By Kentaro Hamada
KAGOSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - A Japanese court has rejected a legal bid to block the reopening of the Sendai nuclear power station on safety grounds, removing one of the last big hurdles to switching reactors back on after the 2011 Fukushima crisis paralyzed the industry.
Wednesday's ruling by the Kagoshima District Court is a boost for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to reboot nuclear power to help cut reliance on expensive fossil fuel imports.
It is also a vote of confidence for a revamped regulator and suggests another court ruling last week to prevent the operation of two reactors west of Tokyo may have been an aberration for Japan's conservative judiciary.
The Sendai plant is due to be the first to reopen since all of Japan's nuclear power plants were shuttered in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Anti-nuclear activists have stepped up petitioning the courts in a bid to block restarts as a majority of the public remains opposed to atomic power.
The ruling showed how some parts of Japan were likely to be more open to the return of nuclear, said Michael Jones, senior analyst at consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
"Certain areas that have a lot more local support for nuclear and much more local reliance on nuclear are going to be much easier to get restarts up and running," he said.
The Sendai ruling said that based on the latest scientific knowledge the court found nothing wrong in the regulations set by the Nuclear Regulation Authority and that evacuation plans were also reasonable.
The Sendai reactors, operated by Kyushu Electric Power, are "very close" to getting final regulatory approval to being operations, an official from Japan's nuclear regulator said earlier this month.
The reactors, on the coast of Kagoshima prefecture in southwestern Japan, could begin starting up as early as June. A court order stopping the move would have risked tying up the industry in legal battles for months or years.
"This decision recognizes our company's opinion that the safety of Sendai nuclear plant is assured," Kyushu Electric said in a statement.
Shares in the utility jumped after the decision and were 3 percent higher at 0420 GMT.
Local residents who submitted a request to prevent the restart of the Sendai reactors argued the utility and regulator have underestimated the risk from nearby volcanoes and operational plans lacked credible evacuation measures.
A group of disappointed residents gathered outside the court let out a collective sigh when the decision was announced.
Last week it was a different scene in Fukui, where residents cheered after a court slapped an injunction on two reactors at the Takahama station operated by Kansai Electric Power.
The Takahama No. 3 and 4 reactors have cleared the first regulatory hurdles and were expected to restart around November.
"If you compare it to cases before the Fukushima disaster it wouldn't be surprising to see court decisions that are more critical," said Hiroshi Segi, a former judge and an author of books on Japan's judiciary. "That said, those judges remain in a minority."
For Abe, resuming nuclear power - which supplied nearly one-third of Japan's electricity pre-Fukushima - is key to lifting the economy out of two decades of anemic growth.
The need to import energy has contributed to a trade defecit. Customs data on Wednesday showed Japan's imports of liquefied natural gas at a record-high 7.78 trillion yen ($65 billion) in the fiscal year ended March 31.
(Additional reporting by Osamu Tsukimori and Mari Saito; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Ed Davies)