By Kentaro Hamada and Osamu Tsukimori
TOKYO (Reuters) - The governor of Japan's Niigata prefecture, home to the world's largest atomic power plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, will not take steps to restart the site until a nuclear advisory committee completes its work, delaying its operation at least three years.
Governor Ryuichi Yoneyama told Reuters in an interview that he plans to create an advisory committee to review the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and examine evacuation drills in Niigata and the health impacts of the radiation release during the world's worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl. The review will start by August at the latest, he said.
The review would derail Kashiwazaki-Kariwa owner Tokyo Electric Power Co's (Tepco) recovery plans in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns. The committee may take three years to present its findings, said Yoneyama, which contradicts Tepco's possible plan, presented in a business reorganization last month, to restart two of the seven reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa before March 2020.
(For a graphic on Japan's nuclear reactor restarts click http://tmsnrt.rs/2s2C3hd)
"It is necessary to look at the overall picture of the risks so we are going to conduct a review," Yoneyama said at the prefecture's office in Tokyo. "I have no intention of launching the (local) consent process while the review is under way."
Yoneyama was elected last October on a platform requiring Tepco to give a fuller account of the Fukushima disaster. Prefectural governors do not have the legal authority to prevent restarts but Tepco has said it would not turn on the Niigata reactors without local approval, including the governor and the mayors where plants are located.
Tepco's restructuring plan is designed to cut costs and boost earnings to repay the bulk of the estimated 21.5 trillion yen ($195 billion) bill from the Fukushima disaster. The plan last month was the third proposed in the last six years and depends on generating revenue by resuming output from Kashiwazaki-Kariwa.
The plant can generate 8,212 megawatts of electricity which is 19.8 percent of Japan's nuclear capacity.
In response to Yoneyama's comments, a Tepco spokesman stressed that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa restart is hypothetical and that the company has not given a restart target for the plant.
A nearby earthquake in 2007 caused fires and radiation leaks at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in a disaster that prefigured the Fukushima calamity.
Niigata voters opposed restarting the plant by 73 percent to 27 percent, according to an NHK exit poll in the October election. National polls have shown a consistent opposition to nuclear power since Fukushima.
Yoneyama was non-committal on under what conditions he would approve a restart but indicated that some risks would remain in using nuclear power.
"No matter how much we review, it will never be absolutely safe," he said. "After weighing up the positives and negatives (of nuclear power), then we should decide based on a democratic process."
On Friday, Japan's government denied a report in the Nikkei newspaper that it was considering building new plants as part of a new review of its energy policy.
(Additional reporting by Aaron Sheldrick and Ami Miyazaki; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)