TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan should embrace nuclear power as an "important and fundamental" energy source, a government panel said on Friday, in advice that looks almost certain to be accepted, despite widespread anti-nuclear feeling after the Fukushima disaster.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is keen to restart Japan's idled nuclear reactors to cut the cost of fossil fuel imports used by power stations, which have swelled the trade deficit to a record and driven up electricity prices.
The recommendation, if adopted, could put atomic power back into Japan's energy mix after the previous government decided to abandon it following triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant north of Tokyo, the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
"Nuclear energy is an important and fundamental base energy source that will support the stability of energy demand and supply," the panel wrote in its report, adding that securing safety was paramount in utilizing atomic power.
There was no recommendation on the proportion of energy that should come from nuclear power.
The panel is headed by Akio Mimura, honorary chairman of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp, Japan's largest steel maker and one of its heaviest electricity users.
The Fukushima disaster highlighted regulatory shortcomings and lack of preparation in an industry long cosseted by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, which swept back to power a year ago.
The panel also said Japan should publicize information on safety measures taken after the disaster, its new regulatory standards and the economics of nuclear power.
The crisis led to the gradual shutdown of all Japan's nuclear reactors. They remain idled, while a new, more independent regulator assesses their ability to withstand natural disasters, such as the earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima nuclear plant.
The previous Democratic Party of Japan government had accepted a recommendation from a similar panel to abandon nuclear power sometime in the 2030s.
Opposition to atomic energy remains high and all of Japan's political parties, including the LDP's coalition partner, oppose nuclear power, which provided about 30 percent of electricity before the Fukushima disaster in 2011.
Prior to the disaster the government had envisaged increasing the contribution of nuclear energy to 50 percent.
(Reporting by Mari Saito; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)