UPDATE 1-Japan plans 40-yr limit on reactors' life, with exceptions
* Legislation will have impact on business plans, shift away from nuclear
* Japan's oldest reactor started operations in March 1970 (Adds comment from oldest reactor operator)
TOKYO Jan 6 (Reuters) - Japan plans to limit the life of nuclear reactors to 40 years, allowing extensions only under stringent conditions, and to legally bind plant operators to prepare for severe accidents, the nation's nuclear crisis minister said on Friday.
The plan is part of a revision in a law on nuclear plant operations following a devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami that triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant and the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years ago.
With strong public opposition to building new reactors, Japan is bound to reduce its reliance on nuclear energy which before the disaster met about a third of its electricity needs. How long the existing reactors will remain in operation will affect utilities' long-term business plans and determine how rapid Japan's shift away from nuclear power will be.
Environment and Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono told a news conference exceptions from the 40-year limit would be rare.
"It will be quite hard to operate nuclear reactors beyond 40 years and we will implement stringent measures on nuclear reactor operations as safety is the first priority."
The planned legislation, which the government aims to submit in a session of parliament starting this month, would mark the first time that Japan would legally limit how long nuclear reactors would remain in operation.
Under the current system, nuclear plant operators can file for an extension of operations after 30 years and they usually get granted a 10-year extension, if they provide required maintenance. It can be further extended and Japan's oldest existing nuclear reactor is Tsuruga No.1 reactor, operated by Japan Atomic Power, which went into service in March 1970.
Japan Atomic Power, the country's sole wholesale nuclear generator, has said it planned to operate the reactor until 2016.
"We'll follow whatever changes in regulations and reflect them precisely," said Mitsuru Marutani, a Japan Atomic Power spokesman.
The draft plan also make its mandatory for utilities to prepare for severe nuclear accidents. Under current rules, the government has left it up to plant operators to draw up contingency plans. (Reporting by Kaori Kaneko, additional reporting by Osamu Tsukimori and Risa Maeda; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Robert Birsel)
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