By Mari Saito and Kentaro Hamada
TOKYO (Reuters) - A nuclear plant in southern Japan cleared an initial safety hurdle on Wednesday which could make it the first nuclear facility to restart under tough new safety regulations after the industry was idled by the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
With Japan in its first summer without nuclear power in four decades, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to restart the country's nuclear sector, as a prolonged shutdown forces the nation to rely on expensive fossil fuel imports.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority gave preliminary safety approval for Kyushu Electric Co's 9508.T Sendai plant, accepting its upgraded design and safety features. The new safety standards involve safeguards against natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunami, and severe nuclear accidents.
The nuclear station could restart this autumn, September-November, if it gains approval from the local communities.
"This is a step forward. After we get the safety decision we would like to move towards restarts with understanding from local (townships)," said Abe during a visit to northern Japan on Wednesday, Jiji said.
Japan's reactors were gradually taken offline, with the last one shutting down last year, after a massive earthquake and tsunami crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March 2011, triggering the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
The Fukushima disaster shook public confidence in atomic power and exposed close ties between the powerful nuclear industry and a regulator that was overseen by a government arm that promoted the energy source.
The NRA, an independent watchdog set up in 2012, has been vetting restart applications for plants for over a year.
Regulatory officials held 62 hearings and pored through thousands of pages of technical papers to assess upgraded safety features of the Sendai plant.
"I believe we were able to compile this review with independence and transparency while maintaining neutrality. I hope and wish that this (process) will be able to garner the public's trust, but that is for the public to decide," said NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka.
Sendai's approval comes as a relief for Kyushu Electric, which has posted three years of losses and asked for a bailout by a state-backed bank. It expects to spend more than $3 billion to upgrade its two nuclear plants in southern Japan.
The NRA decision will also help the broader nuclear industry. The approval process for the five other plants with similar pressurized-water reactors will likely go more quickly, said NRA director Tomoya Ichimura. Nine of Japan's electric utilities have applied to restart 19 reactors.
Japan's nuclear regulator said on Wednesday that its assessment of Kansai Electric Power's 9503.T Takahama nuclear plant in western Japan was moving along smoothly and was nearly complete on most issues.
A restart of the Sendai plant would be a boost for Abe.
The blackout of Japan's nuclear industry, which supplied about one-third of Japan's electricity before Fukushima, has led to rising electricity rates for residents and businesses and has contributed to a record string of 23 months of trade deficits.
CRITICS SAY SAFETY CONCERNS REMAIN
Activists and protesters crowded the regulatory commission's open meeting on Wednesday, yelling at commissioners to vote against the safety review and to halt restarts.
In approving the Sendai plant, 980 km (600 miles) southwest of Tokyo near the southern tip of Japan's main islands, the NRA is "ignoring unresolved safety issues and rising public opposition," Greenpeace said in a statement.
The plant has "no effective evacuation plan for the populations in the region, in particular for the elderly, children and those in hospital, no functioning emergency-response center protected against radiation," the group said, adding that there have not been sufficient assessments of the risks from a nearby volcano.
But the green light for Sendai does not mean a quick return for the nuclear industry. At most about two-thirds of Japan's 48 reactors will ever pass the regulator's stringent safety checks and clear the other hurdles needed to restart, a Reuters analysis showed in April.
The NRA will seek public comment on the decision for a month before issuing its final decision. Kagoshima prefecture, home to the Sendai plant, will hold townhall meetings in municipalities closest to the facility to explain the restart.
Abe's government has said it will defer to local communities to give final approval on reopening nuclear facilities.
The pro-nuclear governor of Kagoshima and the mayor of Satsumasendai, the plant's host city, are likely to approve the decision, but many nearby townships oppose a hasty restart.
More than half the 30,000 residents in Ichikikushikino, a coastal town 5 km from Sendai, recently submitted a petition opposing a restart of the plant, citing an unrealistic and inefficient evacuation plan.
Opponents of nuclear power have so far gained little political traction, but a candidate backed by Abe's party lost a regional election on Sunday, partly over concerns about nuclear safety.
(Additional reporting Aaron Sheldrick in Tokyo; Editing by William Mallard and Michael Perry)