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Japan approves reactor restarts, more seen

Nearly a year after a tsunami and 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel travels to the evacuation zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The plant suffered a triple meltdown in the wake of the earthquake, turning the neighborhoods in the 12 mile radius of the plant into ghost towns. Engel journeyed near the mangled plant which remains very much a hotspot.  Radiation levels were so high, the NBC News team on the ground had to wear face masks and full body suits. Even as NBC News drove half a mile from the reactor, radiation monitors were screaming in alarm.

TOKYO -- Japan on Saturday approved the resumption of nuclear power operations at two reactors despite mass public opposition, the first to come back on line after they were all shut down following the Fukushima crisis. 

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, his popularity ratings sagging, had backed the restarts for some time. He announced the government's decision at a meeting with key ministers, giving the go-ahead to two reactors operated by Kansai Electric Power Co at Ohi in western Japan. 

The decision, despite public concerns over safety after the big earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant, could open the door to more restarts among Japan's 50 nuclear power reactors. 

But the decision risks a backlash from a public deeply concerned about nuclear safety. As many as 10,000 demonstrators gathered outside Noda's office on Friday night amid a heavy police presence to denounce the restarts, urging the premier to step down and shouting "Lives matter more than the economy." 

"Prime Minister Noda's rushed, dangerous approval of the Ohi nuclear power plant restart ignores expert safety advice and public outcry and needlessly risks the health of Japan's environment, its people and its economy," environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement. 

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The decision is a victory for Japan's still-powerful nuclear industry and reflects Noda's concerns about damage to the economy if atomic energy is abandoned following the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. 

The restart is being closely watched as an indicator of how aggressively the government will act to approve operations at other reactors. It has been pushing hard to bring some reactors online as soon as possible to avert power shortages as demand increases during the summer months. It says the reactors in the town of Ohi are particularly important because they are in an area that relied heavily on nuclear before the crisis, and have passed safety checks.

"Safety is our main concern," said trade and industry minister Yukio Edano. "We have approved the beginning of the restarting process. It will take some time for the reactors to begin generating electricity." 

But officials acknowledged that a completely fail-safe disaster prevention plan was impossible. 

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"There is no such thing as a perfect score when it comes to disaster prevention steps," Trade Minister Yukio Edano told a news conference after the announcement. 

Japan's disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011 contaminated the land around it so badly that the area was effectively a write-off. Today the radiation-infected area is known by a name Ray Bradbury would like: "the exclusion zone." NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel reports from inside the zone, part of his report for Rock Center with Brian Williams airing Wednesday, Mar. 7, at 10pm/9c on NBC.

"But, based on what we learned from the Fukushima accident, those measures that need to be taken urgently have been addressed, and the level of safety has been considerably enhanced (at the Ohi plant)," he said. 

Edano, who holds the energy portfolio, said the government policy to reduce Japan's dependence on nuclear energy in the medium- to long-term was unchanged despite the decision. 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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