competition with China and the rest of Asia. Instead, he has supported a slow phasing out of nuclear plants over several decades, as energy alternatives are found.
Saturday's decision was seen here as a victory for the still-powerful nuclear industry and its backers in the business world, whose political support has been crucial to the otherwise unpopular Mr. Noda. It remains to be seen how the broader public will react to the restart order. Many Japanese already believe that Mr. Noda has rushed to proclaim the Ohi plant safe despite the fact that a new earthquake-resistant control center and other safety measures at the plant are years from completion.
According to polls, two-thirds of Japanese express deep concern about the safety of nuclear plants after last year's accident, which contaminated food with radiation and shattered the myth of Japan's infallible nuclear technology. The day before Mr. Noda gave the order, his government was visited by an antinuclear group led by the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, which presented what it said were the signatures of 7.5 million people calling for the abolition of nuclear power.
On Saturday, thousands of protesters turned out in the rain in Tokyo and elsewhere with placards criticizing the prime minister's assertion that the Ohi plant was safe.
Despite that, Mr. Noda ordered the restart of two of the four reactors at the plant, which provides electricity to Kansai, which includes the cities of Osaka and Kyoto and is Japan's second-largest urban area. The plant's operator, Kansai Electric Power, had forecast that without the plant, demand for electricity would exceed supply by about 15 percent during the summer.
The operator said it would take time to restart the two reactors, which will not reach full operation until late July.
The prime minister has said he wants the Ohi plant to be a first step toward resuming operations elsewhere. But he has been vague about when the next plant might be turned back on, apparently to gauge whether the public accepts the Ohi restart.
To allay some of its safety concerns, the Noda government has been pushing a bill, expected to pass within days, to create a more independent nuclear regulatory agency. Independent investigations into the causes of the Fukushima accident have blamed lax oversight by the current regulatory body, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Investigators said it had a conflict of interest because it was part of the Trade Ministry, which is charged with promoting nuclear power.
In the weeks leading up to the restart decision, Mr. Noda had worked to gain the support of the mayor of Ohi, the plant's host community, and the governor of Fukui Prefecture, where Ohi is located. Mr. Noda gave the restart order about 15 minutes after a meeting at his residence in which the governor, Issei Nishikawa, announced his acceptance of the restart. Ohi's mayor, Shinobu Tokioka, had given his consent earlier in the week.
However, many Japanese have criticized the prime minister as focusing on just two leaders who benefited for years from generous subsidies and tax benefits from the plant. Other local leaders have been highly skeptical of the Ohi plant's safety, including the popular mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who said the reactors should be turned off again after the peak summer months.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.