• Kyodo

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Three of the four candidates vying to lead the Liberal Democratic Party called Sunday for Japan to maintain its nuclear fuel recycling program as they geared up for the last few days of campaigning prior to Wednesday's vote.

During a Fuji TV program, vaccination minister Taro Kono, the only contender who has pushed for phasing out nuclear power generation, went against his leadership rivals and said Japan should pivot away from fuel recycling "as soon as possible."

On the other hand, Seiko Noda, executive acting secretary-general of the LDP, said the process is necessary to ensure a stable power supply.

The process involves recovering plutonium from spent nuclear fuel in order to recycle it.

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi said power companies cannot run nuclear power plants if Japan stops the fuel recycling program.

Kono wasn't keen for the government to introduce small modular reactors, as called for by Kishida and Takaichi, saying they are not economically viable and that he does not know of any sites in Japan where they can be built.

Besides calling for the introduction of the reactors, Kishida and Takaichi have advocated for restarts of idled nuclear reactors and the introduction of nuclear fusion reactors as part of efforts to achieve the nation's goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Most of the country's nuclear reactors have been offline since the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster. Small modular reactors are said to be cheaper to produce and safer to run than conventional reactors, while nuclear fusion reactors do not emit high-level radioactive waste.

On the Fuji program, Kono and Takaichi said the government should consider acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.

But Kishida and Noda were more cautious on that idea, with Noda citing Japan's three non-nuclear principles of not producing, possessing or allowing the introduction of nuclear weapons.

The LDP vote effectively decides the successor to outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as the party currently controls the House of Representatives.

The four hopefuls were also divided over whether, as prime minister, they would visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine. Such visits draw the ire of China and South Korea, which each see the facility as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.

Takaichi said she would, citing freedom of religion, while Kono and Noda said they would not. Kishida said he would decide after studying the situation.

Noda said the public has yet to form a consensus on Yasukini, which honors millions of war dead including Class-A war criminals. Kono, for his part, said it will be important to first create an environment in which the emperor and heads of state of other countries can visit the shrine.

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