TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's trade minister said on Tuesday he had not set deadlines to resume operations at nuclear reactors after a media report said the government aimed to restart two reactors around April, the first since the Fukushima disaster almost a year ago.
The Yomiuri newspaper, citing government sources, said the government intended to restart the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co's Ohi plant in Fukui prefecture, western Japan, before the last active reactor in Japan is due to shut by the end of April for regular maintenance.
Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who also holds the energy portfolio, told reporters there was no deadline, reflecting the public sensitivity of proposed restarts after the Fukushima Daiichi plant was hit by a tsunami and suffered meltdowns, spewing radiation and forcing mass evacuations, in March 2011.
"The only standard is whether we can gain a certain level of understanding from the locals and the public," Edano said.
Approval by local authorities is not required by law but the government is reluctant to over-ride public safety concerns.
All but one of Osaka-based Kansai's 11 reactors at three nuclear plants are already shut. Its last active unit is set to enter maintenance from February 20.
The utility, which provides power to an urban-industrial region including the Osaka metropolis' 18 million people, is barely meeting demand this winter with the help of customers' power-saving and assistance from other utilities.
Kansai Electric normally relies on nuclear power for about 50 percent of its power generation, the highest among Japan's utilities.
With all but three of the country's 54 nuclear reactors off-line mostly for safety checks, the government is keen to see at least some resume operations before a potentially serious power crunch in the summer, when demand peaks.
TOWNS ON THE FENCE
Japan's nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), is reviewing the results of stress tests on a number of reactors to gauge their resilience to disasters as a step to restoring public confidence after the Fukushima crisis.
But most Japanese towns hosting nuclear plants said in a recent Sankei newspaper survey they were undecided on whether they were willing to restart the reactors even if they passed the computer-simulated stress tests.
Following the U.N. atomic watchdog's backing of the stress tests and a visit to the Ohi plant last month, experts will meet on Wednesday to further discuss the Ohi reactor test results.
The governor of Fukui has said new safety standards are needed, while the mayor of Ohi told Reuters he wanted further clarification on such standards as well as the stress tests.
The government has submitted a bill to parliament requiring utilities to update reactors with the latest technology if new risk factors are discovered. The Yomiuri report said officials hoped the proposed change would help persuade residents.
Edano is set to visit Fukui soon and give the prefectural governor an update on the government's stance on restarts, while the government aims to win approval from the prefectural and town assemblies by March, the newspaper reported. Cabinet ministers would then give a final go-ahead for the restarts.
The Yomiuri report said the government had judged that since the two Ohi reactors, each with capacity of 1,180 megawatts, are both around 20 years old, ageing was not a concern.
(Reporting by Osamu Tsukimori, Yoko Kubota and Kentaro Hamada; Editing by Linda Sieg and Paul Tait)